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Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayfordand/or Erith(Mr. Evennett) back to the House. We are pleased to see him and congratulate him on his born-again maiden speech. May I also say that I enjoyed the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who made important incisive comments?
On the first day of a new Parliament, it is fitting for all Members to recall who sent them here. I register my thanks to the good people of Blaby for returning me to my fourth Parliament. I hope that it was an expression of trust. It may have reflected the fact that C came before L on the list when it came to deciding whether to vote Conservative or Labour. Nevertheless, I felt that it was an expression of trust and I am grateful to them. I shall serve all people of my constituency, whichever way they voted, or even if they did not vote, to the best of my ability for the next four or five years.
The election was not a triumph for the Conservatives. We all know that. One must congratulate the Government on being returned to office. I think that it was unwise of the electorate, but the people have, indeed, spoken. However, it was not a triumph for any party. The Government saw their majority savagely reduced. The Conservatives increased their numbers, but we did not win. I think that the Liberal Democrats saw their vote reduced overall. They got a few extra seats, but they did not do particularly well. No one should pretend that it was a great triumph. It was not a great triumph for democracy when the turnout remained so low.
There is much in the Queen's Speech, with 40-odd Bills, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford said, it is curiously thin for one with so much in it. I shall dwell on a few points that arise from it. First, however, I am struck by the fact that far from relishing victory, we see empty Labour Benches on the first day of the new Parliament. Where are Labour Members? Why are they not here, relishing the fact that they are back in government? We find ourselves in the dire dog days of this Administration. The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs laughs, but where are her Members? She was a Whip and should have ensured that a few people at least showed an interest in the Parliament to which they have been returned. These are, without a doubt, the Prime Minister's twilight days. He has said that these are his last days, although we do not know whether they will last three and a half years or four, three months or six months.
It is extraordinary that, whereas we have returned enthusiastic for the fray, Labour Members do not look as though they are keen on joining in. That is partly
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because, under the present Prime Minister, new Labour has promised so much and achieved so little. That has spread the cynicism that has led to low turnouts, and the dissatisfaction with the system that we all saw in people's reactions on the doorstep.
We have heard a lot about education. Why, after eight years of a Labour Government and with huge amounts of extra money put into the education systemI do not criticise thatis a higher proportion of children now going into private education than has since the Butler Education Act of 1944? Why are more people than ever before opting for private health care and private operations for which they have to pay themselves rather than through insurance? In the Queen's Speech, we are promised another immigration Billis that the fourth or the fifth? Why do we need it? It is because the Government have created a huge mess in the immigration and asylum systems. Famously, the Prime Minister has not got a clue how many failed asylum seekers are in this country.
My hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks and for Bexleyheath and Crayford referred to that part of the Queen's Speech that says that the Government are determined to foster "a culture of respect" in our society. That sounds goodalthough no one knows what it meansbut who destroyed respect? Why is there so little respect in our society now? That is a complex issue and I do not claim to have all the answers. I suspect that many people are responsible, not least the media, but I suggest that there is a connection between deference and respect. What we have now is a culture of rights in which there is no deference, no respect and no responsibilities, as we have heard. Ali G and his "respect" and "gangsta rap", as I believe it is called, is perhaps what many young people think of when one talks of respect. Personally, I respect each individual for his value as a human beingeach person is valued in the sight of God and should be valued in society, too, whatever they do. However, it seems to me that the liberal left has reduced respect by denigrating so many institutions in this country. We need only look at the empty Benches opposite to understand that.
I remember Peter Mandelson, when he was a Cabinet Minister, in that chattering class way laughing about the "chinless wonders" in our armed forces. I do not think that he ever apologised for that. Perhaps he should have. Today on the television, Lord Hattersley was sneering quietly about the fact that we had a state opening of Parliament, because he is a republican. The House of Lords has been reformed, but I am not sure that it is a better place. Grammar schools are denigrated and under attack from the Government. Under the Labour-Liberal coalition, property rights in Scotland have been subjected to astonishing attack, and the right to roam attacks property rights in this country as well. The fault is not entirely on one side, but the problem is one of reducing respect for other people and their property.
Over the past eight yearsin fact, over the past 40 yearswe have seen the fostering of the culture of rights. The 10-year-old who tells a police constable who remonstrates with him, "I know my rightsdon't you lay a finger on me," is a deeply worrying phenomenon. That culture is backed up by the so-called Human Rights Act 1998. Human rights sound marvellous, but the Act, against which some of us warned eight years ago, has contributed to the lack of respect and the yob
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culture that all of us are now supposed to turn against. For an example, let us take Travellers. They know their rights, they know about human rights and they know about legal challenges, but in my constituency just before the election they were defecating on the doorsteps of law-abiding citizens.
So-called modernising also reduces respect. Roy Jenkins might not be the best example I could use, but he was quoted earlier and, all credit to him, he came a long wayfrom a Welsh mining village, I believe. He delighted in speaking the Queen's English perfectly. Some people took the mickey out of him for so doing. We now have a Prime Minister who speaks with an accent that was never heard when he was at Fettes or at Oxford. This is a dumbing down and a denigration of perhaps what people used to look up to.
Modernising is in with the new and out with the old, change for its own sake. Consider all the fuddy-duddy old ways that the Government have been kicking. We should respect the history of this country and not apologise for it. What do we apologise for? Should we apologise for the potato famine in the 1840s or the slave trade, or any other such nonsense?
We should stand up for and support those who are in authority such as head teachers. We should show deference to the position of a head teacher or a police officer, people who are serving society. We should defer to and respect a nurse, a waitress, a road sweeper or a doctor, or even the Prime Minister, because of the positions that these people hold. We may not respect them enormously but we should acknowledge that which they are meant to be doing for us all.
The ghastly liberal left-leaning media have contributed hugely to the iconoclasm and the lack of respect that I believe has led to many of the problems that we are talking about. We need to foster a culture of respect. The Government have denigrated our institutions when they should have been standing up for them.
Deference to a positionfor example, to a head teacheris not obsequiousness. Instead, it shows mutual respect. The Government's determination to equalise and dumb down has led to a person who has, for example, got excellent A-levels or a very good degree, discovering that there is no respect from others for his or her achievement. People say, "A-levels are devalued these days", and respect for a degree is devalued as well.
We should be proud of this country, of its institutions and of its democracy. That brings me on to what was perhaps the most disturbing element of the election campaign from my point of view. I am proud of the House and this mother of parliaments, so called. However, just before the election, Judge Richard Mawrey said that postal voting in this country was worthy of a banana republic. I think that I am quoting him correctly. Indeed, the mother of parliaments was reduced to such a state. He went on to say that the postal voting system was
There are so many postal voting forms that they are thrown out like confetti. I have several in my office. I could easily have used them all. Like most Members,
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I am registered in two places, as is my wife. We could all use them because there is no cross-checking. I do not know whether right hon. and hon. Members realise but if Tipp-Ex is used on a postal votecross out one mark and put in anotherthat will be fine. According to electoral law, one is explaining to the returning officer that that is one's choice. If an envelope is ripped open and then resealed, that is fine. There is nothing in legislation about that, yet that is what has been happening.
There is no proper identification of postal votes. As I have said, there is no cross-checking. It is not only Members who are registered in two places. Universities and colleges have been registering all their students. Enormous numbers of students have been registered at both home and university. This is a matter of concern. There should be cross-checking.
Regrettably, most students did not vote rather than voting twice, but that is something else. In Leicester, it was reported on the Jeremy Vine show that there were 450 foreign students in one hostelit catered for foreign studentswho had all been registered for postal votes. Is no one checking this procedure? Some people were sent postal votes who had never applied for them. I know many people who found themselves in that position. Those who did want a postal vote because they were going on holiday or who lived overseasI received many letters from people in such circumstances, and I am sure that it is the experience of other hon. Membersnever received such a vote in time. I have received letters from people in Spain, telling me that they had applied for a postal vote. They live in the country for six months each year but the form never arrived. They told me that they would have voted for me, which was nice, but they could not do so.
There have been endless complaints. People went on holiday expecting to receive their postal vote more than a week in advance, but did not. I understand that postal votes, according to legislation, have to be out only on the day before the election. That is ridiculous, and it negates the purpose of postal voting for overseas voters or people going on holiday. The system is hopeless. It should be reformed from top to bottom, and I hope that the Bill we have been promised will do so.
I am ashamed on behalf of my country of the postal voting fiasco, and the Government should be ashamed of themselves for introducing it. It has destroyed the integrity of our electoral system, as there is no trust in, or respect for, a system that was changed in the name of so-called modernisation. The change was introduced, hon. Members may recall, to increase participation. I thought then, and I still think, that it was introduced to increase participation by Labour voters, as the Government were worried that they might stay at home in future. On 5 April, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who was previously the Minister for Local and Regional Government but has now been reduced to serving on the Back Benches, said in the House that individual registration in Northern Ireland had reduced the number of people on the electoral roll, which was a bad thing. I am not the only person who knows that the "vote early, vote often" mantra came from Ireland. Of course registration went down, because many people were wrongly on the electoral register in Northern Ireland.
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We must restore the integrity of the register and the voting system as a first step towards restoring trust in, and respect for, our political system. We should end postal voting on demand, and should have individual registration, as recommended by the Electoral Commission. We should have proper identity checks, perhaps at polling stations, and there should be cross-checking to discover whether people are registered in two places. We must limit postal votes, which should be sent out well in advance so that people can vote if they have registered.
Turning to service voting, on 2 February, in response to my question, the Prime Minister told me that all service voters would definitely have the opportunity to vote. When I was in Iraq at the end of January, however, a straw poll revealed that eight out of 10 soldiers were not registered. That is an unscientific poll, but a large number of service voters were not registered at all. One of them told me, "I didn't think that we were allowed to vote." The Prime Minister promised that everyone would have a form to register as a service voter before 11 March, the cut-off date for registration for an election on 5 May. Those forms never arrived. They may have arrived in some places, but I could give the details of many establishments where they did not do so.
What chance did someone in Iraq, Afghanistan or on the high seas who had registered as a service voter and received a postal vote have of returning that vote if they received it two or three days before the election? Typically, the forces' Iraq post takes 10 days in either direction, so there was not any chance of returning those votes. That, too, shames the Government, who have effectively disenfranchised the service personnel whom they have sent into dangerous parts of the world to do their bidding and serve the country.I was in the Army for 15 years, but I only recall registering onceI probably changed my details once or twiceas I had a proxy. Typically, a spouse, parent or, in my case, a brother acted as a proxy in elections. I hope that my brother always voted the right wayto a certain extent, one must trust people.
He was rightit was much worse. I should like the Government to instigate a proper investigation to find out how many service personnel had the opportunity to vote on the Government's shambolic policies. I have already written to Sam Younger of the Electoral Commission asking him to do so. I wish he would spend more time investigating such subjects instead of sending us lots of glossy brochures that do not say very much.
I turn briefly to another couple of points. On Northern Ireland, we heard a rather good speech from the leader of the Democratic Unionist party. The Government's well-intentioned Belfast agreement, which many of us feared was built on sand, has produced exactly the opposite result to that which the Government hoped for. It has polarised opinion, so that
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the Democratic Unionists, who used to be considered extremists, are now the authentic voice of the Unionist or Protestant sidewhichever one wishes to call it. I have no problem with the Democratic Unionists, but I have a worry that the people who were once referred to as extremists now romp back with nine seats to the one that the official Unionists got. At the same time Sinn Fein, despite the Northern bank robbery, the McCartney murder and everything else, increased its representation by one seat.
The reason for those results goes back to the matter of respect and trust. The Unionist community voted for the Belfast agreement because the Prime Minister promised that there was no place in government for those who had not given up violence for good. That message stands on its own.
Finally, I shall deal with the single farm payment. The environment and agriculture were mentioned only briefly in the Queen's Speech. I am a farmer and I have just had to fill in the forms for the single farm payment. Sadly, no Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is present. I challenge any DEFRA Minister to fill in those forms. I meet many of my farming colleagues in my constituency and get on very well with them. They have told me that they believe the forms were introduced to drive decent old family farmersnot necessarily the best educatedout of business and get them to leave farming. Perhaps one or two other hon. Members have filled in the forms. I challenge anyone to fill them in and not to think, "My God, what is all this about?" They are so complex that all DEFRA Ministers should have to sit down and fill them in before they talk about farming.
In conclusion, when the Government came in eight years ago, they said that things could only get better. If I am honestI see a Whip in the front rowI, like many people of Conservative persuasion throughout the country, shared a little of the optimism surrounding the brave new Government, the young Prime Minister and the dynamic nonsense. Do we now believe that Britain is a much better place? Do we feel more at ease with ourselves?
Some things are certainly better. I was ambivalent at the time, but I applaud the Chancellor's decision eight years ago to give independence to the Bank of England. Whatever we say, there are improvements in hospitals. In many cases waiting times are down, but so they damn well should be, with the amount of money that is being spent on such things. Generally, do we feel that things are that much better? I believe that there is a sense of hugely raised expectations that have been dashed. That has led to cynicism, a lack of trust in politicians and a lack of respect for politicians and for our democratic institutions like Parliament, which should hold out hope and optimism for the people of the United Kingdom. The Government are failing in that and are failing the people of the country whom we are all here to serve, when there is not enough hope for the future, as we would all wish.
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