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Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on his impressive speech. The last three speeches have all been maiden speeches and have all been excellent. All the Members will make their mark in the House. I hope that they do, and I wish them well in that process. I congratulate all who have made their maiden speeches in the House today.
Labour's election manifesto was fine, up to a point. The Queen's Speech is fine, up to a point. The manifesto was published during the election campaign, following a restrictive system for what went in it. Anyway, it was too late to put such commitments into local campaigning literature or into an election address. The pledges on the pledge card were so general this time that they amounted in worth to only one day's spin. I did not use them.
However, what a manifesto does not contain can be as important as what it does. Last time, there was no indication that the Government would support a war as foolhardy as the one in Iraq, and what was said about tuition fees was quite different from what was actually proposed. Something similar could happen this time. The Leader of the Opposition struck a chord when he said that some of the new policies announced in the Queen's Speech had a familiarand he suggested Toryring.
I fought the election not on a new Labour ticket, but on a Labour ticket. I do not feel bound by an unremittingly new Labour agenda. I welcome the commitments to education that were contained in an e-mail sent to candidates, but which did not appear in the manifesto. Under "Building Schools for the Future", over the next 15 years it is proposed to rebuild completely, or refurbish radically with new classrooms, sports halls and computer centres, more than 50 per cent. of our primary schools and the entire secondary school estate of every local authority in the country. I also welcome the promise that spending per pupil will rise from £3,850 to £5,500 by 2008. More pre-school and after-school clubs are also promised, as are better school meals, and I welcome that too, as I do the intention to provide 3,500 children's centres by 2010. Moreover, the aim is to make extended schoolswith much more widespread links with the communities that they serve than is presently the casethe norm rather than the exception
Improved education, with opportunity for all and not just an elite, is a true Labour objective that I am happy to support. However, how does effective private control and, perhaps, ownership of city academiesfunded overwhelmingly with taxpayers' moneysquare with that? I wait to see exactly what is proposed.
John Bercow : I do not want the hon. Gentleman to feel alone. If he was not guided exclusively by the contents of his party's manifesto, I can assure him that I was not exclusively guided by the contents of mine.
I am also wary of the first proposal made by the new Health Secretary, which was no doubt required of her by No. 10. The proposal is to increase massively the number of private operations contracted for by the NHS. She said that she foresaw no limitpresumably up to 100 per cent.to the number of such operations carried out in the private sector. In the short term, that may lead to more operations being carried out, given the amount of money being pumped in, but the effect on the NHS, in the medium and long term, would be bad.
Consultants will set up private companies to feed off the NHS. Their services will not be available in-house in NHS hospitals, and in-house provision is likely to be wound down in direct proportion to the expansion of those private companies. In due course, those companies will charge what they like and the NHS will be over a barrel. The care offered by the private companies is likely to be more expensive than NHS in-house provision were that to be similarly expanded, with more resources, for the same number of operations.
However, what really alarmed me was the new Labour rhetoric that uncompetitive local hospitals could close as part of the process. Communities need their local hospitals. If any hospitals are not running efficiently, it is the job of the health executives and the Government to ensure that they become efficient. It is not their job to close them. What we have is the Nicholas Ridley agenda applied to the NHS, where the state is seen as an agent or enabler, not the provider. Increasingly, the private sector is the provider. The NHS has worked well as a provider of health care, achieving results for the amount of resources put in that are a lot better than is the case in other countries. It does not need this sort of reform, which I have considerable doubt will be for the better.
I give the Government the benefit of the doubt on identity cards. Before the election, I voted for the cards in principle, but the devil is in the detail. Another example of that might be the children's registers: the intention is good, but the Government must do the necessary work to ensure that they operate properly. Care must be taken about the data that are kept and who is allowed access, and proper provision must be made for the correction of inaccurate information. Moreover, the purposes of the registers must be made clear and not continually added to. If the Government do not do that necessary work, the project could end up discredited and unable to fulfil its intended goals. If that happens, it will be an expensive failure.
There is also a case for a carefully calibrated policy on incapacity benefit. Nobody wants malingerers to freeload and nobody wants seriously ill people to be denied their benefit, but there are a lot of people in between. In my constituency, some 6 per cent. of the working population are on incapacity benefit. As an urban area, it is a tough place to live. The living environment, let alone the working one, is tough. It makes people sick, even if that sometimes manifests itself in just an inability to cope at anything other than a low level. To be brutally frank, many such people are mentally sick or inadequate when held up against what we want of them: to work and to cope for themselves. Tougher invalidity rules would be unfair to them. I favour the option, suggested by the Government, of seeking to help such people remove the obstacles to working, but we should not be swift to punish them by
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cutting off their benefit if the process turns out to be a slow one. There still remains the suspicion that the Government's main objective is to move swiftly to cut the overall invalidity bill, so the detail of the proposals will need to be scrutinised very carefully.
Local government workers, key workers, teachers, nurses and health care professionals must have secure pensions. They have paid in over the years for their pension rights, and the terms of those rights have been successfully negotiated by their representatives. It is not right that the Government should take a heavy-handed approach and adversely change such pension rights. There must be proper talks and negotiations with the public service trade unions, and agreed solutions must be reached. Public sector workers are paid relatively low wages for the important public service that they perform, and their pensions should be protected. I will not support a fast fix that seriously penalises such workers.
The Government must also take action to protect the pensions of people who work in the private sector. Effective robbery from pension savings by fat-cat directors of finance companieswho take excessive salaries and dividends for themselves, even when the savings that they are managing are underperformingmust be stopped. The whole commission system is now seen as lining the pockets of the financial adviser, against the interests of the saver. Employers have not contributed properly to pension funds, taking long contribution holidays for themselves and worsening their workers' pension rights when the funds failed to match commitments.
Finance capital associated with the stock exchange has brought about a depletion in pension funds, without the stock exchange being accountable. There is no transparency in its performance. The Government have stood by and said, "This is a private sector matter, not a matter for us." Individuals saving more for their old age are increasingly mooted as a major factor in any future system, but that will not be a solution if they can so easily be robbed of their money as is currently the case. If the Government want a savings culture, they must get rid of the corporate robbery culture. According to a report in The Independent of 12 April, the Prime Minister bowed to pressure from business and shelved the threat of compulsory employer pension contributions until a fourth Labour term of office. If so, that was an irresponsible capitulation. In any workable solution, employers must pay more and pay consistently.
I wish to discuss three other matters, the first of which is Iraq. Some 100,000 Iraqis have been killed and the country has been plunged into the hands of militant insurgents. Execution-style murders have become a new trend in the violence in Iraq; some 450 people have died in that way so far in May alone. The desperate security situation is matched by the almost non-existent administrative infrastructure. There has been no serious effort at reconstruction or at rebuilding Iraq for the people. There has been no clear-up of cluster bomblets or of other unexploded ordinance. Iraq's resources, most notably oil, continue to be plundered. Deplorably, proper plans to follow "shock and awe" were non-existent, and the Iraqi people continue to suffer.
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Moreover, we have lost 87 UK service personnel in Iraq. Those troops and their families, along with Iraqis and all the others who have been killed or maimed, are the victims of a decision to go to war that was taken on a false premise, and on legal advice deliberately changed under pressure that did not properly reflect the illegality of the action. The policy and the interpretation of the law were left to the Prime Minister, and he interpreted the United Kingdom's national interest as being to side, come what may, with the warmonger in the White House. The national interest, from now on, must be what the British people want and need, not what a right-wing Republican President of the United States wants.
I continue to support the campaign to bring the troops home at an early opportunity. That is not cutting and running, but facing up to our responsibility to bring about a solution. There can be none while foreign troopsours and those from the United Statesare there in occupation. We have to pay for our mistakes and to help to build Iraq, even after we have left, but we need not pay with the loss of more lives.
On 2 May, The Independent disclosed the Government's plan to develop and deploy new nuclear weapons. That is hardly visionary, although it is par for new Labour. Nor is it for the good. As Robert McNamara, the United States Secretary of Defence during the Kennedy and Johnson eras, has said, human fallibility and nuclear weapons mean the destruction of nations. The policy would also doom non-proliferation efforts to failure, as the non-proliferation treaty was a bargain between those nations who agreed not to develop nuclear weapons and those states with nuclear weapons who agreed to eliminate them. The unnecessary holding of nuclear weaponsindeed, the development and deployment of seemingly smaller, usable weaponsfuels proliferation. It will lead to the solution of perpetual Iraq-style wars and occupations against unfavoured states, while favoured states such as Israel, India and Pakistan will continue to expand their nuclear arsenals until they either become unfavoured or use them.
Nuclear weapons will be used if we take that route. It is not a sustainable policy. We must return to treaty, international law and inspection arrangements. That must include our properly meeting our NPT commitments. That should mean that the option of a new generation of nuclear weapons for Britain is out. Otherwise, we shall have the hypocritical spectacle of a British Prime Minister falsely accusing another country of having weapons of mass destruction while he is authorising a big expansion of his own.
Nuclear power is my last matter. I strongly support the Government's renewable energy policy of getting 10 per cent. of electricity from renewable sources by 2010. We are below 3 per cent. at present. The Government must use compulsion and invoke the national interest, as they did with the immigration and asylum centre in Oxford, to ensure that there are sufficient wind and wave farms and that there are solar panels in all newly built homes. It would not be right to abandon that and to switch to building new nuclear power stations. Many such as myself suspect that that option is returning to the table only to supply a discreet means of sourcing the new nuclear weapons programme. Nuclear power is hugely wasteful. The cost to the British taxpayer of its debts and of clean-up is
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counted in billions of pounds. It spreads radioactivity. There is the risk of a Chernobyl-type disaster, and there is still no safe disposal option for nuclear waste. It is not the solution. We must press ahead more insistently on wind, wave and sun power, and not be fooled by the allegedly easy nuclear option.
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