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19 Nov 2002 : Column 607—continued

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Quite right.

Mr. Collins: The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) says that that is right, but only some Liberal Democrats are in favour of regional government. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in my constituency, the Liberal Democrats are vociferous opponents of regional government. I do not want to impede the general love-in between the Government and Liberal Democrat Members, but the Conservative-Liberal coalition in Cumbria, which expelled a Labour council, has made it clear that it opposes regional government.

Mr. Martlew: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Collins: Certainly, as the hon. Gentleman may also have views about the Conservative-Liberal coalition in Cumbria.

Mr. Martlew: I made the point that the Liberal Democrats opposed to regional government in Cumbria are the same ones who are in cahoots with the Tories to introduce care charges for elderly people in my constituency. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?

Mr. Collins: I am very happy to comment on the fact that the incoming administration, which decided with Liberal Democrat support to expel the Labour party, inherited a massive black hole of #3 million in Cumbria county council's accounts. That problem was made worse by DEFRA's failure to pay up on all the bills incurred during the foot and mouth outbreak.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) asked a very important question, to which I hope the Secretary of State will be able to respond. She asked for clarification of the concordat between DEFRA, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Transport. She wanted to know what it was, what it covered and what it related to. I think that that is a very important matter, and I hope that the Secretary of State will respond.

In a characteristically powerful speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pointed out that regional government would shut out the interests of rural areas. He also made it clear that there is strong unhappiness in rural areas about the Government's 20-day livestock restriction rule. Many Conservative Members share that sentiment, and we hope that the Government will reconsider the matter urgently.

I pay genuine tribute to the courage of the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), who was a Minister with the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in very difficult times during the foot and mouth crisis. She came to the county of Cumbria before any other MAFF

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Minister, and answered a number of questions that were put to her. She had a difficult case to make at that time, and she did so with courage. She was equally courageous today, and I may even alarm you, Mr. Speaker, when I note that she said that she thought that the Barnett formula should be reviewed. Not many Scottish Members of Parliament were present, but her remark is worth putting on record.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) was right to address the central issue of the democratic deficit that the Government propose. I hope that I can put the problem in very clear terms. Scotland is a nation and has a Parliament. Wales is a nation and has an Assembly. England is more than a collection of 10 artificial Euro regions. England is a nation too, and has a right to have its voice represented properly.

Mr. Salmond: I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's logic. Scotland is a nation and has a Parliament; Wales is a nation and has an Assembly; and England is a great nation so it should have its own Parliament. Is that not the logic?

Mr. Collins: The logic is that we should have the excellent policy that my party has proposed of English votes on English laws in this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman was vociferous in his condemnation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden for daring to criticise the activities of the Scottish Parliament. We would perhaps take the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for the Scottish Parliament a little more seriously if, when it came to choosing between there and here, he had not chosen here rather than there.

The hon. Member for Carlisle rightly paid tribute to the value of Border Television, and I join him in that. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made a serious allegation, to which I hope the Secretary of State will respond. My hon. Friend alleged that his constituents have been told that they will lose Government cash or new transport projects unless they publicly support the Government's actions. I hope that the Secretary of State will investigate that serious allegation, and have done with it if necessary.

We have heard excellent speeches about bureaucracy from hon. Members on both sides of the House. One of the big differences between Labour and Conservative Members is that, like the majority of people in this country, we do not believe that the answer to the problem of bureaucracy is to have more bureaucrats, more politicians, more assemblies, more headquarters buildings and all the rest of it. We think that this country is already over-governed, not under-governed.

Time and again the Government have made promises on these issues but have not been so good at keeping them. The Deputy Prime Minister said that after five years he would have cut road traffic: promise made, promise broken. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that our air is not for sale: promise made, promise broken. In 1999, MAFF set a target and said that it would avoid any major livestock disease outbreak: promise made, promise broken. The Prime Minister said that the Government had no plans to

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increase tax: promise made, promise broken. Labour told people in regional and rural communities up and down the land that things could only get better: promise made, promise broken. The Government have failed, failed and failed again. That is why the House should vote with enthusiasm for the Opposition amendment.

9.47 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The debate covered a wide range of subjects, but it is incredible that the shadow spokesman on transport made a speech but said barely a word about that subject. This is a man who, when he spoke to his party conference, said that he would shortly make proposals on transport—yet he said not a word about them. That sounds to me like a promise made and a promise broken. He has failed to deliver.

Inevitably, many Members spoke about matters covered by the Deputy Prime Minister and by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I shall say one or two words about that as a matter of courtesy to those hon. Members. Clearly, there is a lot of feeling about regional and local government. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) and my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), for Wigan (Mr. Turner), for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and for Caerphilly (Mr. David) referred to that subject. I have been in the House for 15 years, and it is surprising to hear Conservative Members' new-found devotion to local government. I spent the first 10 years of my time here listening to them attacking local government time after time, and talking about the abolition of councils, and the people's views did not seem to matter then.

A number of Members spoke about housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has often raised in the House, and with Ministers, the problems that his constituents face. Today, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions made a written statement on second homes. The answers to many of the questions raised by Opposition Members and others are in that statement; on those that are not, hon. Members will have the opportunity to put their points in the House in the usual way.

The rural economy was another subject that was raised, although strangely not in the opening speech of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). It was raised by the former leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—clearly a man who is enjoying having shaken off the responsibility of being Leader of the Opposition. He made an extremely witty speech. If I too had shaken off my responsibilities, I might agree with one or two things that he said.

As for the rural economy and agriculture—that subject was raised by the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), but he is not in his place now—this is not just a question of legislation. The Government are doing many things to help people who live in rural areas, and to try to help farmers to deal with very difficult circumstances—not only the aftermath of foot and mouth, but the long-term structural changes in agriculture.

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Other matters, too, were raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) mentioned the Communications Bill, and I am sure that there will be many occasions when the House can return to that subject and debate it.

As we approach the first of two Divisions on this Queen's Speech, it is strange that no Conservative Member has mentioned the economy today. Without a strong economy, there is no money to fund the public services—[Hon. Members: XThat was on Monday."] The economy is just on Monday, is it? It is on every day of the week, every week of the year. Only an Opposition who lost power because they had lost control of the economy could honestly believe that we only discuss the economy on Mondays.

What is also astonishing is that although in every debate on the Queen's Speech that I have heard for the past 15 years the Opposition have always divided the House on the economy, this year we have had no such Division. Do they agree with us? Have they no difficulties with the economy? Do they agree with our approach to it? It is astonishing that that should be the approach of the Conservative party.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), who speaks for the Opposition on transport—at least, some of the time—said at the Conservative party conference:

He also said:

but not on the economy—except on Mondays. He continued:

wait for it—

What a limit to the man's ambition. The Conservatives no longer aspire to be the party of government; they aspire to be the party of opposition. Perhaps that is why they discuss the economy only on Mondays and not on any other day of the week.

Without a strong economy, without the money necessary to finance our public services, we will not have the strong public services that most people want. The reason why we can invest in our public services is that we have a strong economy—the lowest inflation and the lowest long-term interest rates for 40 years and the lowest unemployment for 25 years, which shows that it is possible to have low inflation and high employment. We have rising levels of public investment year on year. That is why we have been able to recruit more police, more nurses, more teachers and more school support staff, and to put more money into transport. Those are all possible because of the deliberate decisions that we have taken both in relation to the economy and to invest in public services. And, as the Queen's Speech makes clear, that is all accompanied by measures to modernise and reform our public services—both are absolutely essential.

We have a clear purpose—a clear sense of direction. When we consider the Opposition amendment, on which we shall shortly vote, it is as well to remind ourselves of what was happening 10 years ago

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this year—15 per cent. interest rates, high unemployment, increasing poverty, increasing inequality, lack of opportunity, and a failing economy. Furthermore, 10 years ago this very year, the Tories were setting out on a monumentally expensive and botched rail privatisation. Unlike today, when the shadow Transport Secretary had precious little to say about transport, a few weeks ago he had something to say about Railtrack. He said at the Conservative party conference

I suppose that is the nearest we shall get to an apology from the hon. Gentleman: the transformation from the nasty party to the nice party. Then he promised that he would come up with new policies before the year was out. Well, the year has only six or seven weeks to go, and we cannot wait to hear the Conservative policy.

Critical to the continued success of our economy is the need to continue to improve our transport system. More people are in work. We are one of the largest economies in the world. People need and want to travel more and they can afford to do so. That means that we need to put more investment into our public transport, in rail and road, and we also need to ensure that we have an air transport system fit for the future. In the past, the promises of successive Governments were undermined when they either could not or would not find the money. That is why, for example, the west coast main line has not been upgraded since the 1960s or early 1970s. That is why there are problems right across the piece, in the railways and on the roads.

We now have a long-term investment plan over the next 10 years. We are getting to grips with the work that needs to be done. It will take a long time but improvements are beginning to come through.

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