Previous SectionIndexHome Page

19 Nov 2002 : Column 546—continued

5.48 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Parliament has long provided a platform for the inadequate, the inarticulate and those who read with excellence, so I hope that I will be forgiven if I do not dwell for too long on the problems of the Liberal Democrat party.

A Queen's Speech at this important juncture in the second Session of a Parliament should give us a clear idea of where the Government intend to go and what important matters need to be discussed and proposed. Like the curate's egg, the Queen's Speech is good only in parts. It will come as no surprise to my right hon. and hon. Friends to learn that I view the proposal for foundation hospitals with unalloyed horror. I have no desire to go back 30 years. The idea is a throwback to the situation that existed in the national health service when I worked in it. That was so long ago that all the members of my family who were born subsequently are now rather superior 40-year-olds who have their own views on these matters. Foundation hospitals are unworkable, divisive and unhelpful and they will drain from all the rest of the health service elements of finance that it desperately needs to catch up and has only recently begun to acquire.

It is important to consider what is not in the Queen's Speech as well as what is. We are now so modern, of course, and many of the contents of the speech are trailed with such enthusiasm, that I assume that we may soon get to the point where Her Majesty—as she has very intelligent grandchildren—will decide not to come here in person but to text what she has to say. We will then be able to take part in an e-discussion of government. The reality—

David Taylor: How about a virtual Black Rod?

Mrs. Dunwoody: That thought fills me with unmitigated interest.

The Queen's Speech contains some very useful measures. I think that everyone will welcome the railway safety Bill. It is long overdue. The railway system has

19 Nov 2002 : Column 547

been dealt with very haphazardly and has suffered because so many contractors have been brought in to undertake tasks, which has raised in the minds of the general public, if not of hon. Members, considerable doubts as to whether the railway safety system any longer meets the needs of the 21st century. The old railway inspectorate, which dealt with a highly integrated system under British Rail, knew how to disperse important railway safety information throughout the system rapidly, and did so in a way that ensured that people knew about any problems that had arisen anywhere in the system very early on. Once we began to bring in private companies, which all had personal interests and legal responsibilities, and which were different from the old integrated BR, that was not the case. I look forward to that Bill and I hope that it will be introduced as soon as possible.

I would have liked to see some other measures in the Queen's Speech. For example, it is a shame that we are still waiting for the aviation White Paper. Given the length of time that it takes, it would have helped to push forward major decisions on airports, runways and the expansion of aviation if that White Paper had not only been discussed in considerable detail by the general public but had had decisions taken on it. It would have been helpful to have a clear plan on aviation to help us to decide where we want to go.

In the brief time available, I will raise one or two problems and ask some questions. I understand that there is something now called a concordat between the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport, as to those who are taking responsibility for particular transport policies. I am not sure what a concordat is—it smacks slightly of a medieval carve-up, but I am sure that that is not the situation. That means that some questions will be raised in the House. Does it mean that the 11-strong Treasury team who are now deeply involved in transport decisions will in future be prepared to come before Select Committees, such as that on transport, which will want to question them on decisions that are being taken? Does that mean that when we discuss the amount of money that is available for the railway system we shall have access not only to the views of the Department for Transport, but to those of DEFRA?

One of the few advantages of the enormous Department that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister used to run was that there was an attempt to marry environmental and transport needs and to come up with some sensible answers. It seems that that will not be quite so easy in future. So what is the concordat, what does it cover, will Treasury team members be available for questioning, and is it clear that not only DEFRA but the Department for Transport and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will be taking decisions in this field in the future?

I must touch briefly on what is now an urgent problem in the railways. The present Secretary of State took over an extremely muddled and complex situation. He has not only made considerable strides in sorting out the practical problems but has a clear idea of where he wants to go. He will forgive me, therefore, if I point out one or two of the problems that have arisen.

19 Nov 2002 : Column 548

First, there seems to be a difficulty with the Strategic Rail Authority. We needed the SRA and it was set up with some new executives and appeared to be carrying out an interesting clean sweep of the relationships between the train operating companies and the individuals concerned at every level. Since the demise of Railtrack, however, there have been one or two signals that have not contributed much to the clarity of the situation. For example, it is not particularly helpful for Sir Richard Bowker to suggest, as he did in an article at the weekend, that what is happening in the rail industry is nationalisation by the back door. That is not the case. It is not happening and, frankly, it is not constructive to suggest that it is.

Secondly, there is a difficulty with some of the SRA's decisions. I am referring to the decisions on the west coast main line, Stagecoach and Virgin Trains. If it is true, as it appears to be, that Stagecoach and Virgin Trains have been allowed the sort of concessions that add up to a considerable amount of public money, we should have an explanation. In July, a public announcement followed an agreement with the SRA that #106 million would be given to Virgin—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am afraid that the hon. Lady's time is up. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a nine-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

5.57 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I share one of her opinions at least—that the Queen's Speech is a strange mixture of measures. We all know what happens. There are months of negotiation between Departments to get measures into the Queen's Speech and then the day before the Queen delivers it the people in No. 10 sit down and say, XWhat on earth are we going to describe as the main message?" They say, XWell, there is one more Bill from the Home Office than from the other Departments, so this is a Queen's Speech about the criminal justice system." That is how it is spun out to the press and the media. In fact, it is a hotch-potch of different measures, as it often has been under Governments of many different complexions.

I am sorry that the Deputy Prime Minister has just left the Chamber. When I was leading the Opposition I used to tease him every year about not having any legislation in the Queen's Speech. I used to tell him that doing nothing was not an option. Actually, I preferred him when he was doing nothing to when he is promoting the measures in this Queen's Speech, which will not advance the cause of effective government.

I will make some brief general remarks and focus on reviving the rural economy, which is mentioned in the Opposition amendment. I came to the Chamber today in the nive belief that when food, rural affairs and the environment are listed on the Order Paper, senior Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might occasionally wander in and do a passable imitation of listening to the debate. It seems, however, that they are in touch with us from a remote location, or so we must earnestly hope.

In general, the Queen's Speech will not advance the cause of delivering the Government's objectives of reforming the public services and demonstrating that

19 Nov 2002 : Column 549

they have done so over the next few years, because they are not prepared to give the people who work in the public services the independence, the accountability, the local ownership of the problems or the challenges that they need to make those services effective. The Government will increasingly continue to be impatient.

In the press, we are told that the Prime Minister is increasingly impatient for results. He will be more and more impatient as the next year goes by. The Government resemble somebody sitting in a car and pressing hard on the accelerator. They are making the fuel flow in terms of higher and higher public expenditure, but they are unable to understand why the vehicle does not go faster. The reason is that they have left the handbrake on—the control, centralisation and command approach to public servants which means that they will not deliver the desired results, nor will they have done so by the next general election.

One great problem for the Government lies in the fact that in DEFRA no one is even pressing on the accelerator—which is why I am so sorry that no DEFRA Ministers are in the Chamber. Last week, the Department was criticised by an all-party Select Committee which pointed out that the rural White Paper was not being delivered, that the rural proofing of policies was not being attended to, and that the Department is suffering from reorganisation. No doubt, DEFRA is working hard but it has been reorganised.

Once again, part of the Government machinery is suffering from the problem that people sitting in No. 10 Downing street decided that not enough was happening and the Government were not delivering enough results, so the answer was to reorganise Departments. In fact, the answer is hardly ever that Departments should be reorganised. All that happens is that brass plates move around Whitehall, people are reallocated, new titles are devised, new secretaries are appointed and the whole agenda is abandoned for another year.

The tragedy is that that has so often happened in local government, too, under Governments of all persuasions, right back to the 1960s. This might make me seem like the ultimate Conservative, but if we still had urban and rural district councils and the ridings of Yorkshire I am not sure we would be worse off than we are at present—after 30 years of local government reorganisation.

Next Section

IndexHome Page