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19 Nov 2002 : Column 593—continued

Mr. Dawson: On the hon. Gentleman's tour of schools in his constituency, did he take any time to quantify the amount of capital investment that had been put into their facilities?

Mr. Mitchell: Of course. The hon. Gentleman heard me refer to the 79 funding streams, all of which represent extra money available for schools. If he listens carefully to what I am saying, however, he will realise that I am pointing out the difficulties inherent in the way that the Government have looked after education.

I shall pass over the A-levels fiasco of this summer to mention briefly the issue of top-up fees. I believe that top-up fees are a truly appalling proposition. I went along with the Conservative Government over student loans with a certain heaviness of heart. I can tell my party's Front Bench, however, that there are no circumstances in which people like me will support top-up fees. At the last election, we had an excellent policy of endowment funds, which perhaps will not be possible next time. Another way must be found, however—I look forward to returning to the matter in the future—instead of seeking to charge students top-up fees, which is absolutely outrageous.

As has been made clear, the public services are central to political debate, but they are the rock on which the Government will founder. The Prime Minister is very fond of saying that he understands the problem and is getting on with the remedy. Nearly six years have passed, however, with precious little effect and precious little reform. The Government are discovering the hard way that top-down reform will simply not work. The truth is that we have had massive tax increases, but we wait in vain for the improvement.

I should have thought that one of the problems that preoccupies this Government more than most is pensions. In 1997, when the Conservative Government left power, pension provision in this country was the envy of Europe, but as the highly respected Pensions Institute said this week:

In the face of these difficulties, the Government appear to be caught like a rabbit in headlights.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman refers to the Xadmittedly poor" state pension system. Can he recall whether the decoupling of the state pension from pay in the economy took place under a Conservative Government? And was it not the Government led by the noble Baroness Thatcher, as she now is?

Mr. Mitchell: I have already pointed out that in 1997, when the Conservative Government left office, we had a pension system that was the envy of the rest of Europe. It is now deteriorating daily, and all that we are promised is a Green Paper. The Opposition have been trying to contribute on this important subject—we have

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suggested a lifetime savings account—while all the work of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is summarily dismissed by the Government. Everyone knows that we must save more and that the debate about compulsion verges on the silly—we must have compulsion. All that we get from the Government, though, is the promise of a Green Paper and the implicit threat that they will do something about abolishing tax relief. The Select Committee is doing its bit: we have set in train some work on what should happen to our pensions system. It is now absolutely clear, however, that what we need is action from the Government, with a clear understanding of the role for employers, employees and the state.

I shall speak briefly on the issue of regional assemblies to which I, and most of my constituents in Sutton Coldfield, are implacably opposed. It is absolutely astonishing that, on top of all the other layers of elected government, we intend to have yet more elected politicians. If the answer to the question is we need to elect more politicians, it must have been a pretty daft question. The Government are a compulsive meddler in our constitution. I accept that it is a minority view, but the unwise reforms to the House of Lords have not been matched with reforms to this place. We all know that there are far too many Members in the House of Commons. We now have more Members than we had when this country governed an empire that stretched around the world. Yet we hear nothing from the Government about the importance of doing something about that.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mitchell: No, because I do not have the time.

We have a good and respected Prime Minister leading a rotten Government, who are all hype and no delivery. They have produced an inconsequential Queen's Speech that will do little to address the fundamental and far-reaching problems in Britain today. I hope that the House will reject it in the amendment tonight.

8.51 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): In welcoming the Queen's Speech, I wish to mention a couple of Bills that I shall support. I shall most definitely support the Bill on hunting with dogs and the Bill that will lead to the creation of regional assemblies. I want a complete ban on hunting and complete regional assemblies.

I am delighted by the inclusion in the Queen's Speech of the Bill on criminal justice and sentencing reform and, for the first time ever, of a Bill to deal with antisocial behaviour. They both place crime at the centre of the scene, and people in my constituency and nationally want there to be a fight on crime. We are delighted that that is one of the Government's central pledges.

I have no doubt that the public have, to some extent, lost faith with the criminal justice system. They have seen it weakened over the years by what they perceive to be inadequate sentencing and soft penalties. The plans to combat antisocial behaviour with tougher measures will win widespread support. I am more than pleased to see that in the framework of the Queen's Speech.

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My constituents have already referred to the fact that in his speech on the Loyal Address my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister mentioned two forms of antisocial behaviour relating to fireworks and airguns. Such activities are second to none in the subjects that are raised in the letters in my postbag. Firework misuse has provoked people in my constituency to say that they feel as though they are under siege from September to January, and particularly in late October and early November. They want effective action to be taken so that access to such products is seriously restricted.

Likewise, no one in my constituency would argue against the banning of—or, at least, the imposition of serious restrictions on—the purchase and use of airguns. I shall argue that licensing with a defined purpose of use should shape the legislative framework that controls the sale of airguns.One death has already occurred in my constituency. Children were having fun, but it was not fun when an airgun was fired and killed a 14-year-old. One death is one too many. A review of the lethal potential of these weapons is long overdue.

My major contribution to this debate on achieving effective laws that will reduce crime and that will revive the spirit of community and social cohesion rests on the belief that the use of illegal hard drugs, particularly heroin, must be controlled. Action must be taken significantly to reduce the number of addicts that live in our communities. I would like to persuade the House that that requires an understanding not just of the numbers of drug-related crimes committed or the numbers of addicts involved. If we are to make an impact, we must understand the root cause of the problem. We need to understand what makes people take drugs in the first place. We know the numbers involved and use them for social policy purposes, but we do not know the people, who are young, vulnerable and poverty stricken. They feel discarded and isolated. It is time that we asked them what is going on in their lives that makes them so controlled by such substances.

It is not that the numbers are not compelling. There are more than 250,000 addicts, which is probably an underestimate. We know that the illegal drugs market has a value of #4.5 billion in this country alone. The problem causes social and economic havoc in many areas. The police in Cleveland estimate that chaotic and problematic users of heroin are finding upwards of #230 a week to spend on buying that drug. To get that money, they steal between #600 and #700 worth of goods every week. We can all imagine how much havoc they wreak on estates in my constituency, and my constituency is not an exception. If we are serious about a Bill to deal with antisocial behaviour and serious in our intent to reduce crime, we should acknowledge that although in relative terms there are only a small number heroin addicts, they commit the majority of crime. We must understand how they destroy our established communities.

I do not wish to criticise in any shape or form the existing excellent drug enforcement strategies. The police have excellent intelligence. I received a report from Cleveland police force that says that it is pursuing a dealer-a-day strategy, which to date has led to the sentencing of 151 dealers in 160 community-based operations. The intelligence is available and

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enforcement is working. We have drug education and drug action teams and have increased the number of opportunities for drug treatment, but the facts remain stark. The number of addicts is growing year on year. They are getting younger and crime is increasing exponentially with them.

The chief constable of Cleveland said that crime has increased in Cleveland by the astounding figure of 11.9 per cent. He stated:

If the Bill means what it says and antisocial behaviour is defined, controlled and reduced, we must take on board why young people are compulsively controlled by illegal substances. I ask myself what we are doing wrong. Hon. Members on both sides of the House find the issue compelling. Are we ignoring the evidence before us? Are we underestimating the reasons why young people take drugs?

Research makes it clear that people's propensity to use drugs is due to five major causes. One problem is the accessibility and availability of drugs. We have all heard young people say that dealers are everywhere. They are like crows on addicts shoulders. Young people cannot turn around without being offered two for the price of one or drugs at half price. They are even told that they can pay later. Those young people on drugs are alienated. They are outside the good life. They feel a deep sense of loss. They have low self-esteem, no job and, often, no family. They live and sleep under bridges or wherever. There is an absence of alternatives. No one works with them to say that things could be better and different.

I am passionate about the problem. Those young folks have been excluded somewhere along the line by politicians and social policy, and they think that no one shouts for them. They believe that they have no future and no prospects.

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