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5.34 pm

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): That was a powerful speech by the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson); it will repay careful study. On behalf of all my colleagues, I reiterate the commitment made by our party leader earlier in the debate--that we shall continue as a parliamentary group to support the efforts of Her Majesty's Government in trying to secure peace. I pay tribute to the role previously played by the right hon. Gentleman in the success that has been achieved, despite the fact that there are on-going worries, to which he alluded. I never really thought that he was a quitter, and it is reassuring to know that he is willing to contribute to debates in the House in the way that he has--long may it continue.

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At the start of his speech, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool said that a Government, especially a Government with a majority of this scale, need effective opposition. I agree, and I hope that the Liberal Democrats will provide that effective opposition. It is not a weak position to be constructively critical. We shall encourage the Government to go further when we think that they have not gone far enough, and we shall criticise them if we think that they are going too far. That is a perfectly reasonable and rational way of practising politics, and it partly deals with the point made by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) who, instead of staying to listen to the rest of the debate, has busily returned to the doorsteps, trying without success to get people away from their television sets. However, that is his choice.

I believe that the electorate were rather taken in by the nightly messages that they received in the national media, which suggested that nothing was at stake in this general election. When I was campaigning, people told me on the doorstep that they believed their voting would change nothing, so they had decided early in the campaign not to do so. Of course, there were some issues about spin and the confrontational aspect of politics. I am certainly not saying that we should censor polls or in any way stymie the comments made during election campaigns, but we do have a real problem in terms of re-engaging with the electorate. I hope that this Parliament will not ignore that, and I intend to return to that point.

For me, disappointment runs right through the Queen's Speech. The speech reveals a poverty of ambition. Under our new leader, the Liberal Democrats will try to represent an interest in defending civil liberties, in dealing with the environment, on which the Government have been lacklustre, and in the question of Europe, on which the Government have also been timid.

The most important thing that I want to say, in this debate on the Queen's Speech at the very beginning of this Parliament, is that it was not at all adequate for the Prime Minister to deal with the agricultural situation only in a single last sentence in his introductory speech. Although I agreed with many of his other remarks, the signal that was sent about the priority that the Government are prepared to attach to the future of our rural communities augurs ill for the future.

Foot and mouth disease was a disaster for many communities. There were infected farms in my constituency, and the problem completely overshadowed the election. The Government were right to delay the election--it was eminently sensible to do so--but a shadow was cast and the local people in the rural and landward areas of my constituency were completely distracted by the direct effects on the farming communities but, equally, by the indirect effects on tourism and on other small and family businesses. When I was campaigning, many suggestions were made to me about how that problem could be remedied. I raised one with the Paymaster General--the idea of a business rural tax relief system, which would allow small amounts of cash for small self-employed and family businesses in rural areas, to give them some immediate cash flow to keep them alive.

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Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many industries in urban areas depend on the rural areas, are badly affected by foot and mouth and are at present barred from receiving help?

Mr. Kirkwood: I absolutely agree. I am focusing on my constituency experience, but I take the point that the Government will have to embrace the consequences in urban and rural economies throughout the United Kingdom. A new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has just been established and I have a great deal of respect for its new Secretary of State. I hope that, early in this Parliament, she will give us some clear idea about what should happen next. I certainly reinforce the call, made by my party leader, that we must have a full-blown public inquiry because much concern, anxiety and fear and many conspiracy theories exist outside Parliament. Someone even suggested to me that the Government started the infection to try to reduce livestock subsidies.

Clearly, those suggestions are fantastical, but the perceptions are real for the people who have been dramatically hit by the disease. Giving them a chance to ask questions and receive answers may take time, but the infection's provenance, the way in which it was managed and the financial consequences must form a major part of Parliament's work for at least the next 18 months before we will be able to say that we are beginning to get on top of the long-term effects.

In addition, the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should produce some coherent long-term stability plans for agriculture, especially the livestock sector. That involves reform of the common agricultural policy. The Government have been reasonably progressive in the past, but they have met resistance in Europe when promoting reform and a sensible way forward. It is absolutely essential that, early on, the Government should produce some serious plans that give people the confidence to continue in agriculture and small business in rural areas. That is a crucial issue in my constituency.

The single European currency was of great concern during the election campaign. There is a great deal of ignorance--I use the word in its best sense--among the electorate, but there is an appetite to learn. People are willing to try to apply their minds to what the single currency means for them, but no one is giving them information of any sort. A politically charged election campaign is perhaps not the most objective atmosphere in which to promote constructive debate.

I have always been a passionate European, but I am not daft; we do not want to enter the single currency at a silly exchange rate, for example. I believe that when it is time for my children to take responsibility for the country, there will be three big blocs--America, China and Europe--so the United Kingdom's future will be rather bleak if we are not an intrinsic part of the single currency.

The moment is now right for the Government seriously to promote a campaign that allows people to consider the options and make objective choices about what they think should happen to their currency. If that is not done in the next two years, people will draw their own conclusions, industry will start to go offshore and we will start to lose jobs. In constituencies such as mine, which is heavily reliant on exporting knitted garments, with high added

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value, to other parts of the world and has been suffering from high exchange rates and difficulties in achieving export orders--not to mention the banana war and so on--the Government need to promote a sensible debate that will lead to a decision, one way or the other, in two years' time. So long as the debate is constructive, I am prepared to accept the result of the referendum at face value, and that will be the end of the matter, although I passionately hope that we can win the referendum.

I want to say a quick word in passing about the public-private provision argument that formed part of the Prime Minister's speech. I am seriously worried that the idea of public service is being denigrated. I meet professionals, schoolteachers and others in my constituency who were passionate servants of the public when I was elected in 1983. They had chosen that career, but they are now "hodden doon", as my granny would say; they are completely subjugated by the bureaucratic administration with which they are forced to deal. Given some of the talk coming from the Government at high level--the Prime Minister's speech compounded this today--they believe that public service is no longer highly regarded. The excellent quality of our civil and public servants is a quintessential part of what we as a country have achieved. The worst thing that we can do is to send them signals that we intend to engage wholesale in the privatisation of big chunks of our public sector. They will leave in droves and the situation will worsen dramatically.

We need only think of the disastrous reform of the national insurance recording system--NIRS2--and the private sector's involvement, through the private finance initiative. The Horizon computer scheme with ICL was also a disaster. It, too, involved the PFI. In addition, my hon. Friends experienced catastrophic failures in public services when attempts were made to privatise housing benefit payments in some London boroughs. We should not think that private is all good and public is all bad. For heaven's sake, we must decentralise decision making and invest in the managers so that they are capable and equipped to do the job. We need to give them the money and let them get on with it. Central Government are too hung up on public service agreements, targets and outcomes. There is a prescriptive control freakery in central Government, and we need to deal with that urgently.

Mention was made in the Queen's Speech of a couple of specific measures for welfare reform. I listened carefully to the Prime Minister as he talked about encouraging people to take work. I am nervous about the long-term effects of taking sanctions against people who do not do the work they are supposed to. Some American states have sensitive waiver systems that allow people who are acting in good faith to continue not to work. However, the evidence in other parts of America is that they often become repressive systems. Had the Conservatives made similar suggestions a few years ago, Labour Back Benchers would have gone mad with anger and frustration. We must be careful about sanctions--some people will never survive in the labour market. I worry a great deal about the stigma attached to them when the adage "Work for those who can and support for those who cannot" is trotted out.

I have a particular concern about the pensioner credit proposal. It seems that people who are on housing and council tax benefits will not be able to take advantage of it. I cannot understand how it is possible to contrive such

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a scheme without making the credit a financial dead loss for those who are on housing benefit or full council tax benefit. Nor can I understand how it helps people whose residential care fees are paid in full by the state centrally. All that does is put more money into local government. There are now concerns about those welfare proposals.

I must mention parliamentary reform. I believe that this is our last chance to achieve it. I have been in the House since 1983 and attempts have been made, in good faith, to modernise this place and make it more in tune with what people expect of a modern Parliament. Hon. Members on both sides of the House visit sister European Parliaments and know how things are done there. Much of their work is carried out in parliamentary Committees. The sine qua non is to recover to the House the power to nominate the people who scrutinise. Without that, we are just playing at reform and will not be taken seriously.

Select Committees do good work and many people who serve on them work hard, but we will never get on top of the problem until the House has the courage to implement that change. It is up to Labour Back Benchers in particular, because they have the power to drive the change through. Indeed, it is in their interests to do so because many will serve on Select Committees and, if they give themselves the opportunity, will perform distinguished duties on them. The House of Commons will never respond to the modern requirements of a Parliament until its Members take control of the process of scrutinising the Executive. If we do not do that now, the clear and inevitable result will be that Parliament is diminished.

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