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6.7 pm

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am pleased to participate in this debate on the Queen’s Speech, the contents of which were rather mixed and represent a missed opportunity, given what it did and did not contain. For some of us, the Queen’s Speech was therefore a disappointment—no new ideas, merely a recycling of previous measures and approaches. To me and others in my party, those measures looked like those of a tired Government who have run out of steam. The speech seemed to contain more illusion than reality. After nine years of activity and legislation, there are still so many problems that the Government have either not dealt with or dealt with so badly that they have made them worse.

I am delighted to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), who spoke about post office closures. Closures in suburban constituencies such as mine are just as important as they are in rural areas, because post offices are centres of the community. Pensioners, families, mothers with young children and businesses need the facilities that post offices supply in their localities, but nothing in today’s measures highlights the problems of the communities in the suburbs, where post offices are also being closed. We also heard nothing about cuts in NHS provision in community services and hospitals in Bexley. That will be a sore omission for my constituents and for people in neighbouring constituencies in the borough.

Antisocial behaviour is a serious problem in our area, but the Government have not been able to deal with it. There is the usual comment in the speech about Government dealing with antisocial behaviour, but they have had endless attempts and the problem seems to be becoming worse. In addition, skills shortages, concerns about standards in education, the stealth taxes that the Government have imposed on my constituents, and many transport issues are not addressed in the Queen’s Speech.

I welcome some measures in the speech, however, particularly the proposal to restore the link between pensions and earnings. In the last general election, many of us campaigned on introducing such a measure— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) has been up and down, intervening on quite a few Members this afternoon, and yes, there was a mistake, but one that we looked to rectify in the general election. The Government have only just taken that on board. We have to accept that policy mistakes were made in the past, but the important thing is to recognise when mistakes have been made, and to act accordingly. It has taken the Government a long time to see their mistake in not dealing with the matter earlier.

There are three subjects on which I want to concentrate: the environment, London and education. The environment is a tremendously important issue for all of us, and that fact was highlighted in other
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speeches this afternoon, including in the excellent speech made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. We welcome the climate change Bill, as we need to address the issue for the future of our country and the world, for the sake of our children and grandchildren. However, the problem in my part of the world is that although the Government say that they want to be green and improve the environment, they are taking measures that have the opposite effect.

Recently, Government approval was given for a waste-to-energy incinerator in Belvedere, which is not in my constituency, although it is in the borough of Bexley. Many of us campaigned against it over the past 15 years, because we were concerned about pollution and the increase in transport that would result from waste being taken to the site. We were also concerned about the environment of the riverside, which we tried to clean up; we wanted improving, non-polluting industries there, yet the Government decided to approve the incinerator. That is not exactly environmentally friendly action on the part of a Government who profess concern for the environment.

Another issue is the proposed Thames Gateway bridge, which many of us are campaigning against vigorously. There was a public inquiry on the proposal, and I believe that the public inquiry inspector’s report is now with the Secretary of State for Transport, or will be shortly. The Government seemed agnostic on the subject, but I hope that they will oppose the plan when they have studied the inspector’s report. Locally, all political parties and community groups are against having a crossing point at that part of the Thames. That is not only because of the environmental consequences of pollution—our part of south-east London already has poor air quality, because of history, location and air direction—but, more importantly, because it would increase the traffic in suburban areas of Bexley.

I hope that the Government will take on board the issues raised in the public inquiry, and by community groups and campaigners. If they approve the proposal, their professions of interest in green issues and the environment will be proved to be shallow. I hope that the Government will stick firmly to what they say about being green when it comes to policies in our area. I should like to mention overdevelopment, too. We in the south-east are concerned about the increase in building, which is taking place on every open space, and about losing greenfield and brownfield sites that we very much value. I hope that the Government will look again at those issues.

On London, the Queen’s Speech says that

Many of us are extremely concerned about that. We believe in localism, and we believe that local communities should make decisions that affect the locality. We do not want a Mayor—regardless of political persuasion—with increasing powers, who sits in the centre of London, making decisions on a wide range of issues that affect the suburbs. The current Mayor has visited my borough only once since he came to office, yet the Government want to give him more powers to make more decisions about events in, and policies for, Bexley.

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Bexley is fortunate to have a new Conservative council, elected last May. It is led by Councillor Ian Clement who, together with his team, is doing a tremendous job after four years of a profligate and inefficient Labour council. To take power away from that team and give it to the centre—to the London Mayor—would be a terrible mistake, and the idea is not popular in my area.

While we are talking about unpopular measures that communities in London face, the Olympic levy is of great concern. Although we were all supportive of holding the Olympics in London, we believe that the Olympics are a national, and not just a London, event. Why should Londoners pay an additional levy, not knowing how long it will apply, and how much it will be, for the pleasure of having the Olympics in London?

Tony Baldry: Is it not disappointing that there is now complete chaos on the VAT issue? Ministers must have known about the problem, and surely it is an instance of complete incompetence.

Mr. Evennett: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and it adds insult to injury that those in London must deal with that issue, on top of paying a levy for the privilege of holding the Olympics. In my area, pensioners are particularly exercised about the subject, and I share their view that London should not be penalised with an Olympic levy.

I should like to highlight the importance of regeneration in London, but the majority of the regeneration that will result from the Olympics will take place north of the Thames. Worth while as that may be, it means that the people of Bexley will pay for the Olympics and get precious little for their money, because neither events nor regeneration will take place in Bexley. There is real concern about that, but the Government do not seem terribly fussed or concerned about the issue, either in the Queen’s Speech or elsewhere, although they ought to be.

My third point is on education. We all remember the Prime Minister saying that education would be all-important to his Government when he came into power in 1997, yet there are still tremendous problems to do with education and its provision, as well as skills shortages. Bexley has very good education provision, because we have diversity. There are church schools, grammar schools, technical schools and some excellent comprehensive schools. However, across the country, and even in Bexley, there is still a shortage of skilled labour. The number of pupils leaving school with few qualifications and poor basic skills is quite alarming given that the Government, over the years, said that education was their top priority.

Behaviour, discipline and truancy are all issues that still need to be addressed, and the suggestion made in the Queen’s Speech that the Government

has rather a hollow ring to those of us who were teachers, and to parents, people working with businesses, and school governors, such as me. We are concerned about what is happening.

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Employers who speak to me feel that in general qualifications are easier to obtain than they were in the past and that there are far too many top grades at GCSE and A-level. That is a concern. Although we welcome the contributions of our tremendous teachers and schools, something is going wrong and the Queen’s Speech does not address the underlying problems in our education system.

Of course, we need more emphasis on training, skills and job-related opportunities. It is a tremendous problem for our society that we do not have enough plumbers, carpenters and skilled tradespeople. I look with interest to the further education Bill highlighted in the Queen’s Speech to show us how exactly the Government plan to overcome the skills shortage.

My constituents will be extremely disappointed with most of the Queen’s Speech. More power for the London Mayor, the failure to address the Olympic levy and the costs of the Olympics to London council tax payers, the failure to come to grips with health service cuts and the problems of antisocial behaviour are real issues confronted daily by my constituents and in London. The generalities of the Queen’s Speech will not do. My constituents think that after nine years the Government should have done better. We all feel that the speech goes only a limited way towards improving the quality of life of our constituents, so we are rather sceptical that it will actually achieve what we think needs to be done.

The Queen’s Speech contains a few good points but a lot is not being said or dealt with, so the Opposition are extremely concerned about how the real problems will be addressed. Many of us feel that it will certainly not be under this Government or their successor; it will be only when we have had a general election that we will actually get down to dealing with the problems that concern the vast majority of our constituents. The Government keep talking about the problems but they do not succeed in solving them.

6.22 pm

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I join others in paying tribute to the former Members of the House who are no longer with us. I join, too, in the compliments made to the proposer and seconder of the Queen’s Speech, but I shall not try to join in the debate on the conception and gestation of the Cardiff bay development project.

I welcome the Queen’s Speech and the Bills outlined in it, which address the big issues that confront us: security, climate change and pensions. It is a Queen’s Speech for a Government who are looking to the future, prepared to spell out hard facts, face up to difficulties and introduce legislation to address them.

I shall concentrate my remarks on the proposed climate change Bill, but first I want to say one or two things about security and the war on terror, which have exercised a number of Members. Any country at war has a dilemma in striking the appropriate balance between security at home and the civil liberties that it is fighting to protect. That dilemma is far more difficult now than in any previous wartime situation. Most previous wars have been against a defined enemy operating from a defined geographical base, but now we are fighting a completely different war, against
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opponents who may, in day-to-day activity, be indistinguishable from friends and working colleagues. None the less, the vision of the society that they are trying to bring about is medieval and theocratic and denies people basic human rights and equality of opportunity.

Striking a legislative balance that enables us to identify and put away such people while protecting the civil liberties that enable them to thrive is extremely difficult. At present, the judicial system and, possibly, a media lobby seem to concentrate on protecting the civil liberties of a group of people who are hellbent on destroying ours. They do not have the balance right, but the Government’s proposals on identity cards and, perhaps, on the extension of the 28-day detention period are appropriate as part of the balance of provisions that are necessary in our judicial system to address the scale of the security problem that we face.

In common with many other MPs, I spent 20 days with the West Midlands police during the summer as part of the police and parliamentary scheme. I regularly asked whether identity cards would help the police in their everyday professional duties. Across the board, in all departments, the answer was yes. Opposition Members cannot disregard and reject such consistent advice from a body of people who are engaged day to day in dealing with the problems. I also spent some time with the high-tech group, looking at internet security issues and at how the police trace internet and paedophile crime.

We have a real problem in respect of security, because although the people we are trying to counter have the most simplistic vision of society, they use the most high-tech, skilled methods to convey their message and to operate within the community. From my conversations with the police and civilian staff who daily try to decipher internet codes and encryptions to locate the criminals who use the internet and mobile phone technology to promote their activities, it became obvious that 28 days is insufficient for the police to carry out inquiries on the scale necessary to deal with such criminal activity, whether terrorist or not.

We can argue about other crimes, but nobody would deny that the modern terrorist operating with highly sophisticated means has a potential for destruction that we have never faced in the past from more conventional enemies. We need to look at a different legislative framework, in particular the extension of the 28-day period, so that our police have the tools available to undertake the highly complex investigations necessary to identify those people and bring them to judgment. That is part and parcel of an appropriate and correct balance in our judicial system between freedom and security.

Rob Marris: Part of the difficulty the police face in respect of the dilemma of 28 days in contradistinction to 90 days is that however many resources the UK police put into an investigation—for example, in trying to retrieve encrypted material from a computer—they may have to obtain mobile phone records from another country that has such a chaotic system that it may take two weeks for the records to arrive. Does my hon. Friend agree, therefore, that it can never simply be a question of the amount of resources devoted by this country, and that that has a bearing on how long the period should be?

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Mr. Bailey: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. The use of mobile phones, the constant changing of mobile phones, and their interaction with mobile phones abroad present a big challenge to the police and reinforce the need for them to have greater time to carry out the necessary searches. Mobile phones also pose a range of other problems, which I shall not try to pursue because I have other points to raise.

On the climate change Bill, the Stern report was authoritative and spelled out in stark terms the consequences of inaction. It is simplistic and evades the issue to say that because we are a relatively small part of the problem of CO2 emissions, it is not our responsibility. Stern demolished that argument. It is not only a humanitarian problem that would have an impact on the world economy, and the western nations in particular, but potentially a security problem. The threat posed to security if huge segments of populations are deprived of their homes and livelihoods, or if the many borders or rivers between countries disappear, is, frankly, incalculable.

Britain is more advanced on climate change than any other country in reaching its Kyoto targets and it has a degree of moral authority in taking a lead on it that other countries do not have. Our history gives us avenues of influence that, again, others do not have. Britain is better placed strategically than any other country in taking a lead. The challenge is simple: how does Britain, a country responsible for just 2 per cent. of total carbon emissions, play a role in changing consumer and producer habits across the world in a way that enables other countries to develop their economies and raise their standards of living without causing further damage to the environment?

Although I recognise that cut-throat international trade rarely respects traditional political and diplomatic alliances, we must take a lead. Our traditional role in Europe, and now our position of playing a lead role in Europe, give us an area of influence. Although often derided by some hon. Members, our historical alliance with the United States also gives us an avenue of influence. Add to that our contact with the Commonwealth counties, some of which—India, for instance—will be major players on climate change, and the efforts that we have made to engage with China, and we realise that Britain is strategically placed to have a diplomatic role that is essential to underpin the policies that we are adopting to deal with climate change.

If I turn from the global strategic position to my constituency, it is because in many ways it is a microcosm of the threats and opportunities presented by international climate change. It is a traditional manufacturing constituency and has more foundries than any other constituency. If the Government take the right decisions on climate change, my constituents will have more jobs and live in a cleaner and more energy efficient environment.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Government will have a responsibility for keeping the public on-side on environmental issues and that any taxation tools that are used must not be a smokescreen for stealth taxes, but be for a purpose, which is to ensure that we do what we can to tackle global warming?

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Mr. Bailey: I shall at least touch on that, but essentially I agree with the hon. Gentleman. If taxation is related to the environment, it must be designed to deal with environmental problems. I do not think that there is much difference between us on that.

If the Government make the wrong decisions, foundries in my constituency will have higher costs and jobs could be lost to companies abroad that have higher carbon emissions, but which are at a competitive advantage because their overall costs are lower. The Bill will create a new domestic legal framework for emission reductions and provide a long-term certainty and incentive for business to invest in low-carbon technology. We are assured of that. It will also help with the development of international policy. If that is so, and I think that it will be, it provides the opportunity to preserve our steel and foundry industries, to promote lower-carbon technology within them, and to export that technology abroad.

Traditionally, steel production and cast metal production have been regarded as dirty industries because the processes they use are carbon intensive. Ironically, the products—steel and cast metal—are relatively environmentally friendly because they are durable, which means that they last a long time and do not need to be replaced. Above all, however, they are recyclable in a way that many substitute products are not.

We have to face the reality that the world demand for those products will escalate, possibly dramatically. The world market for steel is 1.1 billion tonnes this year. It will increase to 1.2 billion tonnes next year and so on for the foreseeable future. In China alone, just 1 per cent. of the population own a car. If it gets anywhere near to the western equivalent of about 50 per cent., the implications for the use of steel and carbon emissions are breathtaking. However, as a nation that enjoys all those advantages, we cannot stand aside and lecture China, demanding that it does not progress in that way. We must find a cheaper method of producing steel and metal in a greener and more energy efficient way, and ensure that that technology and the processes are exported.

Key to our success will be the development of the international emissions trading scheme. I welcome moves to set European-wide emissions targets of a 30 per cent. reduction by 2020 and a 60 per cent. reduction by 2050. However, for those to be effective and to have a substantial impact on future emissions, they must be international. The current emissions trading scheme needs to be refined to meet that challenge. The system estimates future levels of production and allocates carbon credits accordingly. Any production above that has to involve purchasing carbon credits from under-users. It is quite possible for a company to invest to increase its production, albeit by cleaner methods, but to have to buy carbon credits to accommodate that increased production. That involves a double cost—first, for the new investment, and secondly, for the additional carbon credits to accommodate the additional production. In addition, no incentive is built into the system for companies that keep within their production targets to reinvest to ensure that their processes become cleaner.

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