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18 Nov 2002 : Column 430—continued

7.13 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I shall focus on three themes, the first of which is that labour market flexibility must mean flexibility for employees as well as for employers. On current reckoning there are 28.6 million people in the British work force, of whom 25.1 million, or 87.8 per cent., are employees. It seems, therefore, that it is obligatory for members of all political parties rigorously, enthusiastically and publicly to debate how to translate personal choice from a political slogan into a welcome fact for millions of our fellow citizens.

It seems the reality that job sharing, part-time working, career breaks and home working will increasingly be vital if we are to achieve both economic efficiency and job satisfaction. There is a responsibility incumbent on each and every one of us to address these issues.

I recognise that the Government have taken a number of steps to facilitate progress. However, if we are to secure a proper balance, much greater attention should be paid to these issues by members of all political parties, including, and perhaps in particular, my own as we seek to take the agenda forward in the much more diverse economic situation and labour market of the 21st century. I would welcome anything that the Secretary of State might have to say on that subject when she replies to the debate. I would be particularly interested also in the vantage point of my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Secondly, we need to improve both the quantity and the quality of child care—that is of the essence. I am fully prepared to acknowledge at the outset of commenting on this subject that the Government have taken several steps. These steps have been heavily but not exclusively focused on the demand side of the equation. I do not knock that because the various steps

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have made a difference and are proving to be useful. However, there is also a supply side that should not escape our attention. My experience, locally and elsewhere, is that two phenomena are potentially hampering the supply of child care and ensuring the continuation of large gaps in the provision that is required.

The first of the phenomena is the rigidity of the planning process, which frequently is much less friendly than it should be to prospective providers. I have had that experience in my constituency. People have wanted to provide child care, but what I might describe as a backward looking and—dare I say it?—otiose planning process has, regrettably, prevented them getting away from first base. If the Government are considering reform of the planning process—they have certainly earmarked their intention so to do in the Loyal Address—I appeal to the Secretary of State closely to consider how that reform might usefully apply in this context.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): The hon. Gentleman is making a good and constructive point. Does he agree that there is an inherent unfairness in the system whereby people who go to employer-provided child care secure 100 per cent. tax relief, whereas those whose employers are too small to provide child care secure no tax relief? Is that not a penalty on individuals who work for small businesses and a penalty on small businesses?

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely valid point that bears focus and concentration by people in all political parties. It is a widely acknowledged truism that there are many citizens—overwhelmingly women—who would work if they had the option of available and affordable child care. Too often that is not the case. The consequence is both socially unjust and economically inefficient. Therefore, we should be prepared to consider all steps to change that state of affairs for the better.

The second phenomenon that seems to hamper the provision of desirable and affordable child care is an Ofsted inspection regime that is as inflexible as frequently it proves to be burdensome. Once again, constituency experience can aid and abet us in deliberating on these matters. I am aware, for example, of a provider who lives in my constituency who specialises in mobile child care provision. She goes to venues throughout the country offering a service at conference centres and so on. She laments to me and to the Government that she has to comply with a positively Kafkaesque regulatory regime if she is to deliver the service that she would like to provide, admittedly and perfectly properly for a profit. I hope that the Secretary of State will take my remarks in a constructive spirit and offer me a response to what I have had to say.

Thirdly, we need a balanced approach to regulation. Let me own up. I have been as insistent and ferocious in denouncing over-regulation as any other hon. Member. I make no apology for that and I do not resile from that stance. However, as we move forward, it is important to consider regulation in the round. As any commonsense analysis suggests, regulation can be onerous and debilitating but it can be equally enabling and protective.

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The Conservative party has an honourable track record on regulating for enabling and protective purposes. Legislation includes: the Mines Act 1842, which stopped children going down mines; the Contracts of Employment Act 1963, which gave people the right to a written statement of their terms and conditions and a period of notice that they did previously enjoy; and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963, which established minimum standards for heating, lighting and ventilating commercial premises. To the enduring credit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the purpose of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was to outlaw discrimination in the workplace against people with disabilities. Those Acts were good, constructive, Tory social reforms in the finest traditions of our party. Their effect was to enable, protect and improve the quality of people's lives.

Some Government regulations are flawed. They include the ozone depleting substances directive and the physical agents directive. The Government have not taken as discriminating and robust an approach as they should have done to defend British interests. Those are examples of onerous and debilitating regulation.

Let us try to expunge the national minimum wage from the daily preoccupation and table tennis of political debate. I was a furious and, I believed at the time, inveterate opponent of the national minimum wage. However, the Tory party and Conservatives at their best are pragmatic. The national minimum wage has not been the disaster that Conservatives, including me, predicted. It has combated genuine exploitation without resulting in the heavy job losses that my hon. Friends and I predicted, partly because it has been set at a relatively low level. We should acknowledge and accept that reality.

Mr. Challen: Did the hon. Gentleman realise that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) did not answer the second part of his earlier question about increasing the national minimum wage?

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman expresses his view and I have expressed mine. I shall continue to do that. On the whole, my views on such matters are audible and comprehensible. Discretion dictates that I say no more about the subject this evening.

We have a choice about regulation. We can opt for healthy scepticism, which is sensible, or furious denunciations in principle of every regulation, which is not wise. First, it jars with our historical record; secondly, it strikes many people as indiscriminate; and, thirdly, it is politically counterproductive for my own Conservative party. We should not pursue the matter in that way; it is foolish to do so. We should be more constructive, reasonable and inclined to consider each issue on its merits.

If we accept the premise that employee rights are at least as important as those of employers or that each proposal should be considered in isolation on its merits, we might eventually lose the stigma that results from ritually opposing the rights extensions whenever they are made, only to accept them grudgingly long after the event.

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I am making a polite and, I hope, positive suggestion for taking forward our approach in the best Tory tradition. We should oppose what is bureaucratic, poorly drafted and unnecessary, and support what proves wise, beneficial and to the advantage of the British people.

Mr. Simon Thomas: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow: No; I am drawing my remarks to a close.

I believe that my concluding remarks apply to all politicians, about whom there is pervasive cynicism in the United Kingdom. If we, as a class of public servant, are to become popular again, we must be respected. If we are to be respected, we must be credible. If we are to be credible, we must be reasonable. Those criteria must inform public debate and policy making on both sides of the House throughout this Parliament and beyond.

7.25 pm

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): I believed that it was right to apply to speak in today's debate on the economy and trade and industry when I saw Friday's headline in The Guardian: XHewitt Rules the World". Then I realised that I was reading the sports pages, not the business news, and that the headline referred to the world men's tennis number one, not my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you and I are cricket supporters, and therefore one moves on quickly from the sports pages at the moment.

I warmly welcome the concentration in the Queen's Speech on tackling crime and antisocial behaviour, and investment in and reform of the public services. I am sure that many of us can testify from our constituency surgeries that such matters deeply worry our local residents, who come to us desperate for help to cope with troublesome neighbours, yobbish behaviour, noise, dumped cars and other assaults on their environment and quality of life.

We share the goal of prioritising public services with our constituents. The investment that we have made is possible only because of the Government's achievement of economic stability, low inflation, low interest rates, record numbers of people in work and improvements in employment rights, especially for women and part-time workers.

Britain's entry into the euro is vital to our economy's continuing success. I therefore welcome the commitment in the Gracious Speech to make a recommendation on entry into the single currency on the basis of the famous five economic tests. Fifty-seven per cent. of our trade is with EU member states, generating 3.5 million jobs. My firm commitment to Britain joining the euro has been reinforced by my work on the Select Committee on Trade and Industry.

At the beginning of last year, the Select Committee produced a report on vehicle manufacturing in the United Kingdom after problems at Longbridge with BMW/Rover, at Luton with Vauxhall and at Dagenham with Ford. Clearly, some of the difficulties were caused by issues that related to the value of sterling and uncertainty about our future membership of the euro.

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Major car manufacturers such as Ford, Toyota and Nissan have made it clear that they want us to join the euro and that otherwise, inward investment by foreign companies will be put at risk. On 13 October, The Observer quoted Unilever chairman, Niall Fitzgerald, who said that if we do not join the euro,

I am pleased with the commitment to rapid progress on EU enlargement. I especially welcome the accession of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Select Committee was made aware of the enthusiasm of their people to join when we visited the region two years ago to investigate industrial and trade relations.

Cyprus is another country about which I feel passionately, as do many other Members of this House and the other place. I fervently hope that the island's future will be as a member of the EU with Greek and Turkish Cypriots living together in peace and prosperity.

My constituents are greatly concerned about trade with the developing world. A few weeks ago, at the end of One World Week, I spoke about fair trade at two churches in my constituency, St. Mary's in Woodford and Hainault Baptist church. I was therefore pleased that the Gracious Speech reaffirmed the Government's commitments to the agreements made in Monterrey and Johannesburg.

The agreement in Monterrey begins to define our global role. The developed world, through protectionist subsidies and tariffs, imposes poverty and deprivation on billions of people, including countless children. According to War on Want, halving such protection in agriculture, industrial goods and services could boost developing countries' incomes by about $150 billion a year, which is three times the total aggregate aid budget of every country in the world. The World Bank advises that substantial trade liberalisation could reduce the number of people living in poverty by more than 300 million by 2015. At this point, I would like to pay tribute to the Chancellor and to the Secretary of State for International Development for their world leadership on increasing debt relief to the poorest countries.

Hon. Members may be aware of my interest in corporate social responsibility, as I have presented two Bills on the subject to the House in the last few months. At the world summit on sustainable development this year, the UK agreed actively to promote corporate responsibility and accountability through the full development and effective implementation of national regulations, among other measures. I was disappointed, therefore, by the lack of any specific mention in the Queen's Speech of a companies Bill, which would have presented an ideal opportunity to fulfil that undertaking, particularly as our new House rules would enable the legislation to be carried over, if necessary. I should be grateful if the Secretary of State for International Development would tell the House how she intends to fulfil that commitment in the absence of such a Bill in the present programme.

I look forward to examining the proposals for changes to the planning system, particularly those relating to improving the involvement of local

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communities. I and many other hon. Members deal with a large number of inquiries from constituents regarding planning matters, and a frequent complaint from the public is that there is a lack of consultation. In recent months, I have had a number of representations from local residents who felt that they had not been consulted or kept informed about the siting of mobile phone masts. The Select Committee on Trade and Industry held an inquiry into mobile phone masts at the beginning of last year because of the growing public concern reflected in early-day motions, Bills and the formation of a national umbrella organisation, Mast Action UK. That organisation has been set up to reflect the concerns made known to us by constituents.

Two of the Committee's recommendations were on community consultation. The first stated:

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