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8.29 pm

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the first day of the new Session, as I have done ever since I became a Member of this place. It is nice to see some of the same people in the Chamber, making some of the same comments, year after year.

Given my interest in energy conservation, I am especially pleased that the Queen's Speech contains an energy Bill. Last year, I was lucky enough to be able to take a private Member's Bill through the House, and luckier still to see it become the Sustainable Energy Act 2003. It called for targets to be set for energy efficiency and renewables, and I am very pleased that the Government have accepted that. I hope that the introduction of the energy Bill will silence some of the critics who have accused the Government, in their attitude to the White Paper and to my Bill, of being long on talk without delivering anything. I hope that the energy Bill will allow the Government to demonstrate the importance of energy conservation and of a sensible renewable energy policy.

Interestingly, the Opposition seemed to have a different spokesperson whenever I brought my private Bill to this Chamber or before the Standing Committee. I note that energy has been demoted even further in the recently announced shadow team.

In that connection, I draw the House's attention to early-day motion 96, set down today with 179 signatures. It calls on the Government to set an energy efficiency target, under my Act, with the aim of making 5 megatonnes of carbon savings per annum by 2010. It will be important, when the Government bring forward their energy Bill, to highlight that.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), I welcome the introduction of draft legislation on identity cards. I welcome the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in his statement of 11 November to engage in a sensible and thoughtful debate on the matter. Such a debate is needed. Some people oppose identity cards strongly, and fear an incremental creep towards a Big Brother state. That is a genuine fear, and it needs to be tackled. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) said, the use of cards brings benefits when it comes to accessing public services.

At the moment, the same data about people are stored in a number of locations. The data are relevant to various Departments and Government agencies, and are often subject to various anomalies and mistakes. Providing the information repeatedly increases the risk of error and the insecurity of the data. In an increasingly global marketplace, identity fraud and theft are becoming easier. The danger is growing, and criminals are reaping greater rewards. We must find new ways to tackle the problem, and the debate on identity cards provides an opportunity for that.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has promised that the identity card scheme will be evaluated properly. In that connection, I draw the Government's attention to the credit card industry, where identity verification technology has existed, and been continually developed, for a long time. I urge the Government to look at what the private sector is doing. They should not try to reinvent the wheel as a square,

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with the Home Office working to develop its own system. The Government should engage with the private sector, create a true public-private partnership, and use the technology that already exists. If I am lucky enough to be a member of the Standing Committee considering that Bill, I hope to expand on some of those points.

The legislative programme announced today reaffirms the Government's commitment to fairness and equality. The proposals on civic partnerships and on disability are to be welcomed. They would certainly transform the rights and opportunities available to disabled people in my constituency.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman believe that many disabled people—and their supporters—are very concerned about having a single disability Act? Disabled people have particular needs. Some disabilities are dynamic by nature, while others can be acquired. Disabled people do not make up a single group, capable of being covered by one piece of legislation. Does the hon. Gentleman have any observations to make on behalf of disabled people?

Brian White: As in any proposal, there are dangers if we get it wrong. If that happens, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) may have a point. However, the key is that we recognise the issues and needs faced by disabled people. The debate on the Bill will allow us to move matters forward. There are many things that could be improved, and I am confident that the Bill will take us forward. I recognise the potential dangers that the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, but the fact that he has highlighted them means that we should be able to avoid them.

I have sat on two pre-legislative scrutiny Committees, one a Select Committee, and the other a Joint Committee. I am therefore very aware of the improvements that can be made to Bills. I especially welcome the fact that seven of the Bills announced today will be published in the form of draft legislation. That will save Parliament's time, and enable people to get to the issues involved—such as the point about disability made by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings—in a far more open way. I urge the Government to consider using pre-legislative scrutiny for the Bill on top-up fees and higher education. Top-up fees are controversial and would benefit from the utmost scrutiny by all parties so that the final proposals have no inadvertent consequences. Given that we have said that we will not implement the legislation until after the next election, there is no time barrier to such scrutiny.

Pre-legislative scrutiny would change the debate from the present media speculation about who might rebel to a proper consideration of the issues. The Queen's Speech contained the announcement that up-front tuition fees will be abolished, but all the media want to talk about is tuition fees going up. On the doorsteps of a middle England constituency such as mine, people say that they oppose top-up fees. When asked what they would put in their place, they describe most of what the

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Government intend to do for higher education. There is a disconnection in the debate that a draft Bill and pre-legislative scrutiny would help to resolve.

Mr. Brazier: In encounters on the doorstep with constituents, has anyone argued strongly in favour of the current phase of expansion of higher education? It will cost more than top-up fees will raise.

Brian White: In a constituency such as mine, which relies on high technology and a skilled work force to compete in the global economy, the skills and the dynamism of universities are necessary. In 1975, when I left school, I received an offer of a place on a degree course at Sheffield and an offer of a job on the same day. At the time, unemployment was more than 500,000, so I chose the job rather than the course. Whether that was the right decision is a matter for history, but we need the skilled work force that is provided by lifelong learning opportunities. University is not something that happens only between the ages of 18 and 21. It should be a continuous process.

The research that universities do is important, and we need to take account of the wide range of skills and give people opportunities. One of the dangers of a system that restricts opportunities is that talent is wasted. People in my constituency understand all too well that if we are to provide opportunities for their children we have to widen access to higher education.

Tom Levitt: I agree with what my hon. Friend says on this issue, but does he realise the significance of this moment? We have just had official confirmation from a Tory Front Bencher that the Conservatives oppose the expansion of higher education.

Brian White: That should not come as a surprise to my hon. Friend, given that the Conservatives always look backwards, never forwards.

I have the largest university in the country in my constituency in the Open university. After the NHS, the Open university is the best gift that a Labour Government have given to the people of this country. Given that the Open university has many part-time students, including many who have had to find alternative ways into higher education, we must not lose that jewel in the crown of higher education. The future of the OU is crucial to the Government's proposals.

Mr. Brazier: My party has made it clear that it is not happy with the most recent phase of expansion in higher education. As someone who represents two universities and an excellent tertiary college, I see great scope for putting more emphasis on vocational training for those skills that are needed directly in the marketplace at present.

Brian White: I am sure that if the Government accept my proposals for a draft pre-legislative scrutiny committee, proposals of the type that the Opposition are making will be well tested and rejected.

Much of last Session was dominated by the misjudgments over Iraq. It is vital that we help to rebuild Iraq, but we must not do it at the expense of other countries, and we should not walk away. However, one

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question that I have about the rebuilding of Iraq is, under which economic policies it will be rebuilt? Will it be under the "caring conservative" policies of George Bush, which brought 3 million more unemployed to the United States, turned a budget surplus into a deficit and introduced protectionist measures, linked aid to abortion policies, scorned international treaties and undermined international institutions, introduced tax cuts for a few and brought misery to millions by the decimation of public services? Or will Iraq be rebuilt under economic policies of the type put forward by our Government, who have kept us out of the world recession—ours is the only major nation not to fall into the world recession—maintained the lowest interest rates for a generation, put 1.5 million more people into work, created a cleaner environment, introduced a minimum wage and better working conditions, increased aid to developing nations and invested massively in rebuilding our public services?

It is the economy that is crucial, and one of the dangers of being too closely involved with the Bush Administration is that it gives credibility to the Conservative economic policies that would be a disaster for our economy. As we saw earlier today, leopards do not change their spots, and those people who say there is no difference between the parties should just look at what happened in the US with the election of a Republican Government committed to "caring conservative" policies and just look at what the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said today and the damage it would do if he were ever to form a Conservative Government in this country.

I welcome the omission of any reference to a draft civil service Bill. I take that to mean that the Government have recognised the inherent problems that such a Bill would create. The Public Administration Committee is conducting an inquiry into a draft Bill at the moment and was asking witnesses to define a civil servant, which is kind of important in the context of a civil service Bill. Various descriptions were offered but there was no single definition on which everyone could agree. I am pleased that there is unlikely to be time in this Session for a civil service Bill, not only because it would apply to Whitehall only, but because it would neglect the good work that is being done in the public services and the dedicated public servants who are working in the NHS, in schools and throughout the public services, and who are delivering high-quality services day by day. All that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe did in his speech was to denigrate the hard work and commitment of those people; they will remember that.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), I regret the omission of proposals for a hunting Bill and I hope that the Government will bring such a Bill back under the Parliament Acts.

Finally, I want to raise two key issues. The first, which my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) highlighted, is the need for more affordable housing; the housing Bill will address that. A decent home is a fundamental right and today's package of measures is

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particularly welcome, especially the Government's proposals to introduce a system of national licensing for houses in multiple occupation.

It is important that we get the legislation right, but one aspect has been too often neglected in the House: we are very good at passing legislation but not particularly good at reviewing it, and we are not particularly good at the delivery end. If we do not have the resources for enforcement or, more important, if local authorities do not have the political will to implement it, no amount of legislation will solve the problem. I urge the Minister, as the Bill goes through, to ensure that the provision of resources—the implementation—goes in parallel with the passage of the legislation through this place. Delivery must be integral to legislation instead of following on, as has been the past practice. That has been especially true of the culture of the Home Office. Over the years the Home Office has generated lots of laws, but it has neglected to give active attention to the manner in which they are implemented. That was never more clear than when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe was in charge of the Home Office.

There is no point in introducing new asylum measures if the competencies of the immigration and nationality directorate are not raised to deal with them. I shall highlight one important aspect, although there are many. A lot of people have been through the appeals system, including the second level, and their appeals have been rejected. They are told that their appeals have failed, and no one ever contacts them again. They are not deported. They are not told what they can and cannot do. They are just left in limbo—sometimes for years, with no word from the Home Office, simply because it does not get its act together. That Department needs to address that far more than any of the issues raised in the legislation proposed in today's Queen's Speech. If nothing else, I urge the Minister to take on board the consequences of legislation in relation to the delivery mechanisms in Departments.

This is a good Queen's Speech. It builds on what we have done so far, and it concentrates on bread-and-butter issues, which is welcome. It will make the daily lives of my constituents better. It shows the challenges that we face and forces us to look to the future. It also shows a clear divide between how the Labour Government are investing in our communities and the nit-picking Opposition. The comments made by the Opposition tonight show what a future we would have if they were ever to form a Government. I hope that the message that comes from today's Queen's Speech is that this important set of proposals will benefit the lives of my constituents.

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