Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): I remind the House of my interests recorded in the previous register.

I join in congratulating you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your reappointment and I congratulate all Members who have made maiden speeches today. I look forward to a return speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett). If it is of any comfort to him, when I returned as Member for Sevenoaks the manager of my local tyre depot gave me the following advice: a retread is perfectly serviceable provided that it is correctly balanced. I am sure that my hon. Friend's speech will be correctly balanced and we look forward to hearing from him.

I begin with a complaint, which will be obvious to the House from my earlier intervention: that we in the House were not provided with the 200-page detailed guide to the Queen's Speech, describing precisely the provisions of the various Bills. My hon. Friends will be astounded to learn that it even includes 30 pages about 14 Bills that were not mentioned in the Queen's Speech but that will probably be brought forward. I see no reason why that 200-page guide should have been provided to the parliamentary Press Gallery at 9 o'clock this morning but not to Members of the House this afternoon. It may be beyond your power to deal with such things, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I should be grateful if the matter could be noted so that we avoid that problem on a future occasion.

It was a big Queen's Speech, which is fitting for the style of big government. I did not find in it much humility or much sense of listening from the Prime Minister. The solutions that were rolled out have been tried and tested over the past eight years—more Acts of Parliament, more controls and more spending. They are the same solutions that have not worked over the last eight years. We have already had Act after Act redefining antisocial behaviour and recriminalising petty offences.

However, as I think the Prime Minister recognised at the end of his speech, Acts of Parliament cannot on their own create a civil society; only we can do that in our communities. We cannot be directed or controlled to do so. The British response to the tsunami disaster earlier this year was a good example of that. When the tidal wave struck, the Government were on holiday, but the public were not. Without being told what to do or directed how to respond—perhaps indeed because they were not told what to do or directed how to respond—people came forward in their thousands and donated in their millions, leaving Ministers struggling to catch up. It is exactly the same with the Queen's Speech. I have a sense of the Government flailing around, chasing superbugs, closing failing schools, banning hoodies and all the rest of it, without proposing a proper programme.

There are three central failures in the Government's programme: a lack of substance behind the campaign to restore respect; the fact that reforms in our public
17 May 2005 : Column 121
services are still not real and radical; and the fact that the Queen's Speech does not tackle some of the serious issues that Parliament should be confronting.

I begin with respect. So far, it is simply a Government slogan. We cannot create respect by Act of Parliament, by creating lots more criminal offences. I say to Ministers that if respect is missing it is because the balance is wrong. It is because the Government have created far too many rights but insisted on far too few responsibilities. Through signing up to European rights and human rights, they have opened up the flood gates to claims against public bodies—against our hospitals, our schools and our teachers. A person can sue their NHS trust, but their general practitioner or consultant cannot sue them for not turning up for their appointment. When so many NHS appointments are missed I can see no reason why we do not impose a refundable charge to make people take more responsibility. They would value the free NHS more if they had to take that responsibility.

It is the same with schools. It is all very well to say that parents can change the management of schools, but head teachers cannot enforce anything. The home-to-school contracts that the Government rightly promoted are not enforceable. Parents have a right to a place of education and to some preference, but there is no corresponding duty on them to produce their child on time, with homework done, fresh and ready to be taught. Where is the Bill that will give heads and schools power over admissions and that places a proper duty on parents? Where is the Bill that will deal with school discipline?

We are to be confronted with two massive education Bills, but the background briefing on the main education Bill simply says:

If for the past eight years we have had zero tolerance of school behaviour, it is time that the Secretary of State and her Ministers went out into schools more and saw what teachers have to put up with. We must redress that balance. I would like home-to-school contracts to be made properly enforceable. I would like parents to be required to put down a deposit on a school place, which would be refundable when their child finally left school but would give them a stake in the education service and help them to value the service that they get.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): My hon. Friend is speaking with his usual mix of perspicacity and wisdom. Will he elaborate on this point? The Prime Minister has now alighted on the word "respect", which has just a hint of gangster rap about it. Would he not do better to speak about obligation, duty and responsibility, in the way that my hon. Friend has? As my hon. Friend said, those begin at home, and they obviously carry through to school. Would not the legislative programme be better framed in those terms than in the vague terms that the Prime Minister is using?

Mr. Fallon: That must be absolutely right. I believe that it is the undermining of responsibility among families—among parents—that has led to a lack of
17 May 2005 : Column 122
respect. I shall not elaborate in great detail because others want to speak, but the problem lies not just in our schools and our public services, but also in our court system. Little has been done over the past eight years to make criminal justice local, rapid, public and efficient. Fines that are not paid are simply waived. A Government cannot say that they will restore respect unless they redress the balance between rights and responsibilities.

I could go into every area of the public service, but I will not do so tonight. Let us simply consider the planning system. Nothing in the Queen's Speech restores confidence and respect in the planning system. The Secretary of State can simply overrule my district council, which wants to protect a famous local pub, The Farmers, and Travellers can continue to abuse the green belt by submitting wholly bogus applications for retrospective planning permission. We need to redress the balance.

Secondly, there is still a lack of real reform. Let me give the House just one example. We all lived through the fire service dispute. As part of that agreement, over two years ago, it was agreed that we would move to a system of regional fire control centres. Personally, I am not in favour of that—I would like to see my fire control centre stay in Kent—but that was the Government's policy two years ago. Today, only one of those fire control centres has even been identified, let alone built and opened.

The deployment of our teaching force, and of our police force, is still a matter for collective negotiation—for centralised bargaining, rather than for head teachers or area police commanders, and as a result we find schoolchildren washing around shopping centres at 3.15 in the afternoon, and we find the public not getting the police presence that they want. The Prime Minister lamented it today, but he has been in charge for eight years.

What happened to local pay? When, on Wednesdays, I read the Guardian supplement, The Guardian Society, that "Almanach de Gotha" of public sector recruitment, I see no reference to local variations, local rates, and local terms and conditions. Instead, we still have centrally agreed terms and collective agreements.

Thirdly, the big issues have simply been spurned. There was nothing substantial in the Queen's Speech or in the Government briefing about pensions reform. That is perhaps not surprising; there was nothing in the Labour manifesto about pensions reform. There is no serious action on the biggest threat to economic security that our people faced. When we debated the Pensions Bill last summer in the House, I warned that for the private sector, the Pension Protection Fund would quickly and easily be overwhelmed. I still think that it will be. For the rest, we have the Turner commission, seemingly sitting for ever.

The problem is obvious. People in the private sector need to save more, earlier, and the Government need to make up their mind, after eight years, how to encourage them to do that. We can no longer defend the advantage that those in the public sector have—this applies to us as well as to the rest of the public service—through a final salary scheme, the cost of which appears on no public sector balance sheet and which discriminates. In the end, we must find a better way of remunerating those in the
17 May 2005 : Column 123
public service while encouraging them to make more private provision for their pensions on an equal basis with the private sector.

The education element of the Queen's Speech is sadly lacking. I am concerned about the serial and surreptitious closure of so many university departments after years of underfunding. The matter has not been debated enough. I suspect that the solution that the Government have come up with, which they have not yet implemented, of tuition fees next year, will give us the worst of all worlds—a tuition fee that does not increase to any significant degree overall university income. I certainly intend to watch the effect, as we approach the start.

Another issue is the continuing underachievement in our schools. Someone spoke earlier today as though all secondary schools were marvellous success stories. I can tell my hon. Friends that we in Sevenoaks enjoy very good specialist and grammar schools, as well as a good choice of independent schools, but that choice is not available to many of our citizens, particularly those in the larger cities. The scale of underachievement in inner London is quite striking.

Across inner London, 52.8 per cent. of pupils do not achieve a minimum of five A-to-C grade GCSEs. In some boroughs—Haringey, Southwark and Westminster—things are far worse. That is a massive indictment of all the billions of pounds that the Government have poured into secondary education. City academies, the right to change school management and all the rest are not really the answer.

I believe personally that, in inner London, where local education authorities have failed so badly, we need to put real power into the hands of parents. In a homogenous area, where travel is easy and there is no particularly affinity with a badly run local council, I do not understand why we do not introduce a city-wide education voucher. A third-term Government of whichever party ought to be a bit more radical about that.

The final omission from the Queen's Speech is any serious measure to deal with productivity. In that respect, I agree with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase). When the Chancellor appeared before the Treasury Committee just before the election, I asked him whether he had got anything wrong during the past eight years, but my hon. Friends will not be surprised to learn that he did not "fess up". However, he said that productivity was the one issue that he wished he could do more about, and he is right.

United Kingdom productivity, measured by gross domestic product per worker, is still 20 per cent. behind that of the United States. Even on the other measure—GDP per hour worked—it is still 14 per cent. behind the United States. It is behind not China or the far east, but the United States. Instead of tackling that problem, the Government have allowed us to slide further towards the continental economic model, with more and more social regulation and higher taxes.

These are the Government's failures: they are failing to match properly rights with responsibilities, to drive through real reform of the public services and to tackle the really big issues. That gives us the opportunity to frame our response in more aspirational terms—and, if
17 May 2005 : Column 124
I may say so to those on the Conservative Front Bench, perhaps in more aspirational terms than we managed to use during the general election campaign. It may have been practical and desirable, but bringing back matron was not particularly aspirational. It ought to be possible—I hope that it will be possible under a new leader—for us to propose a better, more aspirational framework that encourages responsibility, while protecting the vulnerable and keeping taxes low.

8.38 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page