Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman is making assertions about what is and is not in the Queen's Speech. In this case, he is talking about asylum seekers. Does he not mean failed asylum seekers? Would it not help the debate if he got his facts right? [Hon. Members: "Read the Speech."]

Mr. Kennedy: As my right hon. and hon. Friends are saying, the hon. Gentleman should read the Queen's Speech and the briefing that has accompanied it. There will be a big debate on that issue in which we will take part.

Reform—if that is the right word—of the House of Lords has to be a prime example of the political reformist fatigue that has set in in the Government. Indeed, it was the former Labour Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House who wrote recently with characteristic clarity that

As things stand, that is pretty much it in a nutshell. The Government cannot count on our co-operation if they eventually decide to proceed in that way. In the 21st century, there has to be a substantially democratic House of Lords. A Government with a majority of this scale, and with the political co-operation that would be open to them, should waste no further time before moving in that direction.

As we know, on the domestic agenda it is the education measures that will probably prove the most controversial. I suspect that as we discuss these matters in the coming weeks and months, Liberal Democrats will speak for a number of Labour Members—perhaps including Ministers—who feel unable to speak out in public themselves. We should remember the survey recently completed by Barclays bank, which estimates that if the proposals on tuition fees and top-up fees go through, by 2010 the average student who—if they are lucky—gets a degree will have £33,000 of indebtedness wrapped around their neck. In Scotland, where the Prime Minister's party and ours have co-operated under a different system, there has been a 10 per cent. increase

26 Nov 2003 : Column 36

in potential applications to universities. In England, the equivalent figure is 1 per cent. People cannot tell me that the two different systems are unrelated, given the impact on students.

The Conservatives take a different approach that is equally unappealing. They favour the scrapping of fees, which is all well and good, but they would fund the deficit by cutting large numbers of university places. Indeed, the experience in Scotland was that in order to maintain the base of opportunity, one had to be willing to put more money into the system, as well as to implement a different policy. That experience has implications. I know that, of late, the Prime Minister is very fond of rubbishing Liberal Democrat economic approaches—in fact, he has been at it for years: he rubbished them when my predecessor was leader—but at least we are honest enough to say, "The very best off in society should incrementally pay that little bit more, but here are the priorities that it will be spent on." I offer the Prime Minister a deal; indeed, I offer it to the Conservative leader as well, with a view to the next general election. As we have done in the past, we will submit those proposals to public scrutiny by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. I wonder whether the other two are willing to do the same.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a review of the Barnett formula might finance the removal of top-up fees from English universities?

Mr. Kennedy: Our party has argued for many years that there should be a review of the Barnett formula. We want a needs-based formula that is transparent, but that is not how it works at the moment. For example, we currently try to compare the provision of education services in Cornwall with the amount of money that can be put into policing inner-city Newcastle. The formula is opaque, controlled by Whitehall and not subject to the level of regional negotiation that is the norm in Germany, for example, with its Lander system. We want more movement towards regionalism and decentralisation, and the fairer funding that goes with it. That is the way to win public consent for the important changes that need to be made.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kennedy: I am sorry, but I want to conclude my remarks.

Obviously, our approach would have been very different. We would not have paved the way for top-up fees. We would have implemented the measure used in Scotland, through which the abolition of tuition fees has been achieved.

At the other end of the age spectrum, which is equally important, we would have introduced free personal care for the elderly. The Sutherland report recommended it, and one part of the United Kingdom demonstrated that the political will exists to implement it. There is no reason why that political will cannot find a similar reflection at Westminster, and no reason for it not to be delivered in the rest of the UK.

26 Nov 2003 : Column 37

We would also want to abolish the council tax, which is increasingly unfair to people on low incomes, particularly pensioners. It is high time—

Mr. Redwood rose—

Mr. Kennedy: No, I am not giving way. It is high time that we replaced the council tax, which is regressive and unfair, with a local income tax based on people's ability to pay, which would be cheaper to collect. We need a fairer tax system and I have suggested how people at the better-off end of society could make a graduated contribution. We also need cuts in red tape and less over-centralisation in Whitehall, which we believe could release significant savings to put into improving front-line services, which would benefit people in the country as a whole.

Mr. Redwood rose—

Mr. Kennedy: No, I am coming to my final sentence.

There is a great absence yet again from the Queen's Speech. Governments are busy institutions, but the criticism applies to many Government statements. Successive Queen's Speeches have failed to advance the environmental agenda. That tells us a lot about the level of priority of the Government of the day. If we could, we would certainly introduce measures today to enhance environmental protection and sustainable energy.

The new circumstances of British politics in this new Parliament offer people a genuine choice. The divide or choice in British politics is increasingly between adopting a more liberal approach to politics and policies or an increasingly instinctive illiberal approach. I certainly know what side of the fence I feel most comfortable on. Increasingly, that is the side of the fence to which the British public are warming.

4.27 pm

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): While Members leave the Chamber, I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) and for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) on their excellent speeches in the finest tradition of the House.

I want to welcome the Queen's Speech, which provides the final opportunity for the Government to complete a full programme in advance of the next general election. It is exceedingly important that the measures introduced will be readily understood and identified with in the country—in other words, strike a chord with people's feelings about how the country is currently governed, about the conditions under which people go to work, and how they are educated in their schools and colleges, as well as about how they live generally.

The Labour party is about to embark on a perhaps historic enterprise—checking with the people of this country what should form the basis of future policies. I hope that those policies will provide a basis for the next Labour Government. Today, those privileged to be in the House can take the opportunity to set out some of our ideas, views and thoughts in advance of the so-called consultation programme.

26 Nov 2003 : Column 38

I feel that the Labour party in government has made some significant advances for people who are less well off in this country. Redistributive policies have assisted families considerably. Our policies on education and health have improved immeasurably the services that we enjoy. They are now better than at any other time in my life.

I was born before the second world war, and I remember going to the local doctor and mother or father paying five shillings for tablets. I have grown up with the health service and the welfare state, and I have seen the many faults that the welfare state has developed over the years, dependency being perhaps the most problematic. Those of us with a soft heart—I am one of them—believe that we should do the best for people in all circumstances. Unfortunately, not all the people for whom we wish to do the best respond in like manner, so we need a tough as well as a tender approach to the modern world, to the place that people inhabit, and to their mores, their habits and their culture.

The improvements have been profound, though. After six years of Labour rule, things are by no means perfect, but progress has certainly been maintained, and has been speeded up in some ways. However, the light has often been hidden under a bushel. I have knocked on doors and asked young women with families whether they are doing well, and heard them respond, "Not too bad." I ask them whether they are getting family support through the income tax system and they say, "What's that?" I ask them whether their earnings have gone up recently, perhaps by £30 or £40, and they answer, "Oh, yes. I'm getting £70 more." When I ask how they think that came about, they reply, "It's in my salary cheque." They make no connection between the welfare of individuals that they have earned through their efforts at wealth creation, and the welfare for which the Government may be responsible, through the creation of the environment, systems and circumstances that benefit people who are not well paid.

That is not true of the Labour party alone; I can tell Opposition Members that with their parties, too, there is a disconnection between what politics does and what people understand and experience. We have to make that connection again, in all circumstances. We must ensure that people are inspired, not turned off, by political parties, yet we—both the Government and the Opposition—seem unable to get across the simplest messages. It does not concern me much that the Opposition's message does not get across, but in the great scheme of things, it is important that people understand the nature of politics and the difference that it can make to the society that they inhabit. Without that, the democratic process will not be enhanced. Indeed, it will begin to fail, as to some extent it already has.

I believe that democracy is the greatest force for progress that the world has ever known or ever will know. When people want to know more, when they are curious and interested, they are at their best. That is when they drive on the process and, ultimately, take care of their own welfare through their own efforts.

Next Section

IndexHome Page