Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I warmly congratulate the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address. Both spoke with fluency and wit and both are renowned as tireless campaigners for the causes in which they believe.
The right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) entered the House the same year as I did, 1983, although we probably have rather fonder memories of that year than he does. Two years later, he became the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Neil Kinnock, but he has come a long way since then. Earlier this year, he came fifth in the ballot for private Members' Bills and he used it to propose a tax cutin stamp duty, no less. As he explained,
The right hon. Gentleman is also a keen supporter of Rotherham United. Unfortunately, they have been relegated, so they have changed their manager and are bringing in younger talent to complement the more experienced members of the team. It is a strategy I wholly recommend. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his excellent speech today.
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Last July, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) was in The Guardian's list of 101 overlooked women intellectuals, but she has been overlooked no more. First, Spectator Back Bencher of the year, now seconding the Loyal Address, and soon, no doubt, in Government. And she was not the only member of her household to win an award last year. Her Bedlington terrier, Zack, won the Westminster dog of the year prize in October, although I understand that he was run very close in the sit-up-and-beg competition by the new Northern Ireland Minister, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward). As for the title "best-groomed poodle", I believe that the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) has ruled himself out this year. In contrast, the hon. and learned Lady, of course, has always been her own woman and she was not described as one of the brightest of the 2001 intake for nothing. Her speech today was a model of its kind.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on his election victory. The people have spoken and of course we respect their verdict. They elected a Labour Government, but they also voted for a stronger Conservative Opposition to hold the Government to account.
Immediately after the election, the Prime Minister said that he would now deliver on the people's priorities. As I said at the time, whenever he does so, we will support him and these days the Prime Minister needs all the support that he can get. His former Transport Minister says that he should go "sooner rather than later." His former Sports Minister says:
And his former Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), described him as "an enormous liability." But perhaps the best advice came from someone who worked with him even more closely than they did: the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Robin Cook), who gave us the benefit of his reflections in a recent article in the Evening Standard. He mused:
"We have all been here at some point in our lives. Most of us have known a friend who clings to a relationship long after the other partner has any appetite for it. We have sighed when they plead for one more chance or another full term. Eventually, one of us takes our friend down to the pub for a pint and tells him it is over."
Now perhaps I can offer the Prime Minister some advice of my own. It comes from personal experience. The way to get your colleagues to ask you to stay is to set a timetable for your departure. I hope that the Prime Minister will take that advice in the constructive way in which it is intended.
The Prime Minister said the day after the election that he had listened and learned, and that this time he would "focus relentlessly" on people's priorities. The signs, I fear, are not encouraging. Take the crisis in manufacturing. During the general election campaign, we saw the closure of Rovera tragedy for thousands of workers and their families and a painful reminder of the problems faced by manufacturing industry. Britain's competitive position is under threat. What was the
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Prime Minister's response? He looked at this policy on trade and industry, and what did he do? Did he change the policy? Did he change the direction? To give him credit, he did take decisive action: he decided to give the Department of Trade and Industry a new namea name designed to show that it was a great new organ of government: a Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry, but he had not looked at the acronym. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry told the Financial Times that the Department had attracted "various descriptions", including "Dippy". When asked whose bright idea that was, he replied:
That is not the only thing on which the Prime Minister did not get his way. It is not just the names of the Departments: he was thwarted in deciding which Minister goes where. He was not able to get the Trade and Industry Secretary he wanted. He was not able to get the Education Secretary he wanted. He was not able to get the Health Secretary he wanted. He has been saddled with second-choice Ministers, but at least one person is delighted with his job: the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He says:
Then there is the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Defence, Lord Drayson. Parliamentary Under-Secretaries spend lots of time travelling to far-flung places where the British flag still flies: Gibraltar, the Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islandsall locations with which he and his tax advisers are very familiar indeed.
What about the Minister the Prime Minister forgot, the Minister for Women whom he appointed as an afterthought? He asks her to do the job in her spare time and tells her that she is not going to be paid. So much for the manifesto promise to narrow the pay gap between men and women.
We welcome many measures in the Government's programme. For example, we support legislation that will genuinely help in the fight against terrorism. We support any legislation that will restore the integrity of the voting system, which was recently described as something that would "disgrace a banana republic". But why are the Government continuing to ignore the advice of the Electoral Commission that voters should register individually? Why are on earth will the Government not agree to that?
In Northern Ireland, we support the Government's efforts to secure a comprehensive agreement, but there should be no place in government for any party that is engaged in crime or maintains its own private army. I hope that the Prime Minister will agree that the onus is now firmly on the republican movement to deliver what it promised in 1998.
I pay tribute once again to the courage and professionalism of British troops serving around the world, and especially in Iraq. The killing of Anthony Wakefield is a tragic reminder of the bravery that they show day by day.
The world faces many other challenges. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Darfur. I repeat the view already expressed many times from these Benches
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that urgent action should be taken to bring that killing to an end, starting with a new resolution at the Security Council of the United Nations.
The Gracious Speech also mentioned Britain's presidency this year of both the G8 and the European Union. That gives us a singular opportunity to press for reform on the international stage and, in particular, to lift people out of poverty by fighting for freer and fairer trade. We also, of course, support a referendum on the European constitution. Will the Prime Minister confirm to the House the Government's unequivocal commitment to giving the British people a vote on that constitution even if other countries vote no? If he does so, why will he not name the day for the referendum?
The day after the election, the Prime Minister set out his priorities, the priorities that are meant to be reflected in the programme before us today: controlled immigration, school discipline, cleaner hospitals and police. Come to think of it, they sound rather familiar to me. In fact, it is almost a complete set. We had no idea that he was thinking what we are thinking. The only one of the five that is missing is lower taxes. I wonder why.
In looking at the Government's programme, our position is clear. Where the Government do the right thing, we will support them. We support more choice in schools and hospitals, and greater use of the independent sector where it provides quality and value for moneylikewise with genuine reform of incapacity benefit and proper controls on immigration. On these measures, if the Prime Minister means what he says, takes a stand on the things that matter and sends a clear message to his Back Benchers, we will support him.
The Prime Minister's manifesto set out new Labour's commitments for a third term. In his first two terms, he found it impossible to keep just five pledges but, for his third term, there are 274. I suppose that he hopes that people will not notice when he breaks them. He says that there will be a points system for immigration, but what is the point of a points system without a limit? Is it not utterly pointless?
What of health reform? The Prime Minister was absolutely astonished to discover what everyone else knew: that his GP targets stop people getting an appointment when they want one. It is not just GP targets that are a problem. Hospital targets are too. We know that they stop hospitals dealing effectively with the superbug. The chief executive of the NHS himself says so.
I was pleased to hear that the Government are to introduce measures to provide for cleaner hospitals, but I was less encouraged to hear the Secretary of State say that, if hospitals fail, she will prosecute them. A simpler solution would be just to get rid of the targets. If only the Prime Minister would listen to his chief policy adviser, Matthew Taylor, who said:
"The downside of targets are several. One is that you get perverse outcomes . . . A second is that people cheat . . . But perhaps the greatest problem of targets is that they deny autonomy to frontline managers".
The reason why the Prime Minister will not scrap the targets is that he does not trust people. He does not trust professionals, parents or patients to make decisions themselves. In the misguided words of the Chancellor, Ministers do not know any other way than targets to achieve value for money.
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The Prime Minister saysthe hon. and learned Member for Redcar referred to thisthat he wants to restore respect in Britain. I agree, and I have said so many times. Let me suggest one practical way in which we can do that. If children do not learn to respect their teachers at school, they will not respect others when they grow up. The one thing that would most encourage respect in the classroom would be to give head teachers complete control over what happens in their schools. That is the way to teach children respect at an early age, so if the Prime Minister takes action to bring that about, we will support him. The minority should never be allowed to ruin the education of the majority of the children in our schools.
The Prime Minister also promises a regulatory reform Billit is certainly needed. Just in the past fortnight, we have had figures showing bankruptcy up, insolvency up and more job losses on the way. Meanwhile, production, retail sales and manufacturing orders are all down. What is the Labour party's response? Last week, the Prime Minister's own Members of the European Parliament voted for more burdens to be placed on British business by abolishing the individual opt-out from the working time directive. His manifesto promised that the Government would work hard with Labour MEPs and would
yet days after the election, in the first test of the Prime Minister's authority, his MEPs completely ignored him and voted for a measure that he described as "wrong" and "completely misguided". He has not even got the authority to get his Members of the European Parliament to listen to him.
There we have it: no increase in national insurance, no new stealth taxes and no raising of taxes at all. We shall not forget those promises. We will hold the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer personally responsible for each and every one of them.
I hope that those pledges prove more durable than those of the Liberal Democrats. Their education spokesman says that they might be offering tax cuts next time round. The decapitated Liberal Democrat ex-Member for Guildford said that the local income tax was unpopular with hard-working couples. What a surprise.
It is time to reward people who do the right thing: the people who play by the rules, work hard and take responsibility for themselves and their families. It is also time to restore respect in our society: to tackle the yob culture head on, to restore discipline in schools and to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. The Prime Minister talks about these things, so for the sake of our country, I hope that his actions will finally match his words. If they do, we will support him, but whatever happens, this party will hold him to account for the promises that he has made to the British people.