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3.49 pm

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): The series of days when the House considers the Queen's Speech is always illuminating. The proceedings started with a superb response by the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), who did himself and his constituency great credit. His delivery was excellent, but I think that the story of the cardinal and the nun will come back to haunt him. No doubt the rest of us will regale it on the dinner-speaking circuit. The hon. Gentleman demonstrated by his competence that following his move, from a Minister to Chairman of the Treasury Committee, he remains an effective Member of the House.

More politically illuminating was the opening response by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). In his devastatingly competent critique of the Government's performance, he showed that the governing party of this country has a real challenge on its hands. It is encouraging to those of us who believe that the Labour party has had its moment to see that there is an alternative Government—

Keith Vaz : Thanks to you.

Derek Conway: Well, I take no part in such matters.

It is encouraging that an alternative Government are ready and waiting to take up the challenge. In fairness, the Queen's Speech programme is evidence of a tired Government. I know: I served in one. There is no doubt about it: political parties run out of steam after a while. Not only do they run out of ideas but they end up with too many former Ministers on the Back Benches and too many frustrated would-be Ministers sitting alongside

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them, which is when the fun and games begin. There is ample evidence that that process has started. The Queen's Speech programme has enormous pitfalls with which the poor Whips on the Treasury Bench will have to cope.

The Government were elected full of promise and full of promises. They have failed on the first and not delivered on the second. I have to be careful because if I comment on individual Bills as a member of the Chairmen's Panel I might not be able to play my part in their scrutiny subsequently—[Hon. Members: "Go on."] I reject the encouragement of my hon. Friends.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), in a typically robust and incisive contribution, made it clear that the Opposition will offer constructive support for many Home Office Bills. We will see a contrast between the way in which the Home Secretary behaves and the incisiveness of my right hon. Friend. The Home Secretary sometimes gives the impression of a man under considerable pressure. His is unquestionably the most awful brief. One can only feel sympathy for that challenge, which he willingly accepts, but the fact is that he is not doing the job.

There have been 30 bits of Home Office legislation from this Labour Government, yet crime is still up by 800,000. Gun crime has doubled. I remember sitting on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill on firearms, which was loathed by just about everyone in the House of Commons. We were assured by those proposing it that it would solve the problem. Of course, it has not and gun crime has doubled from what it was under the last Conservative Government.

More importantly, for many of our constituents violent crime is now at its highest level. It does not matter how much Back Benchers or Ministers massage the figures, the truth is that the public do not care about our version of them and they do not believe the Government's version of them. What they believe is what they see in their communities. Increasingly, certainly in Old Bexley and Sidcup, as part of an outer London borough, more and more of my constituents think that the police are no longer accountable. The Home Office, the Chamber and its Select Committee are involved in policing. In my constituency, the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly are also involved. Many tiers of democracy mean that the people are still not getting what they want, which is more police officers on the beat. Nothing can make up for that.

We are lucky in the Bexley Metropolitan police division because we have a superb chief superintendent, Robin Merrit, who commands a dedicated force. My criticism of what is happening with policing is not directed at them. They do their very best in the most difficult circumstances, but there are simply not enough of them. Any measures that the Government introduce to increase the number of police officers will have my wholehearted support and, I am glad to say, that of my party.

It is a great pity that there is no Bill on defence matters, in particular the reinstatement of abolished regiments. Sadly, both under my party when in government and under the current Government, there have been endless defence cuts at a time when we expect more of our armed forces. The reduction of infantry regiments is putting immense strain on the system.

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Our troops have been deployed in war zones for five out of the six years that this Government have been in power. With that record, it is unacceptable that we see more and more being hacked off the defence budget, fewer and fewer soldiers being recruited and more and more traditional regiments being up for the axe. It simply will not wash.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who is sitting on the Front Bench and will respond to the debate, I am sure, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will put forward the Opposition policy and response to the constitution. I hope that whatever I say will not be too far adrift from what he has in mind. Regrettably, I have form on the matter of the House of Lords.

Back in 1972, when I was a brisk, thin and hairy 19-year-old—difficult to believe, perhaps—I had strong views on the House of Lords. I was national vice-chairman of the Young Conservatives, which then probably had more members than the modern Tory party has today and was a thriving youth political organisation. I could not believe how, in modern Britain, as it seemed then to be, we could possibly have an unelected Chamber of Parliament that worked on the hereditary principle. I made a speech on a quiet weekend at a Young Conservatives conference that gained some notoriety in the Sunday papers because they had little else to cover.

It was arranged by the party chairman, Lord Carrington, that the Duke of Northumberland—the former one, not the present one—should put me right on these matters. I was summoned to his Northumberland castle for a glass of sherry and a civilised lunch, and the duke proceeded to say, "Peter Carrington said that I should sort you out on this House of Lords thing. Never go near the place. I am sorry if you got yourself into trouble, but I think that changes will come." He was right: changes were to come.

Although I can understand the views of others, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who made a telling speech about hereditary peers, I suspect that hereditary peers will go. I will play my part in whatever line my party wants to take, but I suspect that the institution of Parliament will cope when they are gone. The more difficult problem for every Member of this Chamber is what replaces them. I do not think that we should be scared of democracy, and I hope that we in this Chamber will not be, but we should be scared about how many levels of democracy are coming into existence.

An earlier contribution from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) was evidence of the difficulties being experienced both in Scotland and in Wales. However, there have also been difficulties in England. In Old Bexley and Sidcup, my electorate are represented by borough councillors, who in the main do a good job and are very effective, but there are a lot of them. We have a Greater London Assembly man, who is also elected and very competent and popular. I hope that he will be re-elected with a handsome majority in the summer.

We also have a Mayor, and although I must not trespass on your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by talking about the future of the Mayor of London, I can

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say that under the constitution, he is there, he costs us a lot of money and he is more interested in demonstrations and self-promotion than in looking after the outer London boroughs. However, I am sure that either the Labour party or the Tory voters will solve his problem for him in June. My electorate also have Members of the European Parliament and a Member of Parliament.

Mr. Evans: He is hugely popular.

Derek Conway: That is very kind of my hon. Friend. In addition, my electorate may or may not, in the fulness of time, have elected peers. [Interruption.] I had better be careful: my boss is coming back in now.

Although no one will decry democracy in this Chamber, we have to be careful about the tiers of democracy and what they are doing for the competence of and confidence in the system. We will not resolve the issue of the House of Lords until we address the size of this Chamber and what it does. Many right hon. and hon. Members, certainly since I walked in here in 1983, have become glorified social workers and councillors. I probably handle more local authority cases than I do anything else.

If the United Kingdom is to remain united in any description, we should find a way of involving representatives from Scotland, Wales and the regional assemblies—if indeed they come about, which undoubtedly, under this Government, they will. We could then have a system more akin to that in Germany which would ensure that the different parts of the United Kingdom have a place in our legislative Assemblies. None of this, I suspect, will be remotely the policy of my party or my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, when he makes his much more distinguished contribution.

This piecemeal reform of our constitution, with the Government clearly having no idea where they are going—I will find out later whether my party does—means that the Chamber is completely divided about the solution. I do not think that the public care overmuch. What they would really rather have is effective public services and the lowest taxes possible, and how many politicians are messing around in the pond to make that happen is a matter of supreme indifference to most of our electorate. We face an interesting Session, particularly on the constitution—

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