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Tony Baldry: Yes, absolutely. Labour Members of Parliament cannot be surprised to hear that there is increasing disenchantment when pensioners and others who are not well off in our society find themselves drawn into an increasingly complex means-related, means-tested benefit system, which they find very convoluted.
Finally, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition mentioned earlier, we are about to seeallegedlyreferendums for regional government, which the Government seem determined to introduce. We now have an unelected regional planning authority for the south-east. In Oxfordshire we have very little in common with Hastings and Dover, and Kent and Sussex, and we find the idea that more and more decisions affecting Banbury and Bicester will be made in Dorking and Guildford increasingly alien. The idea that regional government will bring greater local democracy is a great mistake. Regional administrations will remove local democracy.
Any regional assembly in the south-east would leave Oxfordshire isolated, left on the edge by another remote tier of central, not local, government. I very much hope that the Government will recognise that, rather than undermining district and county councils, these tiers of local government have worked well for many years and should continue to work. Local minds should be put to local matters wherever possible, so when Ministers tour the country, telling people they are listening to the "conversations" that they are having with local people, perhaps Ministers should remember that it is local government, not they, that has the best record of standing up for people's needs.
At the end of the day, the Government will be judged not on the number of Bills they manage to force through Parliament during the legislative year but on whether they do actually enhance social justice and improve public services. On the basis of their immediate past record and of the proposals in the Gracious Speech, I do not think we should hold our breath and expect that either social justice or improved public services will be seen in the coming year.
Ross Cranston (Dudley, North) (Lab): The Gracious Speech is a useful occasion for stocktaking because it enables us to reflect on the Government's legislative intentions in the context of what has gone before and what may happen in future. Of course it provides only an incomplete audit of legislative activity, quite apart from other measures that may be laid before us, since so much effort these days is expressed through secondary legislation. Moreover, a great deal of Government activity occurs through administrative effort and public spending, which is not directly related to legislation.
If it is to be effective, Government activity must accord with a philosophical position, even if that is only to keep the ship of state afloat. The Government's prospectus will be published on Friday, and I hope that the specific proposals will be placed in a more philosophical context. None the less, I think that we can appreciate the measures in the Gracious Speech, because they do fit into a framework, I would argue, that can be generally described as designed to produce a more socially just and civil society worked by modern institutions.
First, I want to say something about the constitutional measures in the speech. Historians looking back on what has occurred since 1997 will see a period of very significant constitutional changechanges to our Parliament, the devolution of legislative powers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the protection of individual rights through measures such as the Human Rights Act 1998. That constitutional change continues with the proposals in the speech for the abolition of hereditary peers. The justification for the hereditary principle for parliamentarians has long since gone. If individuals who are hereditary peers have a contribution to make, they should do so as life peers or as elected Members of this place, such as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso).
I shall say a few words about the proposed changes to the justice systemthe establishment of the judicial appointments commission and the supreme court. I declare my interest as a barrister and a recorder. These proposals have already been subject to considerable debate. Their goal is to widen the pool for judicial appointments while retaining the merit principle, and they are designed to end the perceived anomaly that our most senior judges are part of the legislature. The new arrangements will need to be carefully constructed and will need to avoid unintended consequences. I shall confine my remarks to judicial appointments.
First, I foresee an initial period in which outstanding candidates will be reluctant to apply for judicial appointment. Successful members of the Bar, for instance, may not risk the potential blight to their career if they apply unsuccessfully. Reputation, at the Bar, is everything. That necessitates a mechanism of head-hunting, to ensure that those inhibited from applying are encouraged to do so.
Secondly, committees are typically unimaginative and risk averse. It is always a salutary experience to re-read C. Northcote Parkinson's accounts of the principles of selection, the point of vanishing interest and palsied paralysis. Given those characteristics of committees, there needs to be a corrective mechanism if
Frankly, I can see the necessary corrective mechanism that I have mentioned coming only from the Secretary of State having the discretion to initiate candidates before the commission and to choose between names advanced by the commission for appointment. Of course, there is a fear that ministerial discretion will give rise to political interference, so undermining judicial independence, but the current mechanisms for accountability, including the media, are strong enough to ensure that that does not occur.
Thirdly, in any event, there needs to be ministerial discretion in appointments if legitimacy is to be maintained. Unless there is some political involvement in appointments, we politicians will, at the very least, have fewer inhibitions in relation to criticising the judiciary. So, somewhat ironically, I am at one on this issue with Judgeformerly ProfessorPosner of the United States, who argues that political involvement in the appointment process protects the tenure of judges during their judicial life.
Let me turn to the public sector and how it pursues the philosophical aims of social justice and strengthening civil society. The public sector has an important regulatory role in pursuing social justice. I am pleased that the employment relations Bill will make it illegal for employers to offer financial inducements to exclude individuals from the fruits of collective bargaining. I welcome, too, the company law Bill, which will strengthen the investigatory powers of Department of Trade and Industry inspectors when they are inquiring into corporate wrongdoing. I am especially pleased that the Bill will provide potential whistleblowers with legal protection from accusations of breach of confidence.
I also welcome the Bill that will encourage employers to provide good occupational pension schemes and establish a protection fund to safeguard employees when those employers fail. My hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) have already mentioned that. Unfortunately, the measure will not be retrospective, so it will leave high and dry a number of my constituents who have contributed faithfully to occupational pension funds for up to 30 years and have received nothing, but who find that the directors of the failed companies have protected their own pension rights. The Government have to address that serious problem.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned the corporate manslaughter Bill, which has been promised many times and which must be one of the other measures to be laid before us. Perhaps my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench need to say, perhaps in a modified version of the Book of Common Prayer, "Lord, let me know the number of my days, that I may be certified how long I have to legislate." We promised such a Bill in 1997.
The public services also have an important role in providing universal services, which can have an ameliorative effect on social inequalities and provide a foundation for a strengthened sense of community. In the last few days, the No. 10 strategy unit has published a detailed document that demonstrates that substantial and significant progress has been made as a result of the investment and administrative changes made by the Government over the past six years. That refutes the points made by various Opposition Members. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out a number of the achievements.
The strategy unit document mentions steady improvements in education resultsin reading, maths and scienceand in health outcomes, such as the 19 per cent. reduction in cardiac deaths and the 9 per cent. reduction in cancer deaths since 1997. Crime, too, is down a quarter, in part reflecting investment in law enforcement. Many of those improvements in the impact of public services result from spending power and administrative changes that are only tangentially reflected in legislation.
In that context, let me say something about the proposed Bill to allow universities to levy higher tuition fees. Last week, I received my copy of the newsletter, "Harvard Law Today", which announced that the current Harvard law school general fund-raising campaign launched in June this year has already clocked up $170 million. The programme is designed to raise $400 million in the next year, and I am sure that that will be achieved. That is but a small part of the enormous funds available to Harvard law school, which is one part of one American university. Our universities cannot compete with that sort of money, which buys brains and facilities.
We need more money to be invested in our universities, and the only way to do that is to charge those who are able to pay for their university education. That is socially equitable. The great majority of my constituents do not have a university education and are on incomes below the national average. Historically, they have subsidised the better-off elsewhere to go to university. It makes sense for different universities to charge different fees for different courses, and for universities to be able to charge different amounts. That would reflect both the cost of different courses and the returns to students from those different courses in different universities. The Government's proposals are consistent with social justice since students pay only on graduation, when they receive the financial benefits of their qualifications. Moreover, their payments will be linked to earnings. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has patiently developed a fair and practical deferred fee system. The yellow brick roads of the Opposition parties are precisely that: roads to fantasy lands.
Finally, let me to turn to the advancement of individual opportunity and rights, as set out in the Queen's Speech. The child trust fund will have an initial endowment, with a higher amount for poorer children, so, as the Queen's Speech states, children will have an asset to draw on when they reach the age of 18. I support that innovative idea. I am pleased that there will be a Bill to introduce a new form of company designed especially
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) mentioned the proposals on domestic violence. I applaud the proposal to appoint a children's commissioner in England. Moreover, the victims Bill will create a commissioner to champion the rights of victims and witnesses. That is especially welcome to those of us who want the criminal justice system to be reoriented in favour of those who actually suffer at the hand of defendants, while not trenching on defendants' rights.
I want to say something about the proposed Bill to deal with the rights of the disabled. I am honorary president of the Blue Badge Network, which safeguards the concessionary parking permit for people with disabilities. Its head office is based in Dudley. The blue badge scheme is vital for the mobility of more than 2 million people who qualify for it. It allows those with disabilities to shop, visit friends and family and so on, but it is open to abuse, often by able-bodied motorists. It has been estimated that about 700,000 fraudulent abuses of the badge take place each year. Badges are copied, borrowed, stolen or sold on the black market, so places are used by able-bodied people. That devalues and discredits the scheme in the eyes of the public, so harming the people whom it was designed to help. I therefore hope that the draft disability discrimination Bill will include legislative measures, which the Government have promised, designed to remedy that problem, such as giving powers for police officers, traffic wardens and parking attendants to check the details of a badge and providing for penalty notices to be issued to vehicle owners who park in spaces designated for badge holders.
I turn to the civil partnership Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green for her contribution when she was in government and to the work of Lord Lester. This issue has been subject to extensive consultation, and I am not sure what numerical weight can be attached to the responses, as there were orchestrated campaigns both for and against the proposals. It is important to state what the Bill will not do. It will not create a form of gay marriage. Instead, it will sensibly set out the rights and responsibilities that will flow when same-sex couples register their relationships. They include, for example, rights to welfare benefits, parental responsibility and what happens to benefits and property following the death of one of the individuals involved.
My puzzle, however, is that the Bill will not extend to opposite-sex couples. It is not enough to say that opposite-sex couples can attain legal rights and status for their relationships through marriage when the statistics clearly demonstrate that many opposite-sex couples cohabit but choose not to marry. Moreover, it seems that some unmarried opposite-sex couples are still
The courts have done their best to grapple with the consequences of such cohabitation when there is a breakdown of the relationship or the death of one of the partners and the other party is left financially vulnerable or unable to claim ownership of the property to which they both contributed in the course of the relationship. It is high time that this problem was addressed. When the Law Commission examined the issue a couple of years ago, it identified the registration of civil partnerships as a way forwardprecisely what this Bill would confine to same-sex relationships.