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Mr. Pike: Does not my hon. Friend think it important that the Modernisation Committee should, in this Parliament, examine the art of scrutiny rather than the art of wasting time, and that we should do our job much better in the House and in Committee if that became the prime objective?

David Winnick: I tend to agree with my hon. Friend, but with the reservation that we cannot take the politics out of politics. I ask him to bear in mind what happened with the Treasury Committee in the previous Parliament. One Opposition Member in particular did his utmost to create a situation in which the Chancellor had a very rough time indeed. That Member was doing his duty, and I do not criticise him for that. How can we criticise a Member who feels that that is part of his responsibility? We cannot even, therefore, take the politics out of the sittings of Select Committees. Of course, there is more opportunity for scrutiny and, in many cases, they are not dealing with the most controversial topics. I take my hon. Friend's point on board.

I would like to suggest--although there will clearly be no promotion for me as a result--that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should take up the recommendation of the Public Administration Committee that he should give evidence on the Government's annual report once a year to the Liaison Committee. So far as I understand it, the Prime Minister argues that no other Prime Minister has done so. He is right, but there is no reason, in my humble view, for him not to do so. It would provide evidence that he takes Parliament seriously, which I am sure that he does, and he would be engaging in an innovation that would only strengthen Parliament.

Anything that marginalises this place or makes it seem irrelevant is extremely unfortunate. I was speaking today to a local reporter who came up to interview the three Members who represent the borough of Walsall. During that interview, I said that one of the greatest blessings that this country had ever had was this place. Anything that undermines our authority, takes away more power or marginalises the House of Commons is extremely unfortunate. That is something that the Government should take on board.

I should like to make a further point on internal matters, which might be somewhat controversial. I am not happy about self-regulation in relation to financial allegations against Members. It is rather invidious for judgment to be passed on our colleagues in that way, and even more so on our party colleagues. This is not a criticism of the all-party Standards and Privileges Committee, which did an

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excellent job in the previous Parliament. I have no reservations at all about saying that. However, it is interesting to note that, in certain cases, when its report was being debated in the House of Commons, it almost became a party issue. Allegations were made of a kind of party bias, despite the fact that it is an all-party Committee and that all its reports in the previous Parliament were agreed unanimously.

Is self-regulation really the best way of dealing with these matters? If doctors on the General Medical Council or dentists sit in judgment on someone who has allegedly committed a misconduct, I assume that a panel member who knows the person concerned will not sit on the panel, but will withdraw from it. However, Members of Parliament know everyone here, and I suggest that this is yet another matter that needs to be looked at.

I am concerned that the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has been criticised. Whisperings have got into the national press that she has too much power. She is a servant of this House and it could be argued that, far from having too much power, she should have more authority. My suggestion that a copy of our annual tax returns should be sent to her met with little enthusiasm from other Members. Why? We have nothing to hide.

The Government have undoubtedly provided a full programme for this Session. A large majority of our constituents, especially mine, are likely to benefit if much of what is outlined in the Queen's Speech comes about. I shall therefore have little difficulty in supporting Government measures.

On the reform of public services, however, let me simply say that I shall have to see what is being proposed. I do not take the view that the public sector is somehow inferior to the private sector, and that the private sector is automatically better. One can hardly argue that the trains run better since privatisation and that Railtrack is an excellent organisation. It is hardly evidence that the private sector has a great deal to teach the public sector. I shall keep an open mind and watch the position carefully.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): My hon. Friend talks about keeping an open mind about the balance between the public and private sectors. Will he similarly keep an open mind about the third sector--the possibility of more co-operation? I have in mind the Harmony co-operative, which is the out-of-hours GP co-operative that operates in north-west London. Is there not a case for extending such initiatives across the country, helping to modernise our health service provision and improve services?

David Winnick: As I said, I shall keep an open mind. My hon. Friend will know that that is my usual way of dealing with matters, especially controversial ones.

The Queen's Speech does not say clearly what the Government intend to do about hunting with dogs. Unless they provide Government time, there is no way that the matter can be finalised. I am totally opposed to hunting with dogs. The House of Commons has made its position perfectly clear. This is a controversial subject, and those opposed to legislation will, quite legitimately, use every Commons device to ensure that it is not passed. If the Government are serious, they must provide Government time; otherwise, the matter will continue from Parliament to Parliament. I hope that it will not and that it will be finalised.

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I totally disagree with what the leader of the Democratic Unionist party said: our horror of the crimes and atrocities committed by the IRA and the loyalists is second to none. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has no monopoly on that. Throughout the years--certainly, when Labour was on the Opposition Benches--we have made our position perfectly clear. There was no shilly-shallying. We denounced the crimes and atrocities, as those hon. Members who remember the situation will bear out. The Good Friday agreement seeks to stop the horrors that have taken place over the past 30 years.

I am afraid that the hon. Member for North Antrim would never agree to all-inclusive government in Northern Ireland, no matter what degree of decommissioning took place. The remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who used to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and who did a very good job in that position, outlined clearly what needs to be done. I welcome the support again given by the Leader of the Opposition today to the Good Friday agreement. It would be most unfortunate if a large majority in this House were to undermine or oppose that agreement. It is the only way in which the people of Northern Ireland can live in a normal democracy.

7.24 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): I am proud to be a new Member of the House of Commons and to follow the thoughtful speeches of the hon. Members for Walsall, North (David Winnick) and for Banbury (Tony Baldry).

I am only the seventh Member of Parliament for the Yeovil constituency since 1892, so it seems that my constituency has a good record in holding on to its Members of Parliament. I hope that I can convince my constituents to maintain that in future.

I suppose that one of the main duties of any new Member in his or her maiden speech is to make some polite and complimentary comments about his or her predecessor. When one has overturned somebody from another party to gain one's seat, that can be a testing process. For me, however, it is more straightforward because I have taken over from Sir Paddy Ashdown--soon to be Lord Ashdown, I believe. Sir Paddy has played a leading role in United Kingdom politics, both in this place and outside it. He was an effective leader of the Liberal Democrats for a decade and was a leading national politician who stood up for many issues. Some of them were unpopular at the time, but they were great issues of principle.

In spite of Sir Paddy's high profile nationally, he is particularly remembered in Yeovil for his contribution as a constituency MP--for 18 years as MP and for some 25 years as MP and prospective parliamentary candidate. I have had the pleasure of shadowing Sir Paddy over the past couple of years and have seen what an incredibly hard-working and effective constituency MP he is. His basic values of honesty, integrity and hard work are an example to all of us in this place. During the election campaign, I was provided with an answer to those sceptical individuals on the doorstep who are inclined to ask whether politicians are simply in politics for

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themselves. Sir Paddy has never been in politics for himself, and many thousands of people in the Yeovil constituency have benefited from his hard work over the years. To that extent, it will be extremely difficult to take over from him.

While shadowing Sir Paddy over the past couple of years, I learned to my cost of the high standards and hands-on work that he has done in the constituency. Last year, when we had severe flooding problems throughout the south-west and other parts of the country, I recollect receiving the usual early-morning telephone call from him and the suggestion that I actively involve myself as soon as possible. I assumed that that meant going to the areas that had been flooded, identifying the problems and firing off some letters to the relevant authorities to make sure that the issues were dealt with in the future. It turned out that Sir Paddy had something far more practical in mind and that the usual Ashdown approach to such matters was to put on his wellington boots and a chunky jumper and to help those in such a dire predicament to remove the furniture from their homes. He has been a hands-on constituency MP in every sense. While nobody can be a blueprint of their predecessor--some sort of carbon copy--I hope that I can maintain the high standard of service to my constituents in the years ahead.

I wish to mention three aspects of the Gracious Speech. The first relates to the reason I entered politics in the first place. I became interested in politics some 20 years ago, when we had severe economic problems and high unemployment in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Sir Paddy was making his maiden speech in 1983, he described a situation in which unemployment in his constituency stood at 7.6 per cent., which was quite low at that time, but youth unemployment was closer to 30 per cent. That horrendous figure reflected the many problems throughout the country. They were not only economic problems but extended to every area of social life and our ability to raise money for public services such as education, health and public transport.

It is a great pleasure to arrive here some 20 years later to discover the progress that recent Governments have been able to make in reducing unemployment. That has been done to such an extent that Yeovil has a current unemployment rate of around 1.5 per cent., one of the lowest in the country. Although there is clearly much more to do in many constituencies in black spots to bring unemployment down, that is a great achievement and the Government are right to ensure that the highest priority throughout this Parliament is to keep the stable economic conditions that are in place and that will allow the economy to grow and, we hope, provide moneys that can be put into public services to improve them.

Secondly, on the state of such public services as health and education, pensions and public transport, I must be somewhat gloomier than the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) who earlier defended the Government's record and, to some extent, their reputation on those matters. My experience from the Yeovil constituency is that there is still dissatisfaction with the progress that the Government have been able to make so far. Although we may be able to detect some slight upturn when we study the minutiae of the figures available, our constituents cannot as yet identify improvements in policing, the national health service, schools, pensions and public transport.

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I can recollect individuals, even today in a country such as ours, having to wait more than two years for a hip replacement operation, as the hon. Member for Banbury also said. One individual in Chard came to me recently with precisely such a problem, having waited two and a quarter years for a hip replacement, ending up in a wheelchair having to take large amounts of pain killers each day. That ruined her quality of life and it must be extremely expensive and inefficient for the health service.

Although there has been some progress on schools and education, we still have higher secondary class sizes in my constituency than we had in 1997 and we still have pensioners on pensions that are far too low. There is a great deal to be done in those respects and I fear that the measures in today's Gracious Speech do not necessarily live up to the challenge of the next four years.

Labour Members have recognised that by the time of the next election they will have been expected to have made great progress in those areas. Given the cash that is going to some areas and the reforms that the Government are contemplating, I am not convinced that the Government have today put in place the measures that will be necessary to bring about the sea change in public services that people are expecting. Given their record in the previous Parliament of acting too slowly, the Government should be extremely cautious about leaving those matters too late.

A grander issue, and one that we have all no doubt faced on the doorstep at some stage during the election, is the euro. Obviously, a great deal of attention will be paid in this Parliament to whether we have a referendum on the euro. I was pleased to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Banbury from the Conservative Benches, which seemed to show a slightly more mature and sophisticated approach to the European issue than that advanced from those on the Conservative Front Bench in the past few years.

However, I detect concern among many of our constituents, not so much on the economic issues but on the political issues that surround the euro. That is why the Liberal Democrats have been so keen to advance the notion of a constitution for Europe that would both define and limit its powers. It would ensure that it involved itself in the big issues that many people in this country understand it should be involved in, such as the environment, trade and even foreign and defence issues, but it would keep it out of others, such as taxation and even much of social policy, about which the House should be free to decide. I hope that the Government will play their part in Europe in the next few years by putting such reforms centre stage. I suspect that they are the reforms that will be necessary before the Government can win a referendum on the euro.

Finally, the motto of the town that gives its name to my constituency seems particularly relevant to the work that Sir Paddy Ashdown has done in the past few years. If hon. Members will excuse my Latin, it is "Industria, virtute et labore", which has been translated for me as meaning, "By diligence, courage and hard work." That is a good tribute to Sir Paddy Ashdown. That motto very much characterises the work that he has done in the Yeovil constituency in the past quarter of a century. I will try to live up to those standards in the years to come.

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7.34 pm

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