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6.4 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire): I am speaking from the Back Benches for the first time in seven years, and I have chosen the furthest Back Bench from which to do so. It has been a privilege to serve the Labour party and my constituents in North Warwickshire as a Minister for four years and a shadow Treasury spokesman before that. I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for appointing me; he showed great prescience and wisdom in doing so; I shall not comment on his decision not to reappoint me.

I welcome the new Home Secretary and his team to the Front Bench. My right hon. Friend has a strong record on education and I am sure that he will be a great success in his current position.

The Government are reforming and radical, and I have played a part in some of the reforms. I contributed to constitutional reform, including the Human Rights Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Those measures made important changes, and I want the Government to continue with a programme of radical reform.

I shall speak about two issues: policing and public-private partnerships. The Gracious Speech was very good, and delivered on many of Labour's pre-election commitments, but I want to mention two measures that are not in the Gracious Speech. First, I wish to say that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), I am broadly content with the direction of Government policy, but I may occasionally want to encourage it to move faster in some directions.

I cannot help expressing disappointment that we did not move faster on licensing reform. I expected a Bill to be announced in the Gracious Speech. I have heard that the policy and the Bill have not been dropped and that they will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Prisons, who is to reply to the debate, can confirm that that is the case. A draft Bill in the next year might help to deal with some of the detailed issues on licensing law, and I hope that it can be provided. Licensing reform should give

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customers more choice, publicans more freedom, the police more power to deal with disorder, and residents a say. It is long overdue.

Mr. Salmond: I want to put it on record that, although it may have been only a small part of his activities as a Home Office Minister, the hon. Gentleman dealt sensibly with the lack of competition in the racing industry. That was deeply appreciated by a range of people, including the new Leader of the House and myself.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful for that comment.

The amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats refers to the lack of a Bill on a referendum on the euro. The Government are right not to rush forward with a Bill, although I am pleased that we shall move to ratify the Nice treaty. We need a careful and practical assessment of the economic tests for joining the euro before we introduce a Bill on the referendum. I welcome the recent speech of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who said that we would make that assessment. I urge the Government to ignore the euro ideologists on both sides of the argument, the siren voices who urge immediate or no entry.

We must beware the Conservative argument on the euro. Ideology has led the Conservatives to defeat in the election and into a policy cul de sac on the euro. The people of North Warwickshire want answers to the basic questions: what does joining the euro mean for their jobs, for interest rates and for economic prospects? That is why the Government are right on the question of referendums on the Nice treaty, to which the Opposition amendment refers, and the euro, to which the Liberal Democrat amendment refers. The Government's position on those issues is right--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying rather wide of the mark. We are of course debating only the amendment tabled by the official Opposition.

Mr. O'Brien: I am aware of that and I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me that indication. I merely wanted to say that I thought that the Government's cautious attitude to including a Bill on such matters in the Gracious Speech was right.

Mr. Salmond: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have heard a speech in the past half hour dealing largely with the Government's failure to introduce such a measure. How on earth can it be wrong for the hon. Gentleman to express the opposite point of view?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have made my ruling.

Mr. O'Brien: I will of course accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and move on. I had wanted to say something about ensuring that we did not repeat the mistakes that the Tories made on the exchange rate mechanism by entering the euro at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons and at the wrong rate, but I have heard your ruling and will move on.

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The people in my constituency want the Government to deliver on public services and particularly on schools, the national health service and, importantly, policing. The public want a police force that is able to deal with the crimes that they face in their daily lives. Very often, they are not the crimes of armed robbery or murder, but antisocial and loutish behaviour and the problems of neighbours from hell who make others' lives a misery. Those are the issues with which my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) dealt as Home Secretary, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) will want to continue that agenda.

The public also want more police officers on the beat. They will welcome proposals for police reform. When considering reforming the police, I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider the precise terms of the definition of the operational independence of chief constables, as set out in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. Having more police reassures the public that the Government share their instincts and want to cut crime. Few other issues in the Home Office are more important.

We have promised 6,000 extra officers in the current spending round, and police training centres are full, which is good news. The struggle to increase police numbers, however, has been a hard one. The Conservative Government spent more but got fewer police officers. Indeed, during the first two years of the Labour Government, we did much the same. One reason was that the 1994 Act gave operational independence to chief constables and abolished the requirement to maintain establishment levels. In other words, in conjunction with the police authority, chief constables decided how to spend resources.

When chief constables received extra resources, they met their own, perfectly justifiable priorities, such as providing better equipment and training, new police stations and computers and civilian staff to release officers from desk jobs. So it is not a criticism of chief constables to say that they spent their resources in ways other than on extra officers. However, the fact was that police numbers fell and both Conservative and Labour politicians got the blame. The public wanted more police and they did not always get them.

In recent years, the crime fighting fund has been a way round the legal problem of the definition in the 1994 Act of the operational independence of chief constables. Chief constables receive money from that fund only if they increase police numbers. The fund is essentially an artificial construct. What we really need is an amendment of the Act so that chief constables can in all other respects maintain their operational independence in day-to-day policing matters such as the distribution of resources and the deployment of police officers, but so that the public can get the increase in police numbers that they want and politicians can show that they can deliver what they were elected to do.

Let me make it clear that no one wants politicians to interfere in the proper operational matters of the police. I would oppose doing so. However, on numbers, there is a case for either reintroducing an establishment figure or introducing a similar mechanism for each force that enables chief constables to increase or at least maintain the number of officers. In that way, the public can be reassured that police numbers are a priority. I very much

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hope that we will be able to increase police numbers beyond the 6,000 proposed in the current spending review. On that issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South and I part company.

I should like to make a couple of other brief points. We need to find ways to increase the powers and status of the ordinary police constable on the beat, which have been eroded over the years. We need to ensure that our constituents are empowered to deal with antisocial behaviour, inservility and louts, rather than--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his 10 minutes.

6.15 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): It is with some trepidation that I endeavour to make my first contribution in this House. There are two clear reasons why I am a little anxious. The first is the obvious pressure that afflicts those who follow an exalted predecessor. Members will be mindful of the fact that the previous Member of Parliament for Southport, Mr. Ronnie Fearn, will be a hard act to follow. I need no reminding of that.

Members may not be aware, however, that there are some disturbing precedents when it comes to maiden speeches by Southport MPs. In particular, there is the distressing case etched in the minds of Southport parliamentarians of Edward Marshall Hall. As a Conservative Member, he was returned with a narrow majority of 209 votes, and it is almost exactly 100 years ago to the day that he made his maiden speech in this Chamber.

Mr. Hall chose the subject not of licensing changes but of temperance reform, which was a significant political issue in 1901. He spoke particularly of the then endemic problem of under-age children and youths being sent to public houses to fetch ale for their fathers. It is perhaps a mixed indicator of social and moral change that children no longer enter pubs on their fathers' behalf or even with their fathers' knowledge or permission. If they do so, they are motivated no longer by filial duty but by a desire for personal consumption. In his maiden speech, Mr. Hall chose to address the House on the evil of children transporting liquor from pub to home.

The Tory party in those days was clearly entering a period of policy revision. Belonging to the socially liberal wing of his party, Mr. Hall did not propose harsh penalties, but that beer should be sent around in carts like milk and deposited on the doorstep. It is recorded that his bold and imaginative proposal was greeted with hoots of derision, that he was loth ever to speak again and that he felt that his talents were never sufficiently recognised.

That awful precedent aside, to follow Mr. Ronnie Fearn is daunting enough. Members will recall that, in his two spells as a Member of Parliament, Mr. Fearn was a model of diligence in his pursuit of constituency affairs and a resolute champion of Southport and its people at Westminster.

Anyone who, like me, has canvassed the streets of Southport will observe that it is rare to go down any street and fail to find someone who has been directly helped by Ronnie. Indeed, it is rare in some parts of Southport to go down a street and fail to find someone who is related to Ronnie or has been at school with him. He was born, schooled and employed in the town, was a councillor there

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for nearly 40 years and was awarded an OBE for services to the town. Ronnie has been everything a constituency MP should be. He is a legend in his own community.

It has been gratifying but not surprising to learn on arriving at Westminster how well thought of Ronnie is among Back Benchers. I have learned that he is even held in high respect by those responsible for the running and conduct of this great ship of state who have inside knowledge and whom we disdain at our peril: the team of parliamentary attendants and officers.

Ronnie has remained, persistently and consistently, a man of the people. In his case, there was no disconnection between politics and people. Among a sea of grey suits, Ronnie was a character. Few, perhaps none, in this Chamber would have the sheer nerve and joie de vivre regularly to star in pantomime in front of thousands of their constituents. Of course, there are unkind observers who say that that is exactly what we do, and perhaps there are too many parallels between the activities--indeed, many would say that the experience of throwing sweets at an expectant audience and harkening to shouts of "Look behind you!" is the best possible preparation for political life.

Ronnie will continue to serve Parliament as a peer--a not inappropriate outcome, given that he played a significant role in securing heritage lottery funds for the restoration of Southport pier. Those unfamiliar with that great landmark should set aside any preconceptions that they have about piers: it is far longer than one can imagine, but despite that--and such is the measure of the Southport sands--it fails to reach the sea except at high tide. The pier restoration is only one small manifestation of the on-going renaissance of Southport--a process that not unnaturally coincides with Liberal Democrat leadership of the council.

That has not passed unnoticed in the House. A quality tourist and retail venue, Southport has had an increased influx of visitors in recent months. Those visitors have included the right hon. Members for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and for Devizes (Mr. Ancram)--in fact most probable and improbable candidates for the Tory leadership. I trust that they enjoyed their stay.

It would be foolish of me to pretend that all is well in my part of the world, however. There are deep misgivings about the state of public services, and especially about the way in which they are delivered. The local police force has lost 500 police as a result of the systematic planned Home Office reduction endorsed by both previous Governments: the real effect has been real delays in police response and availability. That has been coupled with--dare I say, "masked by"?--a dazzling range of initiatives: partnerships have mushroomed; there has been a constant chorus of consultation; and police have been taught to talk like insurance salesmen. However, nothing can disguise the simple fact that we want more policemen. It is the result of decisions and actions of the House and the Government that we have not got them so far.

What we have instead is the endless reconfiguration of public services, and the continuous and futile attempts to remodel public services on private enterprise--a vice endemic to both previous Governments. When people phone the local police in Southport, it does no good to find that piped music is played as they wait for their query to be

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dealt with. When people dial 999, it does no good being told helpfully that they are queueing in a call-waiting system. That sort of thing might work for retailers, but it does not work when there is an intruder in the house.

My conclusion is simple. In Southport and elsewhere, public services have been the focus of the election. The issues surrounding the way in which they should be fairly resourced are clear. However, the battles ahead will have more to do with the way in which they are to be delivered. Two parties in the House appear to be persuaded, either wholly or in part, that only in so far as public service is modelled on or involves the private sector can it deliver. The premise is that public services cannot be delivered effectively by public servants. That is a counsel of despair and is recognised as such. One party represented in the Chamber sees a clear difference between public service delivery and selling soap. On behalf of the citizens of Southport, I respectfully submit that the time is now overdue to state the ancient but unhappily no longer orthodox view that public services are best delivered by those whose personal destiny lies with rendering public benefits, not private profits.

The concept of public services pursuing publicly agreed objectives, run by public servants and accountable to nationally or locally elected bodies is clearly one with which the current Government have difficulty. It is of grave concern to people in the north, especially in Southport, that not only is the Government's confidence in public servants in question, but they have seriously weakened the link between the delivery of services and democratically elected bodies. There is a link between our public service problem and the democratic deficit. If the people who truly control public services are increasingly quango placemen, assorted partnerships, shareholders in private companies and the glitterati of Whitehall, what can a vote in a ballot box do?

There is a connection between the disquiet about public services and the disquiet about the workings of our democracy. The House's timidity about constitutional reform has produced regional agencies where there should be regional autonomy, a confusing plethora of partnerships, the marginalisation of local councillors and the sidelining of this Chamber--in a nutshell, the general decay of democratic accountability. Can it not be said that the proper, if not the best way to restore confidence in public service is to restore democratic accountability? That is the message from Southport.

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