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Having responded to the points of the Liberal leader in as emollient a tone as I could manage, I now wish to refer to the Loyal Address of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael). He mentioned in the first instance an idea whose time has come; that was a quote from Victor Hugo—I am glad to see that my right hon. Friend is present. He also mentioned the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill, and he almost forgot—which I did not—that I served on the Committee that pushed that Bill through, against great opposition. I was amused when the Prime Minister—who was the Leader of the Opposition at the time—asked my right hon. Friend how anyone could oppose it; as my right hon. Friend will remember, there was so much opposition that we had to have two inquiries to bring it about. I flew over it when Middlesbrough won the League Cup—as that competition was then called—at Cardiff. When I saw
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my work, I knew that it was worth while. One of my greatest achievements in this House was to help to see that the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill made it on to the statute book.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East (Rosemary McKenna) had a sip of water when she seconded the motion, which reminded me of when Disraeli introduced a Budget. Disraeli had a glass or a bottle next to him from which he drank steadily throughout his Budget speech, and no one quite knew at the beginning whether it was water or gin, but they certainly knew by the end of his speech. That did not happen in the case of my hon. Friend.

The Leader of the Opposition mentioned the late Eric Forth. He sat on the Finance and Services Committee with me, and also on the House of Commons Commission with me, and he played an exemplary role on both of them. He was a true parliamentarian, and we all regret the loss of him.

The Leader of the Opposition mentioned Darfur, and the major struggle in the south of Sudan. I visited Algeria in September; it can play, and is playing, a key role in seeking a solution to the problems in that part of the world. The solution has to come out of Africa, and out of the United Nations. We all wish the various parties well in seeking a solution.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned Afghanistan, and there was a reference to NATO. I am sure that all Members wish NATO to play a major role in Afghanistan, and other nation states to contribute to that. He also mentioned moderate Governments in the Gulf. Often when I visit the Gulf, I see it as a stable area that is surrounded by volatility, which might be coming from Iraq or Iran. The way in which we use the influence of those moderate Gulf states in relation to Palestine and Israel and the problems that arise in respect of Iraq or Iran is very important and significant.

The right hon. Member for North Antrim is still in his place. The Leader of the Opposition mentioned Sinn Fein, and that support for the police and the courts must be forthcoming. There is an opportunity, which I know that the right hon. Gentleman is taking extraordinarily seriously, to have a final breakthrough on the problems of Ireland that have been with us for centuries, and certainly since 1921-22.

The Prime Minister talked about energy security, and the fact that we will be importing between 80 and 90 per cent. of our energy in the years to come. Ten per cent. of that energy will come from liquefied natural gas from Qatar, in the Gulf, and another 5 per cent. will come from Algeria. They are very significant strategic partners—one in Africa and the other in the Gulf—and as such we should cultivate those two nation states, not only to ensure our energy supplies but to support the democracy in Algeria and the developing nation state of Qatar.

Her Majesty mentioned a visit that she will make to the United States of America next year, which will bring about a stronger partnership for this country with the United States. The Gracious Speech also referred to a stable economy being the foundation of a
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fair and prosperous society—an issue that the Prime Minister touched on when he responded to the Leader of the Opposition. The Government are not only providing a stable economy as the foundation of a fair and prosperous society; they are maintaining low inflation, sound public finances and high employment. I might add that there is also a link with record investment in public services and with the record numbers of children and pensioners being lifted out of poverty.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentions pensioners, and he will have noticed that the Prime Minister made very little reference to the promise of long-term pension reform. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that the destruction of the private final pension scheme, and the refusal to honour such schemes and to make good the plight of pensioners who lost all their pensions when their private companies went bankrupt, was a disgrace? Or does he agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer that that was a great move toward social justice?

Sir Stuart Bell: As someone who lost half his pension requirement through Equitable Life, I have every sympathy with the points made on the Floor of this House about pensions. This issue has been mentioned in the Queen’s Speech and there will be debates on it. A local government pension lobby will attend the House next Wednesday, and I look forward to seeing the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) there, in addition to his listening to my reply today.

The Gracious Speech also referred to the fact that strong, secure and stable communities are at the heart of the Government’s programme. Although it made no specific reference to a White Paper on communities, we expect one on city regions to be presented before Christmas. Such regions will add to the concept of stable communities. City regions and regional development agencies are not mutually exclusive, as the Economic Secretary will tell us. The concept of a Tees valley city region has great attractions for Teesside.

In this respect, I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), who has taken up her Front-Bench position for this debate. This week, she launched a £750,000 state-of-the-art channel pilot vessel called the Greatham, in the presence of the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman). Teesport has a £300 million deep-sea container terminal plan—a plan that is currently absent from the Government’s controversial draft national port strategy. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar mentioned that last year when seconding the motion, so she will remember that. We will continue this project with patience and perseverance, with the help of the Transport Minister and others.

We also have plans for a Tees valley metro stretching from Darlington to Saltburn, with the potential for a future phase reaching Hartlepool and Nunthorpe, in Middlesbrough. It has the approval of five Tees valley local authorities, and it would cost £140 million and could be operating within 10 years. These are major projects for the public sector, but we have a strong
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private sector that is seeking to regenerate Teesside, building on our strong petrochemical industry. We are building a biofuel industry on the production of renewable energy products. We have Biofuels at Seal Sands and D1 Oils in Middlesbrough, with two more plants in the pipeline. We have a wood-burning power station that is due to come online in 2007 and Petroplus Refining, and we shall have Ensus, which is a further plant producing biofuel.

Although production of biofuel feedstock crops, such as rape seed for biodiesel, offers UK agriculture an excellent market opportunity, domestic production cannot meet the future demand that will be necessary under the European Commission’s 5 per cent. renewable transport fuels obligation, especially if the Government move to a higher target of 10 per cent. of biofuels. The Government should consider how the import of feedstock from new sustainable crops from the developing world, such as jatropha, can play a role in meeting our energy needs, benefiting both ourselves and some of the poorest countries on earth.

Urban regeneration goes hand in hand with industrial regeneration, linking up with the call in the Gracious Speech for stable communities. We need urban regeneration on Teesside to meet the housing demand that flows from industrial regeneration. We need new homes in the hearts of our towns to ease the pressure on North Yorkshire. We need to provide homes for those who will sustain our strong petrochemical industry, which has 12,000 workers, and the new industries of chemical manufacturing, research and development into renewable energy, advanced engineering and logistics. We need a clear plan for home ownership in the north, especially on Teesside.

Urban regeneration will be the base of the stable communities to which the Gracious Speech referred. To be sure, urban regeneration will take time—some 10 years, with appropriate levels of investment. That investment may be Government led, but the private sector will lever in funds to the tune of some £450 million. For that to happen, our single housing investment pot should rise to £30 million a year, to give us the 10-year building space. So far, £32 million has been made available over two years. That is obviously £16 million a year, but there is doubt in Government circles over the second year commitment. We are seeking to achieve a golden dawn of industrial regeneration and urban regeneration on Teesside.

A great deal will be made of the Prime Minister’s last address on the Gracious Speech, which will be compared with his first. One thing that I remember is that in 1997 the first act of the then Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), was to authorise the private finance building of the James Cook university hospital, which is now one of the finest hospitals in the country. I met a constituent at the Middlesbrough cenotaph on Sunday who had returned to the constituency because her ailing husband needed the best treatment that he could receive, which she knew would be at the James Cook university hospital. Many have written to me to say that the hospital is patient centred, family centred and community centred.

Of all the legacies that our Prime Minister will leave us from his tenure in office, he can be proud of what he
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has done for our patients, those who attend the health service and those who have benefited from it. That will be one of his finest legacies.

4.38 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I should like to begin by making three observations about the Prime Minister’s speech. First, together with the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), he claimed credit for the redevelopment of Cardiff bay. The redevelopment of Cardiff bay had started and been under way for some considerable time well before 1997. It is a measure of the extent to which the Prime Minister has withdrawn into a world of fantasy that he takes credit for achievements that are not his.

My second observation is about the extent to which evidence was available when the House last considered the period of detention during which terrorist suspects could be held without charge. The Prime Minister suggested that there was evidence to justify a period of 90 days, but there was no such evidence. At the time, I had some responsibility for the attitude of Her Majesty’s Opposition. I asked the Prime Minister what evidence existed and I was shown it, such as it was. There was no evidence, at that time, to justify a longer period of detention than the 28 days on which the House agreed. Since then, further evidence may have become available, but if so it has not been made available to the House. I hope that it will be made available without delay to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), who asked for it, and to my right hon. Friends the shadow Home Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition.

Thirdly, I shall respond to the Prime Minister’s suggestion that it is wrong to subject our strategy in Iraq to continuing assessment, lest we give signals that somehow give comfort to our enemies. I entirely repudiate the observations of the hon. Members for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) and for North Durham (Mr. Jones), to the effect that the morale of our troops is undermined if we keep that strategy under review. In my judgment, nothing would do more to undermine morale than the perception that the only reassessment of the strategy is the one under way in Washington and the House lacks either the interest or the robustness necessary to make its own assessment of where we are.

That leads me to the subject of Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not intend to talk about the past; I want to talk about the present and the future. Just three days ago, virtually every Member of the House attended services to commemorate the sacrifices made on our behalf in two world wars. On that same day, four more members of our armed forces made the supreme sacrifice in Iraq. So far, we have lost 125 men and women in Iraq and 41 in Afghanistan—and, alas, there are certain to be more such losses. The House has a duty to face up to the question of whether we are asking our servicemen and women to risk, and perhaps give, their lives in a cause that is not only just, but attainable.

The Government’s objective in Iraq was to establish a situation in which Iraq became a prosperous, democratic and stable state—a “beacon”, in the Prime
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Minister’s word, for the rest of the region. That is a noble objective, but the question that we cannot shirk is whether that is still achievable. Apparently, the Government now seek to co-opt Syria and Iran in their efforts to deal with the crisis that we face. I am all for talking to Syria and Iran, and it is a great pity that the United States, in particular, spurned the opportunity to talk to Iran before its current President came to office. By all means, let us talk to those countries, but do we really think that Syria and Iran want a democratic Iraq that is a beacon for the rest of the region? Those are the very countries to which Iraq was supposed to become a beacon.

What can we offer Syria and Iran to persuade them to co-operate with us in achieving our objective? Will we tell Syria that we will try to call off the attempts to bring the Syrian Administration to account for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon? Will we give it the green light to resume its policy of intervention in Lebanon? What will we offer Iran—will we give it the green light to continue its nuclear programme?

If there is a solution to the crisis in Iraq—I very much hope that there is—it must largely come from within Iraq. The one critical step that must be taken is to bring under proper constitutional and democratic control the armed militias that appear to be the source of so much of the lawlessness that afflicts the country at present. Indeed, there are worrying signs—as recent events make clear—that the police themselves need to be brought under proper constitutional and democratic control. As long as those armed militias continue to owe their allegiance to political parties, individual Cabinet Ministers or other leaders, and as long as they are permitted to exist, we will never reach the objective that the Prime Minister has set.

I do not pretend that dealing with those militias will be an easy task—I am sure that it has become much more difficult since I first made that point more than a year ago—but unless it is addressed I am afraid that there is no hope that the Prime Minister’s objective can be achieved. This is the hardest of the hard choices that face Prime Minister al-Maliki. If he needs help to do what must be done, as he undoubtedly will, he should be given it; but if he will not, or cannot, confront the threat that the militias pose to the achievement of a prosperous and stable Iraq, we should recognise the hopelessness of the mission and act accordingly.

Somewhat similar considerations apply in Afghanistan. There, as anecdotal reports abundantly demonstrate, the problem is corruption. Apparently, it is now impossible to travel along a main road in Afghanistan without being stopped at official checkpoints and asked for money. That corruption is at least one of the causes of the resurgence of the Taliban and it must be tackled by President Karzai. Again, I do not pretend that the task is easy and if he needs help he should be given it, but again if he cannot, or will not, tackle that challenge we should recognise the consequences for our mission in that country and act accordingly.

One of the constant criticisms that has been made of the Prime Minister is that—to put it mildly—he has failed to make the most of the influence that he has at
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various times possessed with our allies, especially the United States. I believe that criticism is justified, but the Prime Minister now has a final opportunity to use whatever influence he still possesses. By virtue of the presence of our troops, that influence in Iraq and Afghanistan remains considerable. By persuading the Government of Iraq to tackle the militias and the Government of Afghanistan to tackle corruption, the Prime Minister may yet, despite all the mistakes that have been made, rescue the international missions for which he is most likely to be remembered.

4.48 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I think that this is the first Queen’s Speech since he announced his decision to stand down at the next election, and I want to pay tribute to him. Despite having held the highest possible offices in this country, he remains an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament, and since giving up the leadership of the Conservative party he has contributed fully as a Back Bencher to debates in the House, unlike some others who have held high office. I am sure that he will be missed. However, although the Leader of the Opposition has demanded a general election immediately—as is the wont of most Leaders of the Opposition—I am sure that before the right hon. and learned Gentleman leaves this place he will participate in other Queen’s Speech debates in the years to come.

I shall not talk about Iraq, even though that has been the flavour of a number of the speeches so far. I want to congratulate both the proposer and the seconder of the Queen’s Speech debate. I entered the House at the same time as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael). He sat on my first Committee in 1987; it was on an immigration Bill—there will be another one this year.

I do not know who is responsible for the Cardiff bay success, but I think we should award joint credit to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe and my right hon. Friend, because I think that none of us would want to see it go—it being so successful and making such a great contribution to the economy of Wales.

It is also right that the Government, in the Gracious Speech, have put home affairs issues and security issues at the centre of their legislative programme. On security issues I am a great loyalist. I accept virtually everything that I am told by Home Secretaries, especially of my party. I also accept it when I am told that very senior figures in the security services tell us that there are real problems and that there are conspiracies. I think that the Home Secretary, on Radio 4 this morning, said that there were 30 separate plots or conspiracies, at various stages, in existence. I accept it when he says that because I—and, I think, most Members, unless they are privy to the special information that is given—do not know any different. Therefore, the need for tough measures to deal with those who wish to undermine our country and cause death and destruction to our people is a serious issue, and I accept that the Government have a responsibility to legislate. However, there is also a responsibility to ensure that proper evidence is put before the House
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when the case is being made, and I hope that in the rush for legislation—I take the point that it is urgent and important—we pause and consider people's responsibilities and their civil liberties. I hope that that will be the case in the measures that will be brought forward by the Government in this Queen’s Speech.

The second point that I want to make is about the proposals to reform the Home Office. We have a former Home Secretary in the House this afternoon. He will recall that when he was Home Secretary I challenged him on many occasions from the Back Benches about the never-ending problems in the Home Office. I do not think that we should criticise the present Home Secretary for saying that the Home Office is not fit for purpose; it was tremendously refreshing. Some of us who have had to deal with immigration cases over the past 20 years fundamentally believe that to be the case, not just because of our very wide case load in that area, but because there seems to be no change in the way in which the Home Office has been administered.

I know that the Government say of the former Home Secretary that he signed a contract that brought in a new computer system that did not work, and that is a fact. It is also a fact that the backlog of cases at the immigration and nationality directorate has decreased enormously in the past 10 years. However, it still remains a fact that the backlog is 220,000 cases, and that is far too big a backlog for my constituents. Week after week they come to my surgery, as they do to the surgeries of other. Members, and complain about the time that it takes to get an answer from the Home Office.

The Home Office issues target letters. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) has seen the most recent letter, saying that within three weeks 70 per cent. of postal applications will be dealt with. I know that that does not happen. I am sure that the leading members of the IND know that that does not happen, but they still issue those letters. My fear is that in one of these Bills the operation of IND will be handed over to an outside agency. If it makes it more efficient, I have no problem, but I think it odd that we should have to hand the administration of IND to an outside agency. What does that say about the ability of our officials—and our Ministers—to run this system?

Mr. Salmond: This is an observation from an outsider to some of these issues. In the past 10 years there have been 57 pieces of new legislation affecting the Home Office, piloted through the House by Home Office Ministers. Is it not just possible that if they had spent a bit less time legislating and a bit more time administrating, the Department might have been in better shape?

Keith Vaz: I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he is absolutely right. Obviously, there is a place for legislation, which is why we are here. Otherwise, we would just be conducting debates and chats without conclusion. We have to legislate; otherwise what is the point of Parliament? However, legislating to the extent that we end up with 57 pieces of Home Office legislation without the system getting any better can lead to real problems and the hon. Gentleman is quite right to pinpoint that.

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