Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), who made a thoughtful speech. Unlike the speeches from most Liberal Democrats, it contained no fresh spending commitments. I agreed with what he said about the future of our armed forces and the work that they are doing. I urge right hon. and hon. Members not to add fuel to the fire while we are waiting for the White Paper, because nothing is more draining on morale than hearing stories about the future of regiments.
During the first Gulf war, I worked with the then hon. Member for Stafford, now the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), when there was a threat to merge the Cheshires and the Staffordshire regiment. It was a totally false threat
Mr. Miller: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but it turned out to be a false threat. One might argue that that was a result of the campaigning of Members of this House, but the threat did a lot of damage to morale. I hope that my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence will think about these issues carefully after the publication of the White Paper. It is vital that we address that key issue, particularly while our armed forces are working in difficult environments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the current constitutional position, I welcome the further commitment to reform the House of Lords. We need to make it clear that, whatever happens in terms of the future structure and role of the House of Lords, the House of Commons must have primacy. We can no longer tolerate the ludicrous position where Bills from an elected Government with a substantial majority are subject to continual ping-pong backwards and forwards and attempts to wreck them in an unelected upper House.
I accept that there are experts in the other House and that we should be prepared to listen to advice and guidance from experienced people who have contributed a lot to the nation. However, it is outrageous that an unelected Chamber should seek to block proposed legislation.
My next point concerns a subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) intervened on the Prime Minister todayfoxhunting. I welcome the Prime Minister's commitment. The Lords must be told in no uncertain terms that they cannot continue to act in an undemocratic manner, as they did by abandoning the Hunting Bill. The will of the elected House must prevail.
Twenty years ago, I would have been of the view that the upper House should be wholly elected. However, that would weaken our ability to get the first category of people. I have moved towards the concept of an appointed upper House, mainly because I believe that the process of checks and balances can be better exercised by people with particular experience of the areas in which we are seeking to legislate. However, I very much resent the notion of any appointed House seeking to wreck legislation coming to it from this end of the Corridor.
In the past 12 months, substantial improvements have been made across the country, affecting our constituents in all sorts of ways. In my constituency, and across the whole nation, we are seeing record employment levels and the lowest unemployment in the G7. When I was elected in 1992, unemployment in my constituency was at least 20 per cent. in some patches and in the mid-teens on average. I would not have believed then that we would see unemployment down to 1.7 per cent., as it is today. The enthusiasm among the various agencies in that area ought to be commended, along with the partnerships with the private sector. The public and private sectors have worked brilliantly together in an attempt to drive down the unemployment figures.
We now have one of the lowest inflation rates in the EU and the lowest mortgage rates since the 1950scertainly pre-dating my mortgages. I can remember paying much higher rates under the previous Conservative Administration and I am sure the same is true across the country. Our economy is predicted to grow twice as fast as the rest of the EU this year, and the stability that has come from our economic policy has helped deliver the basis for real change. That ought to be welcomed.
Consequently, we have been able to release resources to invest in public services. We have record numbers of police officersthat is certainly the case in my area. However, we need to work out how those police officers are best used and how best to provide them with modern aids and resources to allow them to spend more time on the streets, fighting crime. They have been successful, and we have seen reductions in crime.
On the NHS, massive investment is being made in hospital facilities in and around my constituency, helping to contribute to the 300,000 extra operations that have taken place this year compared with 1997. On a very personal note, I pay tribute to the work that has gone on in cardiac technology. My younger brother recently had a major heart operation, and thanks to the fantastic brand-new facility in Swindon and then the Bristol royal infirmary, he is back on his feet and was discharged, amazingly, a day after his heart operation. That is an extraordinary reflection of how technology is impacting on our ability to deal with problems that might otherwise have killed.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) touched on Sure Start, which is a magnificent example of what can be done by drawing together agencies across the board that have not previously worked together in a co-ordinated way. I was delighted to attend the annual general meeting of the Ellesmere Port Sure Start yesterday. It was thrilling to see that people from so many agencies are working with the voluntary sector and with families and communities, and that they are excited about the impending projects. It was even more exciting to discover that HungaryI have connections with Hungary, on the Foreign Office's behalf, in respect of its efforts to accede to the European Unionhas started to emulate Sure Start. That reflects well on what is happening here in the UK.
We know from analysing the many unstructured comments of the Conservatives that they are trying to present the public with something of a false prospectus. I was anxious to intervene on the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was going on about referendums. I wondered whether, with hindsight, he thought that it might have been better to have had a referendum on the poll tax, given that he is now keen to have referendums on subjects such as which day of the week it is. The Tory claim that one can lower taxes and deliver more and better services sounds like a new piece of alchemy. We heard plenty of that from the right hon. and learned Gentleman. In essence, it is a black magic art, especially given that it came from a man who has "something of the night" about him. The notion that it is possible to get out more than one puts in seems to be based on an attempt to create a perpetual motion machine.
The Tories are about cuts, charges and privatisation, whereas the Liberal Democratswith the honourable exception of the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardineas usual, are about uncosted, unclear and unaffordable proposals. I was very interested to hear the way in which the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) approached the Gracious Speech. On several occasions, a couple of which I shall shortly cite, he carefully amended the facts or introduced concepts with no analysis whatever. For example, he spoke at length about the recent war and asserted that al-Qaeda has grown in strength since. I do not know what special intelligence briefings enable him to come to that conclusion. He may or may not be right, but it would have been interesting to hear the evidential basis for his assertion.
Similarly, when I intervened on the right hon. Gentleman, he referred to our policies on asylum and the apparent taking away of children from their parents in the context of "asylum seekers", but as he knows full well, the draft legislation will deal with failed asylum seekersthose who have gone through the entire process. Moreover, he is of course basing his speculation on press comment, rather than on published fact. Such poor choice of language has the propensity to mislead members of the public, and as parliamentarians we must be extremely careful about that.
The Gracious Speech represents a radical agenda of a reforming Government. It seeks to make communities more safe and secure; it addresses social justice and will create lifelong opportunities. Importantly, it deals with quality of life and economic stability, and starts to tackle the very difficult task of modernising our democracy.
Several Members have talked about the pension protection fund proposal, which is a very welcome step. Of course, several of us have dealt with extremely difficult pension cases over the yearsindeed, I suspect that half of us have had some dealings with such cases. H. H. Robertson, the steel manufacturing company in my constituency, went into liquidation just before the 1997 general election. I pay tribute to the then Trade Minister, the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), who was very prompt in referring the matter to the Serious Fraud Office. Such serious fraud ought to have been subject to a trial, under the terms of legislation such as that which we were debating last week. Had a pension protection fund been in place, my constituents and those in the surrounding constituencies would have benefited from it.
Given the nature of the proposed pension protection fund, larger funds will inevitably contribute proportionately larger amounts, so I suspect that the larger funds themselves might act as a better check and balance on the operation of some of the smaller ones. Had such a fund existed, perhaps H. H. Robertson would not have gone into liquidation, with £5 million owing to its pension fund, and neither I nor the Serious Fraud Office being able to do anything about it. The question of backdating also arises. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions has met various delegations. I congratulate him on having had the courage to attend the pension summit arranged by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), and on listening carefully to the proposals. The previous Government promised that the 1996 legislation would be the saviour of all pension funds, following the Maxwell collapse. That manifestly has not happened, and there is an argument for establishing whether there is some mechanism by which we can gain redress for those fund members who have lost out.
I turn now to the part of the Gracious Speech dealing with identity cards. We all have a pile of such cards in our back pocketsI counted nine in mineand they are covered by a single universal scheme. I spend a few pounds a year on mine so that, should I lose them, they can be cancelled and protected by a single phone call. I have absolutely no problem with consolidating everything on to one cardthat would make my wallet considerably thinnerbut I want to be in control of access to the various layers of information contained within it. The key to any ID card system is that we ensure that the user is in control of access.
Before we embark on the ID card exercise, we need to create a national change of address system like that used in other countries. Then, when one changes one's address, all the relevant state agenciesas agreed by the individual citizencan be automatically notified. It would have to be done only once instead of so many thousand times. Having such a mechanism in place would move us neatly in the right direction, which could help us to prevent people from entering into criminality and so forth.
Finally, I want to touch on the civil contingencies Bill, which is particularly important in a constituency such as mine, where there are many major hazard sites. I certainly praise companies and the fire brigade for the fantastic work that they do to protect citizens in and