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7.59 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): It is always a great pleasure and delight to follow the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter). He brings refreshing honesty and insight to the affairs of the Chamber whenever he speaks. Before I begin my peroration, I must apologise to the House. I explained to the Chair that I would not be present for the opening speeches. I was not able to hear the words of wisdom of the Front-Bench spokesmen, but I hope that that will not limit my contribution too much.

The Government offer some encouraging things in the Queen's Speech. There has not been a Queen's Speech in history that does not have some good things in it, and it would be churlish not to recognise that. Indeed, it is important to point out that the Government have done many good things since 1997. Every Government have their achievements and triumphs. It ill behoves Opposition Members not to acknowledge that fact, and if there were more acknowledgement of each of our qualities, perhaps politicians would be regarded rather better than they generally are.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead said that he thought that the last Conservative Government were rather like a Jackson Pollock painting. I regard this Government as being more like a Damien Hirst work of art: apparently unwholesome, probably sinister, certainly ugly and never offering value for money.

Mr. McWalter: In fact, I was quoting my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), who said that this Government, not the last Conservative Government, were like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Mr. Hayes: On balance, I prefer Jackson Pollock to Damien Hirst, but perhaps both descriptions can be made of this Government, and people can choose which they prefer.

Of course, many major changes are planned in this Queen's Speech. The problem is that most of them are irrelevant to the priorities of the British people. I see that the coming year is to be the year of the regions. According to a Cabinet Office press release, even the civil contingencies Bill

I see also that the proposed fire services Bill will, according to the White Paper, reconstitute the fire services on a regional basis.

The grand panjandrum of regionalisation, the Deputy Prime Minister, has an even greater project in mind than regional fire services, if there could be such a thing. He wants regional assemblies. Regionalisation is the apotheosis of double-speak: the proposal is billed as a decentralisation measure, but the regions will take powers not from central Government but local government. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead is right to say that power is best when it is closest to people,

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accountable to them and in touch with their needs, and represents their hopes and protects them from what they least wish to see. Regionalisation will be thoroughly unsuccessful in that pursuit because people feel no affinity with regions.

The hon. Gentleman was right in what he said about parish councils because people feel a close affinity with their local parish. They probably feel in touch with their local district, and they have a sense of pride in their county, but what of regions? People in Lincolnshire no more look to the east midlands, to Derby, Leicester and Nottingham, than they do to Aberdeen or Penzance. Regionalisation will fail because its legitimacy is bogus; there is no relationship between the people and these regions. For that reason, if for no other, I argue against regionalisation.

The truth of the matter is that powers on planning, land use, environment policy, public health and fire services are, if the Government have their way, more likely to be taken upwards than brought down to a local level. They will be removed from local councils to regional assemblies. The county tier of local government is to be abolished. That is centralisation, not decentralisation. It is an absurd idea and one clearly driven by bureaucratic tidiness, not the needs of local communities.

Regionalisation is a deeply boring subject, even in my hands, and I do not think that the Deputy Prime Minister, with all his powers and skills as an entertainer, will rouse the British people to the slightest expression of interest in this pet project. Conservative Members, however, will not be apathetic about regionalisation. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, we will fight the Government's proposals with all our might to preserve the powers and responsibilities of local councils—be they Labour or Conservative—and local councillors of whatever party, who for the most part do a splendid job in standing up for the people they represent.

Mr. McWalter: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although people in Hertfordshire have a strong Hertfordshire identity, they are massively affected by the proximity of London and need devices to ensure that the shockwaves in London that regularly make their lives more difficult are properly addressed? That alone suggests the need for a more powerful tier of government.

Mr. Hayes: There are already structural links between different authorities. There are already formal and informal arrangements to deal effectively with such cross-cutting issues. The system works effectively for the most part, and if it ain't broke, why should we even try to fix it? This will certainly not be a fix. I do not deny the hon. Gentleman's point. There is a case for proper collaboration on grand issues and big problems, but that is not sufficient cause to get rid of these important bodies, which inspire affinity and are accountable to local people, as the hon. Gentleman argued forcefully and persuasively in his earlier remarks.

Mr. Randall : Being a London Member, I am not entirely sure of some things, but my hon. Friend is a great expert so he may be able to help me. The regional

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centre for Hemel Hempstead, like Watford, is Cambridge, and would not that cause even more difficulties than the London effect, it being so far away?

Mr. Hayes: Indeed. I am delighted to accept my hon. Friend's advice about the details of the Hertfordshire plan. Certainly in the case of my own proposed region, it is likely that Lincolnshire would be isolated, both literally and culturally. Lincolnshire and its needs would be on the edge of an east midlands region, and because of finance and population, power would centre around Nottingham, Leicester and Derby. I suspect that many of the issues pertinent to my constituents and my county would not figure large in the considerations of the region.

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

Mr. Hayes: I will briefly take another intervention before I turn to housing, about which I shall speak at enormous length.

Mr. Challen: The hon. Gentleman spoke powerfully in favour of retaining county councils. Would he therefore welcome the return of the West Yorkshire metropolitan county council, perhaps based on a referendum? That would be democratic, would it not?

Mr. Hayes: Not being a Yorkshireman, I never get involved in Yorkshire affairs because I know that people from that part of the world guard their independence jealously. Whatever I said would probably be wrong, so it is better to move swiftly on to housing.

The Queen's Speech proposes a major housing Bill, and I want to deal with four or five specific issues that are likely to loom large in our considerations. The first is the much vaunted sellers' packs. The problem with them, or at least the first problem, is that we are told that a flat rate will be applied. The cost will take no account of the value of the property being sold. Buyers of houses of all prices will face the same likely price increase, as sellers seek to recoup their outlay on the pack. Those who are buying the cheapest houses, which are also likely to be the least sound, and who therefore most require an assurance that the property is sound, will face the same price increase as all other house buyers.

Neither are the sellers' packs likely to deal with the problem of gazumping. In The Times on 15 November, Simon Tyler of Chase de Vere Mortgage Management said:

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), whom I see in his place, said:

I wholeheartedly agree.

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How will sellers' packs impact on housing shortages? The National Association of Estate Agents remains critical. Its chief executive, Peter Bolton King, is concerned about the delay that the pack will cause in placing houses on the market.

On 27 November, he said:

Potential sellers will be unable to place their house on the market until they have received a pack. That will restrict not only the seller, but the prospective buyer too, by limiting choice. It will escalate the problem of housing shortages by reducing the number of houses on the market at any one time.

What is the housing Bill likely to say about development? We know that the South East England Development Agency has been set up to compete to bring development to its area. That will increase demand for housing in the region that already has the highest housing demand in the country and where the infrastructure is already under pressure and creaking. Meanwhile, there is a growing problem of empty housing in other parts of the country, especially the north of England. We have all seen and read about the problems, and those who represent places a long way from London know them well. The provisions of the housing Bill will not be helpful to development and the competition between regions is likely to put more emphasis on unhelpful changes in development, when we should be spreading the bubble of prosperity outwards from the south-east to the most deprived and depressed areas, which need a shot in the arm.

There is also concern in the industry that giving social housing grants directly to developers—an interesting idea that is certainly worthy of exploration—must be implemented through a focused approach, properly controlled and regulated and integrated into the bigger picture of housing and community development. There is concern that European legislation may challenge that policy if it involves giving state aid to the private sector. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister who winds up the debate has to say about that. The National Housing Federation remains sceptical, saying that the proposal to fund private developers to build social housing

My argument is not that we should rule such a policy out, but that if it is done it must be done in a systematic, considered and focused way. It is not good enough simply to give money to private developers and hope that they will build decent houses in the right places to meet demand sensibly.

Representatives of the National Housing Federation are concerned that the Treasury is undertaking an efficiency review—we all know what that is a euphemism for—of the cost of social housing. It is rumoured that the Treasury wants to reduce that cost by approximately 15 per cent. The Housing Commission is advocating standardisation of housing design and a reduction in the number of developing associations. The effect of such a proposal would be to make all the occupants of social housing immediately identifiable within communities—they would be identified and stigmatised. That is

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especially unjust in the case of disabled people. If it is built to a single design throughout Britain, housing for disabled people will be immediately recognisable as such. That is not a positive way to integrate people of all kinds into communities.

There are also strong concerns about the availability of social housing for disabled people. Adapting houses to be accessible by disabled people presents a massive challenge. I fear that the housing Bill will not adequately address that problem. A one-size-fits-all approach is not fair, just or acceptable. It is thought that between 6.8 million and 8.5 million disabled people live in the UK—it is difficult to arrive at a precise figure because disability covers a wide range of conditions. We know that the number of disabled people has increased substantially in the past 20 years. Research suggests that between 35 and 45 per cent. of wheelchair users consider their current housing and support inadequate. More than 8,000 young adult wheelchair users live in care homes that were designed primarily for a different client group—usually elderly people. The housing Bill must make provision to deal with those problems. Coupled with the single standard housing design that I mentioned, ignoring wheelchair-accessible housing fails disabled people by excluding them from choosing where they want to live and forcing them to rely on a lucky dip to find a suitably accessible home.

What is the housing Bill likely to do in respect of homelessness? Housing associations argue that they do not have enough freedom to generate a social mix within any one area. The problem with giving priority solely to homeless people in the granting of housing is that they tend to end up all living in the same neighbourhood. Homeless people need to be integrated into communities; they should not be separated and stigmatised. There are real concerns about the vicious circle of undesirability that results from putting all of "one type of people" into one type of housing in one place. That is not the way forward for social housing. We need a much more lateral approach—one that is founded on the principle that we should provide decent-quality housing for all our citizens. That is the responsibility of a civilised nation.

I am concerned about decent housing standards. The industry, commentators on housing and, I believe, hon. Members of all parties believe that the target of bringing all social housing up to a decent standard by 2010 will not be reached, and that in any case a "decent standard" is not adequate. The worst housing will be the hardest to bring up to a "decent standard". What assurance can Ministers give us that the Government will give priority to tenants of such housing, rather than focusing on the houses that are the easiest to bring up to a decent standard? It would be easy to meet targets without meeting real needs. The Government have often fallen into that trap in the past; I hope that they will not do so again.

The Queen's Speech has given us a raft of measures that affect our constitutional arrangements. We are to have a Bill on referendums for regional assemblies that are entirely unnecessary, as few people in Britain really want them. We are to have a Bill on a referendum on the single currency, which is also entirely unnecessary, given that we now know that the Government have given up

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on the single currency, at least for the rest of this Parliament. Despite that, a Bill on a referendum on the European constitution—a subject of real concern to the British people—was singularly absent from the Queen's Speech. We are to have referendums on things that people do not care about, but heaven forbid that we should have a referendum on something that people really do care about.

The Prime Minister believes that we should wait for the outcome of the intergovernmental conference. In my view, there is no likely outcome that would not justify—indeed, demand—the ratification of the British people in a referendum. I deplore the fact that the Gracious Speech contained no provision for a referendum on the European constitution. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, we will be relentless in our campaign to have just such a referendum.

We have a tired Government, exhausted by the labour of their own spin, worn out by exaggerating their achievements, and worn down by the efforts of concealing their failures—yet they struggle on. They have no guiding principle. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead allude to the fact that there was no real theme guiding either the Queen's Speech or the Government. No thread of ideology holds the Government together. Labour Ministers are united in office not by a shared sense of duty, but by a common sense of fear—fear of their own demise. It is a fear that I guess will shortly be realised.

There is an alternative, of course, to the current Government. It exists in the form of the revitalised Opposition under the leadership of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). That alternative Government would listen to the demands of the British people, change only when change was necessary and in their interests, and have the courage to stand up for those proper values that underpin a civilised society. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead is right: those are the values of freedom—freedom from want and from fear, as well as the freedom to do as one chooses. He is right to attack selfish materialism and individualism.

It is right to say that the principles of concern and compassion should underpin a compassionate Conservative Government. They always have and they always should. I am sure that the Minister, with his long and detailed studies of these matters, and with his usual generous spirit, will acknowledge that. I see, however, that he is not in his most generous mood tonight.

An alternative is available to the Government. They could listen and they could act, but I suspect that they will not, so the responsibility will fall once again to the Opposition, who, in the form of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), will make the case with passion, commitment and with an honest concern for all of the British people.

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