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6.28 pm

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): One of the reasons why religion and tolerance are often at odds is that religion is concerned with absolute truth. At one time, law and politics were suffused by religion. Law was often used to enforce conformity, at great cost to ordinary people.

I am not saying that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) is not talking about serious issues. Nothing could be as serious as the organised death of his constituents. However, his absolutist approach does not accord with the possibilities of politics, however imperfect. I support what is said about Northern Ireland

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in the Gracious Speech, albeit that the measures that flow from it may not be those that any of us would want in an ideal world.

I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your reappointment. We share neighbouring constituencies, so I have long known your ideal qualities. However, in the previous Session of Parliament, the whole House started to appreciate your fairness, competence and light touch. I am sure that I am expressing the universal view of the House in congratulating you on your reappointment.

I want to identify three themes that run through the Queen's Speech and use them as a framework for my remarks. The first theme is economic stability and growth, without which other themes, such as social justice and investment in public services, are an uphill struggle. In fact, economic stability and growth are the bedrock of all that we want to achieve in government. This afternoon, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out our successes, including the fact that we have overcome the problem of the national debt, that interest rates are now at an historic low and that unemployment is at its lowest for 25 years. Our commitment and action on full employment are especially important, because nothing robbed young people of their dignity more than the high unemployment that operated before 1997. We must build on our successes in that area, which is why I welcome the enterprise Bill mentioned in the Gracious Speech.

Obviously, greater employment helps economic growth, but employees' productivity is also vital. The productivity gap is one of the biggest challenges that we face. The figures set out in the Treasury document "Productivity in the UK: Enterprise and the Productivity Challenge", which was published last November, clearly demonstrate that output and gross domestic product per worker in this country are lower than in other comparable countries. Of course, there are measurement problems; recently, a study for the London business school journal demonstrated that, to some extent, the official figures underestimate manufacturing productivity. That, Madam Deputy Speaker, is good news for our respective constituencies, in both of which manufacturing is important. It is not all doom and gloom. Productivity growth in manufacturing has been rising but, none the less, the productivity gap remains a significant problem.

Once, a reason for that was the low capital investment in this country compared with others, which goes back more than 100 years. Economic historians talk about the division between the City and industry in the late 19th century, failures in financial markets and so on. Again, it is not all doom and gloom. Business investment has been growing and the stability and low interest rates that we have delivered in the last four years are certainly important factors in encouraging more investment.

The problem with the other side of productivity--human capital--turns on a number of factors. There is a problem with skills; again, the Treasury document demonstrated that in this country intermediate skills are much lower than in countries such as Germany. I therefore welcome the education Bill, with its focus on improving secondary schools and finding vocational pathways for the over-14s.

One striking feature that has come out of the literature is the wide variation in firms' productivity. Queen Mary and Westfield college research found that productivity in

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manufacturing plants sometimes varied by a factor of five or six, which is confirmed by the emerging finds in the McKinsey study of manufacturing. What is the explanation for that? Management has something to do with it. In his book "From Empire to Europe", Geoffrey Owen points to the historic failing of some British managers to realise the true sources of competitive advantage, the inability to choose correct strategies, obsolete thinking and so on.

The competitive environment is also important. Competition, of course, encourages innovation and efficient organisation and will ultimately reallocate resources in favour of the efficient. I am especially heartened by the provisions in the enterprise Bill to strengthen the competition authorities and to ratchet up the deterrents for anti-competitive behaviour, including the possibility of imprisonment in addition to fines imposed on companies for cartelisation. That has long been a possibility in the United States, where the issue goes back to the General Electric case in the 1960s. That does not mean that directors will go to jail, but it will certainly have a chilling effect on behaviour that encourages cartels. I also support the notion of consumers having a greater input in the actions of the competition authorities.

There is a suggestion that the provisions for administrative receivership will be changed. I recommended that our system of administrative receivership be adopted in other countries when I was a member of World Bank and other missions, so I have some interest in the matter. I shall wait to see the details. In theory, our system is drastic; a minor breach of provisions allows the bank to appoint a receiver, so there may well be a case for bringing the theory into line with the practice.

The second theme in the Gracious Speech concerns the measures underpinning social responsibility. The Government believe that there is such a thing as a society but, as rights are conferred on people, the correlative is that there are responsibilities. That theme has a special resonance for criminal behaviour and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out this afternoon, we have achieved a great deal in tackling that: crime is down and the mechanisms for dealing with antisocial behaviour are now kicking in. However, there are still problems with repeat offending and organised crime.

Persistent offending is not a new phenomenon; anyone associated with the criminal courts will realise that defendants often have a record as long as the proverbial arm. However, emerging findings that approximately 100,000 persistent offenders are responsible for about half of all crime has brought the issue centre stage. I therefore welcome the criminal justice Bill. We have to get the message across that persistent offenders must go straight, and the provisions for enhanced supervision will go some way in that regard.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. and learned Gentleman is certainly not alone in recognising the existence of society, but may I put it to him that he is wrong to depict a dichotomy between atomised individuals and the state? Will he pay proper tribute to the contribution made to our civic life by voluntary organisations, church groups and charitable institutions?

Ross Cranston: The hon. Gentleman was becoming philosophical in the first part of his remarks, but I agree

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with the practical implications of what he said. Civil society is important. One of the problems in the United States is that civil society has broken down in some respects, and we would not want that to occur here. My constituency has active groups across the range of institutions that he mentioned. They are important and we would want them enhanced.

The criminal justice Bill will contain provisions on sentencing and we await the publication of the Halliday review, which will allow sentencers to tailor sentences not only to the crime but to the criminal. In principle, that is nothing new. Sentencers have always had the defendant's record before them and it was only for a short period under the previous Government in the early 1990s that one was prohibited from taking into account the defendant's record.

The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) raised the spectre of civil liberties and the problems that that poses for issues such as double jeopardy and the use of previous convictions. The Law Commission's proposals on double jeopardy are limited in scope to where DNA evidence emerges in relation to serious offending. With regard to previous convictions, the devil is in the detail, but there can be no objection to the proposals in principle. Previous convictions can be admitted now as similar fact evidence and if the defendant attacks a prosecution witness. But they must be relevant and not give rise to prejudice. I look forward to scrutinising the relevant provisions.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): Does the hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that double jeopardy was not granted easily by the Executive but a right that had to be fought for over a long period? Does he accept that such rights should not be cast aside without some understanding of their consequences for the judicial and juridical systems?

Ross Cranston: Yes, we must consider carefully any change in the system, but had we not changed the criminal justice system, defendants would not be represented, nor would they be able to give evidence. The system moves on. It must accord with modern conditions. This is precisely an area where the criminal procedure must move on.

I welcome the proceeds of crime Bill. There is a technical need for a change here. Two different strands of law relate to the proceeds of crime, one under the drug trafficking legislation and the other under the Criminal Justice Act 1988. Commentators have long pointed out the problems in application because we have those two strands, so there is a good case for change simply on technical grounds. But the Bill will go much further and provide an institutional framework, an agency, that will have the task of seizing the proceeds of crime. In addition, it will provide a civil power not associated with any particular criminal conviction to strip criminals of any ill-gotten gains.

The third theme of the Gracious Speech relates to social justice and improving our public services. It contains a range of provisions, including the tax credit Bill, the education Bill, the NHS reform Bill, and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) mentioned, at an international level, the export control and non-proliferation Bill. My right

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hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave the figures this afternoon for recent investment in public services. Social justice and good public services are at the core of Labour values, and they are linked in that good public services can have an ameliorative effect on social inequality.

Two specific issues run through the debate on public services. The first is the delivery mechanism. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) suggested that somehow, by use of the private finance initiative, we were denigrating public services. There can be criticism of some PFIs. There has been uncertainty on the part of staff who are to be transferred and their fears must be allayed. Some contracts have been ineptly drawn, for example by not having a clawback provision in the event of windfall gains on refinancing, but as Member for a constituency that is about to get a new hospital under the PFI, I support the PFI and the potential that it brings to public services. We in Dudley would not be having a new hospital in the near future if we had to wait for public financing.

My second general point on public services concerns targets. The Leader of the Opposition mentioned targets. Commentators line up to criticise targets, although most have never run more than their expense accounts. I would not deny that targets sometimes have perverse effects, but that is not universal, or even typical. In the area of criminal justice in which I was privileged to serve in government, targets had a beneficial effect, not just in themselves, but because they required the criminal justice agencies to work together as never before. Therefore, I do not go along with the modern and fashionable criticism of all targets.

I welcome the measures contained in the Queen's Speech. They will allow the Government to build on the successes of the past four years. They will contribute to the competitive environment, and thus to economic growth. They will underline social responsibility and they will strengthen our public services and further social justice.

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