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8.35 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes): I put on record my congratulations to my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on his very good maiden speech. He will undoubtedly be a useful Member. His speech was relatively short--the shortest of the debate so far--and that might be one reason why it was particularly good in comparison with those of Members who have been in the House longer, including myself, who have a tendency to ramble on at some length. [Interruption.] One is not heckled during one's maiden speech, but that courtesy does not of course apply to what might be called my second maiden speech.

I congratulate the Government on their re-election and on the considerable achievement, to which the Prime Minister referred earlier, of a full second term for a Labour Government. Historically, we should recognise that as a significant achievement. Concern has been expressed by Members of all parties that it was secured on a vote of only 25 per cent. of the population. We can trade figures about how few votes the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats received, but it is of genuine concern that the vote was down. Undoubtedly, one reason was that we were told by the media that Labour would win, and therefore there was no point in voting, as the election had already been decided.

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A second factor is the way in which we conduct ourselves in this place. We have a Modernisation Committee--my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) has turned up on cue for my mention of it--but we did not modernise far or fast enough in the previous Parliament. I hope that we will get a move on in this new Parliament. One reason why we have to legislate to introduce more women MPs is that, with debates continuing long into the evening, this place remains very unfriendly to them--as it does to all of us with families.

Another way of increasing turnout would be to introduce proportional representation--a fair voting system, so that votes count. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who made not perhaps a rotten, but certainly an eccentric speech, denounced tactical voting. Tactical voting would not be necessary if we had a fair voting system. It becomes necessary because people cannot make their vote count for the party of their choice. They have to vote for a second best in some cases. That happened in 1997 and again in the most recent general election. If we had PR, tactical voting would disappear overnight. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's conversion to a commitment to a fair voting system.

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, a great addition to the House. I remember going round the London Eye with him not long ago. We started at the bottom, went round in a big circle and ended up where we started. Perhaps that is a metaphor for his political career as well as for mine.

Although voting at the election was down, I am particularly pleased that the turnout in my constituency was 68 per cent. That is not nearly enough--only two thirds of voters--but a lot better than in many seats, where turnout was less than 50 per cent. Although my speech cannot really be a second maiden speech, I hope that the House will indulge me when I say, first, how privileged I am to be back in this place and, secondly, how privileged I am to represent a constituency of the beauty and diversity of Lewes. It is a fantastic constituency.

The issues that my constituents want me to deal with are predominantly local. Members have not referred to local issues much in this debate. National issues are, of course, important, but we all have our base in our constituency, which we forget at our peril. Local issues are of key importance.

Issues important to my constituents include, for example, making sure that the Government deliver proper flood defences and provide money to ensure that Lewes will not again be subject to the terrible flooding that occurred in the county town last year; making sure that plans for an incinerator at Newhaven are stopped, and that the investment that has been taking place in Newhaven port continues so that it becomes one of the premier ports of the 21st century; and making sure that the new rail franchise operator, GoVia, does a better job than Connex, and that we get decent services and cheap rail travel.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood): we will not get people out of their cars and on to public transport until we have a decent public transport system. We have not achieved anything like that in the past four years, nor have moves been made to achieve it; instead, there has been a continuation of the failed privatisation of the rail industry, with Railtrack apparently wanting ever more Government money. I, for one, object to handing out lots of taxpayers' money to a private company for, in effect, no return--but that is what

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has been happening for the past four years. I shall go off-message, and say that if we are to hand out lots of money to the railways, the industry should be under some sort of public control, instead of in its current position.

What are the Government going to do with their big mandate? Labour had a big mandate in the previous Parliament, but did not do as much with it as some of us would have liked. If I have one major criticism of the Government of the past four years, it is that they were too timid. They had that mandate, but appeared to suffer from a lack of intellectual confidence in their policies. After 18 years in opposition, during which time the Tories had seized the agenda and done lots of things that were quite popular--for example, selling council houses and dealing with the unions, as in Mrs. Thatcher's early years in power--there was genuine uncertainly about how far a Labour Government could go in their first four years while continuing to command public support. After all, the 1997 vote was not for Labour or for the Liberal Democrats; it was a vote against the Conservative Government, whose time had expired and who had to be removed at all costs. The result was that the previous Labour Government were timid and lacked intellectual confidence. In consequence, they adopted far too much of the Tory agenda and far too many Tory policies that should have been ditched or binned because they were time-expired.

In his eloquent speech, the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) said how important it was that local government be returned to local government. I agree that councils, too, have mandates and that we need to make progress in regionalisation, but the fact is that we now have a continuation of the flawed policy of Whitehall control, standard spending assessments and the arrangement whereby Ministers hand out money to local government bodies only if they jump through the correct hoops at the right time. I am sorry that that is still going on, and that there is nothing in the Queen's Speech that gives me confidence that the policy will change. That part of the Tory agenda should have been ditched, and it still needs to be ditched.

Notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), with whom I largely agreed, it should be said that there remains a residue of the school of thought that holds that the private sector can automatically do things better than the public sector. I do not share that view. In the 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher said "Private good, public bad," and I think that that thought runs through the current Prime Minister's mind. Let us think about the notion that improvements in the health service and the education system can be achieved only by bringing in private money and private management, and adopting the private finance initiative route. I am not saying that such a policy is necessarily wrong--perhaps it will work--but it is not the only solution.

We have good people in the public sector, and we should ask those people what their solutions are before we give in and bring in people from outside. To be frank, the outsiders we have brought into other sectors have not been a great success--just take a look at Railtrack. What a disaster that has been. We were told that only the private sector could run the railway system and that British Rail was a disaster. In fact, the bottom line that has emerged over the past four years is that British Rail was less of a disaster than Railtrack has been, so we should not draw such conclusions.

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There has been timidity, but I hope that, having achieved a second term and so overcoming an important mental hurdle, the Government will be less timid and truer to their beliefs. They have the mandate and the majority. I hope that they will use them to do some of the things in which they believe, rather than continue to hang on to the policies pursued by the Conservatives during their 18 years in power.

There is a more insidious problem. It is the job of government to do the best for every citizen of the United Kingdom. It is especially the job of government, as the primary representation of democracy, to ensure that centres of vested interests and power outside the democratic system work, so far as possible, in the interests of the citizen. Government should put pressure upon them wherever possible, and work alongside them to achieve the right result. Laws should be introduced to curtail them if necessary. Government should stand up for the individual against large vested interests where those interests do not work for the individual, and generally they do not.

That is where the Government go wrong. I do not know whether that is because intellectually they do not agree with my argument, or because they are too timid to take on large vested interests that should be tackled. Too often the Government duck the issue.

For example, President Bush is behaving outrageously, and in a way that most right hon. and hon. Members would find reprehensible. We are not sure whether he wants to pollute the planet to death or to bomb it to death. Either way, we should be saying, "I'm sorry, we do not agree with you, for the following reasons. You are wrong." I hope that the Government are taking that approach behind the scenes, but I am not convinced that they are. They should be saying to the United States Government, "We shall stand four-square with our European Union partners on Kyoto. That is where we shall stay. We don't buy this. We shall not follow you just because you have sold out to your oil interests." That should be said firmly.

We should be saying to President Bush, "Be very careful about national missile defence. Be careful before you untie all these treaties, before you destabilise Russia, before you invite adverse comments from China and before you throw everything up in the air and see where it lands. Because you have sold out to your defence interests, we should not sell out as well."

We have a real opportunity to control the issue, because the Americans need to use bases in the United Kingdom. They have to use Menwith Hill and Fylingdales. We can stop the use of our bases if we have the courage to do so.

Will we have the courage to take an approach that will mean a rough ride for the Government because we upset one of our allies, or will we take the easy option and go along with it, and pretend that that is all right? I hope that the Government will take the rough option, which is the right option.

Will the Government take the rough option with the big petrol and oil companies? Members may have seen the story in The Sunday Times about an MI6 offshoot effectively being used to spy on Greenpeace at the behest of Shell and BP. I do not know whether the Government

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knew about that. I hope that they did not. If they did, that is outrageous. It is something that needs to be stopped and reined in. Greenpeace has a right to stand up for what it believes in, in a lawful way, and Government agencies should not be used in such a way.

Many Members have received representations from independent petrol retailers, many of which are being driven out of business disgracefully by the big oil companies, which have vertical integration. They sell themselves petrol to sell on the forecourt more cheaply than the independent stations can buy it. Independent retailers have to buy petrol at a higher price than it is being sold at by the big companies, such as Esso, on their forecourts. The objective is to drive the independents out of business.

The Government are committed to competition. The Chancellor of the Exchequer made great play of that earlier this week. If he is genuinely keen on competition, let him take the rough road and take on the oil companies. Let us protect the independent petrol retail sector--or will the Chancellor take the easier road and let it disappear?

Will the Chancellor take on big business and take the rough road in other ways? The House will be aware that 75 per cent. of groceries are sold by four supermarket chains. That is far too high a percentage, and is out of line with the rest of the developed world. Only 20 buyers, representing the largest food manufacturers, determine how 25,000 farmers will farm, and what they will produce. Only a handful of biotech companies--most of them not British, but American--are determining that GM crops should be grown in this country and placed on shelves.

Will the Government take the rough road and challenge these things in the interests of the individual, or will they give in, take the easy route and say, "Forget about it and turn a blind eye, because that way we'll have less trouble with the electorate and the media"?

Is the Chancellor going to take the rough road with people such as Bernie Ecclestone and introduce legislation to ban cigarette advertising, or will he forget about it and hope that nobody notices? Most of all, will he take the rough road with Rupert Murdoch and follow the words of the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is now out of a job, and who recently said:

We have heard about the communications White Paper. There has been a delay, and only a draft Bill will be published. That is very serious--the Government need to get a move on.

Will the Chancellor take the rough road and tell Mr. Murdoch, "The Government are interested in the issue of cross-media ownership and want diversity in the media. I am sorry, you've got too many newspapers"? Or will he say, "If you give us a nice easy ride on the euro, Rupert, we won't do anything to your newspaper holdings"? Will the Chancellor take the rough road and challenge Mr. Murdoch, or will he take the easy road and let him cop out?

The Government need to help the individual by taking on those vested interests; they must take them on when they have to. That pays. Mrs. Thatcher took on the unions when she was Prime Minister, and everybody--or nearly everybody--in the House will agree that in the 1970s and

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1980s, the unions had excessive control, their vested interests were not helpful and their power needed to be trimmed. Whatever people think of Mrs. Thatcher, most think that she was right to do that. I therefore hope that the Government will take the rough road, which is in the country's interests. If they do, they will get support in the longer term. It may be difficult for them in the short term, but it will be better in the longer term.

What is our role? The role of individual MPs is important for our democracy. As individual MPs, we must make sure that, first, we represent our constituents and deal with constituency issues to the best of our ability. Secondly, we must hold the Government to account; that applies not simply to Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members, but to Labour Members, who are not Lobby fodder, but are elected to hold the Government to account, as Opposition Members are. I very much hope that they will do that. Like all of us, they must judge the Government on their actions and respond accordingly. We do not want people to be corralled by the Whips Offices into taking a position with which they may not agree--that is another reason for making the House more reasonable and accountable to people out there. We want a bit more independence in the House; that applies to all parties.

I am sorry that Martin Bell is not back, regardless of which seat, in Essex or elsewhere, he contested. I am glad that we have an MP for Wyre Forest who has a different perspective on life. I have no idea what the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) will be like, but he is a new MP with a different perspective. That is great; that is diversity. We do not want just three opinions representative of the three parties expressed regularly and monotonously in the House. We need an independent streak, and must make sure that people are free to speak their minds. We must make sure that they are free to speak against their party when they feel that it is important to do so, even if that means that they upset their party and suffer as a consequence.

I disagree fundamentally with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who seemed to elevate loyalty to a religion with his suggestion that people should be loyal to the Labour Government. That is an outrageous suggestion, especially from someone who has as much experience of the House as he does. Especially with a big Government majority, the onus is on Labour Back Benchers to make sure that the Government are humble and listen. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) was right to make exactly that point in his speech.

In my view, in the past four years, Labour Back Benchers, with notable exceptions--including the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who is sitting opposite me--did not hold the Government to account in that way and did not take risks. They were much too prepared to vote for things in which they did not believe, and went into the Lobby to vote for legislation that, as they told me and others afterwards, they thought was wrong. However, they still went through the Lobby; if they are to avoid voting against the Government, they have got to find a way of stopping legislation getting to that stage. That is the way it has to be done.

Back Benchers and all Members of Parliament need to be courageous. We must avoid having as Members people who are time servers and people who make speeches and

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ask questions because they want a job. We must make sure that the bumpy road is taken by the Government, and by individual Members in the House.

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