Previous SectionIndexHome Page

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fallon: In a moment.
23 Nov 2004 : Column 78

Secondly, I would like to see much tougher enforcement powers. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 has just gone through the House, and the Government missed the opportunity to give local authorities the powers that they need to enforce the planning rules. Thirdly, I suggest to the Government that we need a stricter definition of just who these Travellers are. On investigation, far too many of them turn out not to be wandering itinerant people, but to have had or have homes or assets in this country; quite often, they have considerable wealth in this country that enables them to purchase fields to carry out significant and substantial infrastructure works to build up sites for what are clearly commercial purposes. I apologise to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) for keeping him waiting.

David Taylor: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way at this point. When I surveyed parish councils in North-West Leicestershire about their main concerns regarding antisocial behaviour, although the issue of Travellers was at the top of the pile, they asked not necessarily for planning, better enforcement or improved definition—although it was clear that those could play a part—but for the police to use the powers they already have, for the Environment Agency to be required to instigate prosecutions where necessary and for better co-ordination, at a local government level, of action against illegal encampments on public land.

Mr. Fallon: The hon. Gentleman was courteous enough to accept my three points, and I will accept his, but those are all matters that we could put right in this House through legislation. We could give the Environment Agency greater powers and help local authorities. I hope that he agrees, for example, that it is unfair to expect parish councils constantly to pick up the tab for the legal costs of enforcement and for clearing up sites when it has been successful. The Government could do much to help communities in that respect, and I regret that there is no such proposal in the Queen's Speech.

The Government could be helping patients. I do not understand why the Government continue to spend money on setting up more health bureaucracies when, seven and a half years after they promised to get rid of them, we still have the indignity of mixed-sex wards in the Kent and Sussex hospital, which serves my constituency. After repeated promises to phase them out, they are still there despite all the additional health expenditure and all the new health bureaucrats.

The Government could be helping teachers and parents. I share the concern expressed by my hon.   Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris   Grayling) about charging for school transport. How much more refreshing it would have been had the Government proposed a Bill that ensured that the home-to-school contract gave schools the powers they need to get the co-operation of parents in ensuring that children are delivered to school on time ready to be taught, and was made enforceable by the school's refusal to take pupils whose parents did not comply with it. And how refreshing it would have been had the Government announced that they would stop interfering in the admissions arrangements of our schools and local authorities through the adjudicator.
23 Nov 2004 : Column 79

For commuters, instead of yet another reorganisation of the rail bureaucracies, why cannot we have a commitment to cleaner, more punctual trains, on which so many of our constituents depend? My constituents do not write to me saying that they want another reorganisation of Network Rail, another look at the way in which the Strategic Rail Authority is set up or a different relationship between the regulator and the Minister—what they want are clean, punctual and reliable trains.

David Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman recall whether his constituents, if he had any at the time, wrote to him urging that the rail industry be privatised?

Mr. Fallon: I think that I can honestly say to the hon. Gentleman that I did not have constituents at that point in this country's economic development. Rail use increased as a result of privatisation, yet despite all the money allocated under the 10-year transport plan our constituents still do not see the basic results that they need—cleaner, reliable and punctual trains to get them to work on time.

For individual taxpayers, it would have been refreshing had the Government announced that they were going to look again at their horrendous tax credits system, under which people are paid too late, then overpaid and asked to refund the money, and find that the helpline does not work, that the staff whom they deal with are constantly changed and that complaints are lost. That system does not help those of our constituents who need the most help. It is exactly the same with the Child Support Agency, as was proved by the resignation of its chief executive. There are the same computer faults, the same poor customer service, and the same helpline inadequacies. Why are our surgeries and advice bureaux full of constituents complaining about their tax credit award, the overpayment that is demanded to be repaid, or the negligence of the Child Support Agency? Why do they come to us to sort out such problems when the Government are running bureaucracies that should be eliminating them?

For business, the Queen's Speech does not reflect the Secretary of State's last-minute U-turn and her sudden, new-found interest in deregulation and simplification, as I could find no specific measures on those topics. Last year, the Treasury Sub-Committee reported on the administrative cost of tax compliance, pointing to factors such as the company car scheme and statutory sick pay, which impose an unnecessarily complicated burden on business that Government could easily eradicate. They could easily exempt smaller businesses from all this new legislation until it is properly proven. They could confine the various tax changes to a single day in the tax calendar, thus helping small firms, in particular, to budget better for the year ahead. I appreciate that the Department for Work and Pensions is trying to confine the implementation date for legislation to two points in the financial year, but other Departments across Whitehall have not followed suit, and it remains true that several such changes are introduced at different points.
23 Nov 2004 : Column 80

I hope that the Government will reconsider capital gains tax. We all welcome the lower rate, but it is not yet accompanied by the necessary simplicity that businesses need.

This is a fag-end Queen's Speech that does very little for my constituents in Sevenoaks and reminds them of just how deeply this Government have so far failed to tackle the real issues.

7.37 pm

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP): The legislative programme put before us today contains some very interesting Bills, including some that we might support should they ever be put to a vote.

At the centre of the Queen's Speech is the law and order and terrorism agenda. It is a shame that the Government came to power claiming to restore hope but now cling to office by turning to the politics of fear. This Queen's Speech is clearly a prelude to a general election campaign in which fear and terror will be placed at the heart of the Government's proposals. It is probable that leaflets accusing those who have the temerity not to agree wholeheartedly with ID cards of being soft on crime are already winging their way to the printers and will soon be coming through a door near us. In 1997, Labour told us, "Things can only get better". That now has a hollow ring, but perhaps its 2001 anthem, "Lifted", will take on a new meaning should many of these measures go through.

At the heart of the Government's agenda is the Bill on identity cards, but that has already descended into utter confusion with Ministers all over the place on what ID cards are and what they are meant to achieve. I heard one Minister on the radio at lunchtime describing ID cards as a means of dealing with identity fraud, asylum, crime, fraud in public services and terrorism, as well as offering gold-plated proof of identity. That is a lot for one little card to manage to do. Other Ministers have told us that they are no different from a store card or a driving licence. Well, frankly, they cannot be both. Either they are an aid to fighting terrorism or they are no different from a store card.

We were presented with a vision by one Minister who said, "When people are stopped in their car and they don't have their driving licence with them, they can hand it in to the police later on. That's all right; there's no problem with that." However, it strikes me that, if an identity card is meant to deter terrorism, it would fail in that objective if the police were to stop a suspected terrorist and say, "We suspect you of terrorism. Where is your identity card?", and, on being told, "I don't have it", asked the person to hand it in to the police within 72 hours, 14 days, or whatever. That would rather defeat the purpose.

So, what is the identity card for? That is the crux of the proposal, and of the muddled thinking behind it. It is even worse when we consider the situation in Scotland. The Scottish Executive have—quite rightly, in my view—said that they will not make identity cards compulsory for services delivered under the devolved Administration. However, in an earlier exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), the Prime Minister confirmed that, as far as the Westminster Government were concerned, identity cards would be compulsory for services
23 Nov 2004 : Column 81
delivered from Westminster Departments. So we now face the ridiculous situation in which, if someone wanted to go to a doctor or hospital in Scotland, they would not need to present an identity card, but if they wanted to pick up their pension or their benefit, they would have to do so. That is a recipe for utter confusion, if ever there was one. It gets worse, however. We are told that identity cards are essential in protecting those services. I have many elderly constituents who are already struggling with Post Office card accounts and bank cards, and the PIN numbers that go with them. They will now also have to struggle with an identity card when they try to collect their pension. That, too, is a recipe for utter confusion.

We are told that the cards will not be compulsory. The Prime Minister suggested that they would be voluntary to start with, moving towards compulsion. As I understand it, however, anyone who applies for a passport will also have to apply for an identity card at the same time, and pay an increased fee to get it. A Minister said on the radio today that that would involve 80 per cent. of the population. That sounds pretty compulsory to me. The difference between identity cards and driving licences, store cards or any other cards is that people have a choice whether to apply for one of those cards, but they would not have a choice in regard to an identity card, as they will become compulsory.

The logic behind the system is that the card will become compulsory anyway, but its application will have to become stricter if it is to have any chance of dealing with the many things that people claim that it will tackle. It will become compulsory, whether we like it or not. It will become compulsory in Scotland by stealth for the same reason, and that is something that the Executive need to deal with. If the Government want to make it compulsory, they should debate the issue on those terms, rather than in the wishy-washy way in which they are doing at the moment, saying, "Oh, it's not really compulsory. You'll get used to it. It's all voluntary." That is simply not true. It will become compulsory because that is the logic of the system that they are introducing.

Worse than that is the fact that the identity card scheme is unlikely to produce the desired result. Let us take the example of the fight against terrorism. We all agree that terrorism is a problem that we need to fight against, but the argument should be about the best way of doing that. I suggest that identity cards will not offer effective protection against terrorism. In the most high-profile al-Qaeda attacks, terrorists either moved across borders using tourist visas—as they did in the 11 September attacks—or were already domiciled in the country concerned and equipped with legitimate identity cards, as in the case of the Madrid bombings. There is no evidence that identity cards would have any impact on dealing with the terrorist threat.

Also, fraud will be committed in any system. Many of those who take part in organised crime and terrorism will already have several passports and identity cards from other areas. In the United States, they might perhaps have driving licences from several states. That is already an established way of getting round identity checks, and one new card from the UK is not going to make any difference. However, Ministers have said that there will be a significant difference because of the
23 Nov 2004 : Column 82
biometric data that will be stored on the card. We are told that that will involve cutting-edge technology, and that that will be the answer to the problem.

However, the technology is unproven and has never been used on a large scale. I think that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) said earlier that the biggest existing biometric database held information on only some 2,000 individuals, but we are talking about a UK-wide system that would be required to cover millions of individuals, and whose technology would have to work. I—and, I suspect, most other hon. Members—have a filing cabinet full of cases involving constituents whose lives have been blighted by the failures of the computer system at the Child Support Agency. The Government have an appalling record on computer systems, not just at the CSA. Other hon. Members have mentioned the Passport Agency, the immigration service, and even the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The stark reality is that the Government, whose record on computer systems is shocking, are proposing to introduce a system to deal with something as important as identity cards, using unproven technology.

How are we to collect this biometric data, if the system is to be semi-voluntary? Will people be obliged to give an iris print, a blood sample or a fingerprint? How would that be consistent with traditional civil liberties in the UK? Are we going to be given the opportunity to say that we do not want this? No, we are not, because eventually we shall need the card to make a hospital visit, to collect benefits and pensions, and to do everything else. Identity cards are a very bad idea. I am sure that we shall all be accused of being soft on crime if we press ahead and oppose them, but we are going to oppose them, because we are not convinced that they will go any way towards doing what is claimed.

We have heard about the Bill to set up a British FBI, as it is already colloquially called. There might be some merit behind that proposal, provided that proper care is taken with Scots law. Again, however, we need to know more details. Much has been made of the railways Bill, which we will probably support, as something definitely needs to be done to tackle the state of the railways. But, as always, the devil is in the detail. We are told that responsibility for the railways will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and possibly the Welsh Assembly. However, we have not been told what funding from the old Strategic Rail Authority and its schemes would go with that devolution of responsibility, but that would be important.

We are also not sure about the status of some of the main cross-border lines. That has been a matter of contention with the SRA, which considered that the line as far north as Edinburgh was a strategic line, but that nothing north of there was strategic, and that although much of the system was proposed to be devolved, that line was not, because of its strategic nature. These measures must be set out in much greater detail before we can decide whether to support them, provided, of course, that they even reach the Floor of the House before the general election, which we are reliably informed—or not so reliably, depending on one's point of view—will almost certainly be in May. It is no coincidence that, although identity cards have been talked about for years, it is only in the dying days of this Parliament that they are being brought before us for
23 Nov 2004 : Column 83
debate. The cynics among us might suspect that that is because the Government know perfectly well that the proposals will get a rough ride here and there is no chance of their getting on to the statute book before the election, but that they will provide some wonderful ammunition in the election campaign.

We have heard about the proposed disability discrimination Bill. I have a personal interest in that subject, and I await with interest the detail of the provisions. It has been suggested, in the press at least, that the Bill will attach certain duties to local authorities. Again, if more such duties are to be introduced, we shall want to know whether any funds will be made available to follow them. Government after Government have placed more and more duties on local authorities, but the funding does not necessarily follow. This makes it more and more difficult for the authorities to carry out those duties and puts an even greater burden on the council tax payer. That is true in England, as it is in Scotland.

Mention has also been made of the consumer credit Bill. In principle, I would be keen to support that, as the terms of some consumer credit agreements are scandalous. Massive interest rates can be charged on those agreements, not only by so-called loan sharks but by supposedly respectable high street banks and stores, whose interest rates can be very high. In the Meadows case, for example, relatively small amounts ended up over the years as a massive debt. Such cases should not be allowed to continue. Perhaps we should go further, however, and consider capping interest charges.

The Queen's Speech is missing certain measures that should be included. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) referred to the Child Support Agency, and the chaos in which it finds itself following the resignation of its director. Many of my constituents, both parents with care and parents without care, are at their wit's end in their dealings with the CSA. Many of those cases have been dragging on for years without end. Many women are owed huge arrears, which are not being chased up, and they are being fobbed off with excuse after excuse. I have taken up many cases on their behalf—we have been successful in some, whereas in others, we are still banging our head against a brick wall with the agency.

In an increasing number of cases, the agency is paying out for its maladministration, because it is simply unable to do the job that it is supposed to do. Problems with the computer system lie at the bottom of that. The Government introduced a new system of calculation, which has experienced problems, again because the computer system has not worked. Because people have not been moved on to the new system, two people working side by side, with exactly the same circumstances, can pay two vastly different rates, which is leading to a great deal of anger and concern about the agency.

What is missing from the Queen's Speech as regards the agency is some idea as to how to tackle the inherent problems, how to get the system working, and how to make sure that money is paid over quickly. Prior to being elected to this House, I was a practising solicitor, and dealt with many family law cases. A simple system operated of going to the courts to get an interim payment quickly and efficiently, until the rest was dealt
23 Nov 2004 : Column 84
with. When the agency was set up, we were told that the courts were inefficient, but it was possible to get an interim payment through the courts in weeks, rather than the months taken by the agency. I respectfully suggest to the Government that they consider seriously at least reintroducing an interim payment that can be obtained through the courts, to speed the matter up.

The Queen's Speech contains nothing relating to the state pension. Other Members have talked about the tax credit system and its complexity. A great deal of anger is boiling up among our pensioners about that system. The Scottish National party proposes a citizen's pension as a way to tackle that, and I appeal again to the Government to consider seriously those issues. We cannot go on as we are doing, with more and more pensioners having to apply for means-tested benefit, and with the Government's estimate that some 75 per cent. of pensioners may be eligible for some form of pension credit in the near future. That is scandalous—we should aim for a citizen's pension of a reasonable amount, which will take pensioners out of poverty. Interestingly, when the Prime Minister spoke about pensioners earlier, he made a distinction between poverty among children and hardship among pensioners. There is poverty among pensioners too, and it is getting worse because of the tax credit system and rising fuel prices that will hit many this winter. Nothing in the Queen's Speech deals with those issues.

On energy, we would have looked for the Government finally to tackle the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets on the question of transmission charges relating to renewable resources in north Scotland, which are likely to strangle many of those projects at birth unless action is taken. That issue is being allowed to drift on with no end in sight. If the Government do not take firm action to make sure that Ofgem introduces a suitable and fair system of transmission charges, there is no chance of reaching any of the renewable targets set by the Government or any other renewable targets. The issue of transmission charges and the sunset clauses will ensure that many projects never proceed in the first place.

We heard mention in the Queen's Speech of a referendum on the EU, with reference to a Bill being introduced to give effect to the constitutional treaty for the EU, subject to a referendum. We heard much about that in this debate. A shiver ran up my spine when the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr.   Purchase) spoke about the counter-balancing force of the European Union against the United States. Such talk will increase yet further the vote against the European constitution. My party is generally pro-European, but we do not want to see a federal Europe, to which reference has been made, and we will not support the constitution in its current form. In my area of Scotland, we have seen the effect of the common fisheries policy on fishing communities. Indeed, it has devastated many traditional communities in the north and east of Scotland. The constitution as currently drafted will make that situation worse. Very many people in Scotland will take the same view, and if a referendum were held today, the constitution would be booted well and truly out of the park. If the Government are serious about putting the issue to a referendum, they need to tackle the inequities of the common fisheries policy in particular.
23 Nov 2004 : Column 85

Mention was also made—obliquely perhaps—of the situation in Iraq and the need to help the Iraqi Government establish democracy through elections in January. That is all fair and well, but the Government must also consider how the situation in Iraq will be stabilised. I urge the Government to consider again securing greater UN involvement and replacing American and British troops, who, rightly or wrongly, are seen as the troops who fought the war and, as a result, are considered by many Iraqis in a different way from troops sent specifically as peacemakers. We should consider replacing many of the troops currently there with troops under a UN command, preferably drawn from Muslim nations, who would have a greater connection with many Iraqis.

The Black Watch is currently deployed in Iraq, but the Queen's Speech tells us nothing about the Government's intentions towards regiments in Scotland and parts of England. At the same time as the Black Watch is fighting in Iraq, the Government intend to amalgamate the regiment and get rid of the Black Watch tradition back home in Scotland. That is totally unacceptable to my party and to the vast majority of the people of Scotland. The Government must come clean—if they expect our troops to take part in such deployments in Iraq, they must keep faith with the troops. There is nothing worse than for troops to be sent overseas to take part in a war, whether or not one agrees with that war, and to seek at the same time the end of their regiment back home. The regiments mean a great deal to the troops who belong to them. As civilians, we often fail to recognise the family feeling within regiments. I have become aware of the family feeling within the Scottish regiments and the determination within Scotland that those regiments should not be amalgamated into one super-regiment or even into a fantasy brigade, an idea which was floated the other week.

Those issues should have been covered in the Queen's Speech, but they were not even mentioned. However, none of us expects many parts of the Queen's Speech to get anywhere near the statute book, so perhaps the loss is not great, and we can return to those issues during the coming election campaign.

8 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page