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Lembit Öpik: I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman would take my remarks in the same jovial spirit in which he made his comments. It was a tentative joke; I should have known better. I apologise to the House in order to avoid having to make a personal statement later because he did not laugh.
In talking about the difference between outcomes and focusing on individuals, I should like right hon. and hon. Members to consider two crucial and fundamental points. First, the obsession with gossiping about each other in the press and attempts to drag down individuals has arisen because ideology in Welsh and, indeed, British political life has evaporated. We cannot blame the media for taking on the agenda that we have set.
We saw a good example of that when the hon. Member for Ribble Valley sought to criticise the Government on the continuing Mittal matter and to imply a degree of wrongdoing on their part. Although it is perfectly legitimate for any Opposition party to raise such mattersindeed, perhaps it is our responsibility to do soemphasising them for a third of a speech is very tricky when the speaker comes from the same political party that has been tarnished time and again as a result of bringing the name of politics into disrepute. It is just possible that the Conservative party can score some points from the Labour party on the matter, but there is little doubt that the ultimate loser is our profession, because the public do not make the fine distinctions that we are able to make in debates on the Floor of the House.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman mentions Mike German and is no doubt referring to the continuing police inquiry into alleged matters with regard to that individual. What is the political benefit to us as serious politicians of implying guilt when an inquiry is being conducted exactly to establish such circumstances? Every individual in the House surely accords in their heart with the principle of innocent until proven guilty. There is no benefit or upside to implying the guilt of an individual before an inquiry has even been done. The hon. Gentleman highlights exactly the kind of thing that we do to each other and have all done from time to time. Ultimately, however, the true loser is Welsh political life.
Lembit Öpik: I assume that there is a deeper intent in that question. The hon. Gentleman can be more explicit if he wants me to answer a specific question. It seems self-evident from what I am saying and from what we all believe that it would not be right to try in any way to corrupt an investigation. I do not think that anyone would disagree with what he and I have just said.
I turn to the important distinction between taking a more positive and perhaps more principled attitude to politics, and maintaining the critical faculties that the Government and Opposition parties must maintain. It is fair to criticise the Government for their ineffectiveness in, for example, fixing rundown public services, but we do not engender any faith or confidence in the public by running down other political parties when one's own party has not done any better. It is all very well to criticise the failings of any individual organisation, but it is incumbent on the critic to indicate a better way of proceeding.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley was asked a direct question about taxation while criticising the Government on the matter, but he was not willing to answer it. He suggested that savings and best practice would be a way of finding the extra money in the health service, but I do not know of a single political party that stood for the 2001 general election suggesting that worst or second-best practice was acceptable.
In the serious debate, once we get into it, we have to provide serious alternatives if we suggest that there is a different way to do things. [Hon. Members: "What would you do?"] Conservative Members ask a good question. They can see what I would do. As the House knows, the Liberal-Democrat-led coalition in Cardiff is doing tremendous work and achieving significant outcomes for the people of Waleseverything from implementing a more equitable student funding arrangement to securing effective economic performance, from achieving what I believe was a better performance than the UK average in response to the foot and mouth crisis to introducing the Children's Commissioner for Wales, from abolishing museum charges to introducing free school milk. All those things show that it is possible to work with another party in the interests of the public while simultaneously maintaining an independent identity. Right hon. and hon. Members have busily campaigned for the new sort of politics. Part of that is accepting that in the competition of multi-party politics, one can still work in league in a positive fashion and deliver results that are far more meaningful to the public than much of the debate held in this Chamber.
That does not mean that one has to abandon one's ability to criticise. There is currently a big debate going on in the House about taxation. Personally, I believe that direct taxation is the fairest form of taxation, but there are differences of view in both my party and the Labour party. However, we will never make progress in that debate if
I believe that it is probably necessary to increase taxation a little bit to achieve a better health service. However, my saying that raises the danger that, instead of a rational debate in the pub[Laughter.] Fair enough I meant to say that instead of a rational debate in the public domain, all that happens is that the arguments are reduced to a simple yah-boo debate about whether one is in favour of increasing taxation or reducing it. That is patronising to the public, who would be far more interested in hearing the arguments for or against. That is shown by the example of my party, which was the only one that went into the general election explicitly committed to increasing direct income tax; we gained more seats than any other party in the 2001 general election.
Of the two crucial points I want to highlight, the first is balance and the second is that, as long as we continue to be sceptical about our ability to change the way in which we conduct politics, that change will not happen. I was asked to whom I am addressing my remarks today. I am saying to members of my party in Wales, and to right hon. and hon. Members present today and members of their parties in Wales, that it is up to us to decide whether to carry on with the same old tired yah-boo politics with which the public are clearly disillusioned, or to give a different type of politics a chance.
I entered politics because I believe that politics can perform a positive and important function to improve the quality of people's lives. I did not enter politics to slam, rubbish and run down people in other parties who are themselves genuinely committed to the same goals. I became a Member of Parliament because I believedmy belief has been confirmedthat thanks to our proud democracy, some of the best brains and most sincere and committed individuals in the country end up here. I am of course pointing at the Liberal Democrat Benches.
The House knows exactly what I mean. We have wonderful debates, and honest and sometimes sincere conversations that would make us politically vulnerable if others heard them, when we are outside the Chamber. Sadly, we sometimes leave our mutual respect at the door and take any opportunity to run down each other's party because we believe that we will derive political advantage from doing so. We can carry on doing that if that is what we want to do; we can carry on messing about, and then getting the business done when we are not in the Chamber. Alternatively, we can start trying to discover what the Welsh public want to hear from Welsh Members of Parliament, and what sort of outcomes would restore the Welsh people's confidence to the extent that they vote in higher numbers. We can decide whether we want to continue to behave in a manner that has made it acceptable in the media to say things like, "This MP was proved to have lied, but what do you expect from a politician?" Alternatively, we can challenge that and say that we are, on the whole, honourable individuals who are genuinely trying to do the right thing.
I recently wrote an article in which I asked what is missing from politics? That question prompted many responses from around the country. Zoe Phillips said compassion; Derek Phillips, conviction; Fred Davies, openness and initiatives; Prue Bray, trust; Paul Wheeler vision and passion. Funnily enough, none said that there should be more short speeches, although one said that what was needed in politics was more people like me. Few Estonians are likely to stand at the next general election, but I have noted the comment. A chap called Bill Schardt offered three answers: issues, community and solutions.
However cynical Members of Parliament might be about my choice of subject, I ask them to take my words seriously. It was not an easy choice to tackle what lies at the heart of the disillusionment in Welsh political lifeespecially given that I know that there will be a degree of doubt about the nature of my contribution to the St. David's day debatebut if I had not done this, no one else would have. If I am not prepared to say to my party and others that we should start to focus on the outcomes that matter to people, there is little chance of change.
So, Madam Deputy Speaker, there you have it. My deal with other Members of Parliament is that I will do what I can to make sure that "Focus" publications across Wales reflect the approach that I have described today. I am not a dictatorI cannot force people to do that[Interruption.] A rebellion is breaking out behind me. I will also try to ensure that the high principles I have outlined are reflected in the activities of Liberal Democrat politicians in Wales. I cannot promise to succeed, but I can promise the House this: if we all work together, we will succeed. Perhaps, just once, we could all be a little more high minded than to try to score points when other people are doing their best to serve this country and Wales. Were we to do that, we might actually be thanked by people who believe that it is too long since true vision guided politics. Through our efforts in Wales, we might make 21st-century politics a little less disappointing to the people who pay our salaries.