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Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con):
As the indications are that we are likely to have an election soon, I thought that there would be no harm
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in using the Easter Adjournment debate to place on record a number of issues that we should pay attention to in the new Parliament and perhaps in the forthcoming election.
Five things concern me and I hope that people will think seriously about them. The first and most obvious one concerns where I used to come from, Scotland, where we have the problem of devolution. We hardly ever talk about devolution but it has an horrendous cost for Scotland, Wales and London. The least we should do, bearing in mind the fact that there has been a huge change of opinion on devolution since it was introduced, is to give the people of Scotland, Wales and London the opportunity to say whether they wish their devolved Parliaments and Assemblies to continue.
I visit Wales, which is a lovely place. I also visit Scotland a great deal. I am certainly of the opinion that there has been a huge change of opinion. People feel that they have far too many politicians, that it is costing far too much and that something should be done. What worries me as we face the election is that I cannot identify a single party that says that the people of Scotland, Wales and London should have the opportunity to say whether they wish their devolved government to continue. We should give them such a chance, and I hope that whoever wins the election will make that clear.
The second problem is that of asylum seekers. It is a frightening problem. In some areas, because people have the impression, perhaps wrongly, that the Government have lost control of the asylum seeker problem, we find that race relations are deteriorating, which is bad for communities and for the country as a whole. I am glad to say that, in Southend, where I reside, we have good community relations, but in other parts of the country people feel that things are going wrong and that something should be done. The greatest danger of all is if the parties start shouting at each other about who is to blame for the problem. We should be looking at the real problem and seeing what can be done.
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, who is one of the most agreeable politicians I have come across, answered a question just last week that I put to him, asking how many people were told last year that they had to leave the country. The answer was 64,000. I then asked him how many had left and the answer was 4,000. That is not because of the inefficiency or incapacity of the Government. It is simply because of the basic problem that asylum seekers who come here have a habit of destroying their passports and all their papers. So when the Government say that they have to go back to their own country, their own country says that it does not want them because they do not have any papers or any proof of who they are.
I know that those figures are exact, because I was given them by the Minister. I have been told by others, although it has not been confirmed, that there are actually 250,000 people in Britain today who have no right to remain here and who should be back in their own countries. We certainly should show the utmost appreciation and help to people who are being persecuted, but when we have that massive number of people and nothing can apparently be done because of the problem of the absence of papers, we should face up to that. The most obvious thing is to have some initiative, taken perhaps by the United Nations, so that
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when someone comes to our country from another country claiming asylum, there is a document that will enable them to be sent back if the Government decide that they should be.
If we do not face up to that, we will have the problem of a large number of people in this country who no longer have the right to benefits and who will look to other places to get money. It will not be good for anything, and I hope that the issue will be faced up to no matter who wins the election.
The third problem that we have to face up to is that of the European Union. It has haunted me for 25 of the 40 years that I have been here. What worries me immensely is the way in which democracy is being fundamentally undermined because of our membership of the European Union. When I came here, the MPs or the Lords decided all the taxes we had. Basically, the European Union is taking more and more power and the people's views are utterly irrelevant.
We sometimes forget that a good democracy depends on the people having a view and being able to express an opinion. For example, when a Conservative Government brought in a poll tax that people did not like, they were able to reject the Government and to get that changed. The people had power, but the number of people taking part in elections now is simply fading away, because a lot of them feel that there is little point in voting.
I had the pleasure of speaking to a lovely group of school children from London who were being shown around here. There were 70 of them aged 17. They were delightful. I talked to them about the political system and how it worked here. Then we talked about politics. It was quite disturbing. Seven of them told me that they thought we had a dreadful Government. They thought that the Prime Minister was a rascal, that the war in Iraq was shameful and that public services had gone to pot. That rather cheered me up as a Conservative. Then they talked about the Conservatives. They did not say a nasty thing about them. There was no capitalist pig stuff or anything like that. They just thought that they were totally irrelevant and they had no views on them at all. They then talked about Liberal Democrats. The only opinion expressed was that they were slightly nicer people but they had no policies.
I then asked those youngsters, "How are you going to vote at the next election? You will have to decide if democracy is going to continue." We had a poll. I asked how many were going to vote Labour and the answer was none; how many were going to vote Conservative and the answer was none; how many were going to vote Lib Dem and the answer was one out of 70. Although that may appear to be a victory to some degree for the Liberal Democrats, what should worry us is the number of young people who are simply switching off.
I went to the university of Aberdeen to speak to a meeting of 300 young people. It was beautiful and very exciting for me but what appalled me was that, when I asked, "How many of you are involved in politics?" the answer was: one out of 300. When I was at university, everyone was involved in a party or movement of some sort. The fact is that young people are switching off and the number of people voting is going down.
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Why is that happening? It is happening because people can no longer express an opinion about the things that they care about. Take a basic issue of the old days like capital punishment or corporal punishment. We can no longer determine that because of the European convention. The treaty will confirm that if it comes in. The same applies even to things such as the export of live cattle. A group of five people recently called at my surgery, including a clergyman who brought a dog with him to show that he was fond of animals. The group asked me whether I would vote against the export of live cattle. I had to say that I was sorry, but there was nothing we could do about that. They asked whether they could go to their European MP. I told them not to waste their time, because if the European Parliament closed its doors tomorrow, nobody would notice apart from the taxi drivers of Strasbourg. They then asked me where they could go.
Similarly, some of my pensioner constituents asked me whether it was really true that the Government had been told that we had to pay the heating allowance to people in the overseas territories of Europe. I had to explain that, yes, we had to pay it to people living in Guadeloupe, Martinique or the Azores, where there is sunshine all the time, but that people living in Iceland or northern Canada, where it is cold, do not get it. They asked, "Why don't you do something about that as an MP?" The answer, of course, is that we have no power at all over such matters.
Some time ago, we had a debate about the age of homosexual consenta big, vital issuebut it was pointless, because the European Court of Justice had decided on the matter 18 months before. There is a basic problem in Europe because of the destruction of democracy. The big problem ahead, which I hope people will think about and which has nothing to do with party politics, is what is happening to Europe's population. The United Nations has calculated that if trends do not change, the number of people living in Europe in 50 years' time will have declined by 100 million because of the way in which population numbers are going. We see that in Scotland more readily than elsewhere, and we see it throughout Europe. We will have a shrinking tax base, more demand for health care and pensions, lower inward investment and, frankly, heightening social tensions, given the number of people coming into these countries. It is a frightening situation and we have to ask whether Europe has the ability, without democracy, to resolve the problem.
In Southend-on-Sea, we worry about a fourth issuethe Government's ability to ensure that things done by organisations can be questioned. We have had a bit of a nightmare over the rates issue. In Southend, there was a relatively low increasealthough it was an increaseof 4 per cent., but unfortunately we have had to cut back on public services because it has been calculated that the population has reduced from 180,000 to 162,000. However, as someone who lives in Southend, I can say that there has been no reduction in our population at all. The numbers attending local general practitioners' surgeries have increased, the number of houses has increased and our schools are busier than ever; and we think that the calculation is completely wrong. But what can we do about the situation? Home Office Ministers say, "It's nothing to do with us." Such issues must be resolved; if we cannot sort out problems, we will not sort out anything at all.
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My last point concerns the Iraq war. I have often been in a minority in the House of Commons, unfortunately at times, although I find that opinions seem to change in my direction. I was one of those who opposed the Iraq war because I thought it pure hypocrisy on the part of the Americans, who, having supported Saddam Hussein and given him all the weapons of mass destruction for the invasion of Iran, then turned against him. The Government now have a terrible problem, although I do not mean to be unkind, as it will apply to all Governments in future. The statement that we heard today concerning the lady who resigned from a Government post and whose letter was not published suggests that faith in the Government is declining.
I have three children, one of whom is in the Army and was out in Iraq. I can tell the House that it is frightening for any parent to be in that position. I would say this to the Government: in this situation, where lives are being lost in the services, and Americans and the Iraqis themselves are suffering in huge numbers, the least that they could do is to explain the whole situation to the public and tell them the whole truth. Frankly, it is not enough for us to shout across the Chamber at each other about who is to blame; particularly when lives are at stake, we should do all that we can to tell the truth.
The crucial issue is what will happen in the future. I believe that in Iraq we have created an horrendous mess that will be difficult to resolve. Having been misled on Iraq, I hope that the Government will not make the same mistake on Iran, which is a country with many positive aspects that we should face up to.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you were kind to call me early in the debate; I appreciate that very much. I hope that Members of the House will think about the points that I have made; it is just possible that I might be right.
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