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There are numerous causes. There are huge changes in our society, for example. There are the values which we as adults pass on to young people. If young people do not understand the value of learning, we are to blame. We are the adults, and we must ask why, for instance, some of our young people see as the only use of leisure going shopping or getting so drunk
that one falls down in the streetnot the majority, by any means, but some of them do.
Why, in an information age, have we neglected to teach our young people sufficiently how to sort good information from bad, and how to deal with the huge amount of information that comes over the internet so that they can discuss the issues? I do not want for one moment to stigmatise all young people. That is wrong, but those are issues that we must face. I hope we will return to them in future debates in the House.
The passing on of those values is a job that our schools must undertake, and they must ensure that we engage our young people actively in their communities. We have a great opportunity to do that now through the Governments youth strategy and through their plans for extended schools. Citizenship should be active, but it cannot be fact-free or value-free. The Select Committee on Education and Skills is undertaking an inquiry into citizenship education. I do not want to pre-empt that inquiry, but it is clear from the evidence that we have received and from the Ofsted reports that the subject is sometimes very badly taught.
We need some joined-up government. If we are talking about building strong communities, we must start with our young people. In the light of that, it is folly to cut the number of training places available to people wishing to teach citizenship education in the future. I hope my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will consider that carefully.
To build good communities, we must start with young people. We must get them engaged and active and we should recognise that most young people are decent, hard-working youngsters. Very often, we speak about the bad in young people. The majority of young people are not like that at all. We need to say so and nurture the good, positive qualities in our youngsters. That is our job as adults, and if we fail in it, we will be failing for the future. I hope those young people will grow up to be active citizens engaged in their communities, as I hope many more adults now will be. But the one thing that is necessary in order to be engaged in the community is time, and that too we must consider. We need time for our families and to volunteer to be a parish councillor or whatever. The Government have done wonders in family legislation, with improvements to maternity leave, the introduction of paternity and adoption leave, and the right in some circumstances to request flexible working, but in future we will have to look at our long hours culture. Longer hours do not necessarily mean greater efficiency. In future, if we want a society that combines work and leisure, we will have to learn to work smart as well as hard.
We talk much about empowering communities, but we must be clear about what that means. If involvement in the community is restricted to only a few who have the leisure for it, we are not really empowering communities at all. In addition, we must be clear about the lines of accountability that we want to introduce; otherwise, we will simply be setting up more and more quangos. We must remember that democratic accountability has to be a part of any community involvement.
I do not want to suggest that everything is negative; there are great signs in our society of good, with people
engaged actively in their communities, and we need to celebrate that. There are people who do good work every day. There are people who carry out charity work without making any fuss about it. We should be rewarding and honouring those people far more than we do. There are young people who engage in their communities now, who work hard but who are also volunteers in various groups and societies. Despite the problems that we have had, there are some great signs that the various communities of different origins in this country are now meshing together.
I end on a hopeful note, and I hope that those to whom I am about to refer will not mind my doing so. In the summer I went to my godsons wedding. Despite being born in this country, he rejoices in a very Irish name. His wife is a Hindu, again born and bred in this country. I watched the families and the young people at that wedding, of different ethnic origins and backgrounds, people in saris and western dress, and they meshed together wonderfully. It was a great occasion. That shows that our young people in particular are moving on from some of the problems that we have seen in the past. They do not care about peoples ethnic origin or religious beliefs; they work and live together in many areas in a way that offers a great sign of hope for our society. We need to ensure that we build strong communities that encourage that wherever people live and which prepare us for the future. If we get that right, we will be able to do it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on one of the most interesting and eloquent speeches that I have heard in a Queens Speech debate. I almost wholly share her analysis of the issues that face us, and some of the solutions. I hope that what she has said has been taken full account of by those on the Government Front Bench. On one particular issue she must be rightthe House has neglected the issue of continuing and further education in recent years. We spend a lot of time in both Houses discussing higher education but we have neglected further and continuing education, and I hope that we can put that right when the new legislation comes before us. I hope that I will be able, with her, to contribute to that. It was a very good speech indeed, which I could not possibly match, and I hope that those of my and her colleagues who are not here will read it with profit.
There is always something to welcome in the Queens Speech, and I certainly welcome two particular measures, limited though they are. The first is the measure to deal with long-term pensions. I obviously welcome the legislation to start implementing the recommendations of the Turner commission, but it is limited in two respects. First, from what I understand, the Government do not intend to deal with the central issue of equity to put existing as well as new members of public pension schemes on to a more equal footing with those in the private sector. As I understand the drift of the Governments proposals, those who remain
in the private sector will have to work longer and harder well on into their 60s, not least to restore the damage done by the Chancellors attack on pension funds, while those in the public sector schemes will still be able to claim their fully indexed rights so much earlier. That cannot be right, and if we are to have long-term pensions reform, we will need to return to the issue of equity between the public and the private sides.
Secondly on pensions, I hope that the legislation will also give us the opportunity to see what we can do to put the longer-term pensions issue on to a more permanent basis. I am struck how in the United States the future of pensions policy is not a partisan matter. There is widespread agreement between the parties in the United States, and it is not an election issue or a major party-political issue. The Turner commission suggested that it might be given some kind of permanence, and that it might become some kind of standing commission. The Governor of the Bank of England has asked us to reflect on how the new successful arrangements for monetary policy might be replicated in other areas of public policy, and long-term pensions policy might well be one of those. It might well be better if we were able to turn to some more independent figure, other than the Secretary of State of either partyperhaps the Government Actuary relabelled as the public actuary, perhaps the pension regulator. I do not know how it might be structured, but when we are considering pensions overall, we need some more independent source of advice. The Government Actuarys Department advises on the various public sector schemes, but that advice is not always published, so does not contribute to the public debate in the way that I would like to see.
Secondly there is the Bill to legislate for the independence of statistics. That is welcome, though it has been a long time in coming. The Government first promised to introduce an independent national statistical service in their 1997 manifesto. The Green Paper was published back in 1998. It was entitled Statistics: A Matter of Trust. It might better have been entitled Statistics: A Matter of Time, because we have had to wait some eight years for the legislation. However, it is welcome, and I will not go into great detail on it, not least because I spoke on this subject at a conference with the Financial Secretary yesterday because I had the honour to be in the Chair for the Treasury Sub-Committee report into independence for statistics, one of the main recommendations of which was that the Government were right to say that the key must be to improve public confidence. But the way to do that is to make the statistics as independent as possible.
Legislation will be introduced to create an independent board
to enhance confidence
in Government statistics.
The statistics are not just the Governments statistics; they are our statistics. They are national statistics. Statistics are a public good, not simply for the
Government, not simply for users, but also for the public, who, through official statistics, should be better able to measure the performance of those whom they have deputed to govern over them. Those statistics belong to all of us, and that is why it is so important that the new board is properly independent and does establish statistics as a public good. Those are two Bills that I certainly welcome.
I come now to three specific issues, which are touched on in the Queens Speech, but which I think need more attention: public service reform, competitiveness and localism. I begin with public service reform. As many of my hon. Friends have said, so much money has been spent and so many new bodies have been created, yet with so little result. In the national health service, trusts are still not free to set their own pay. Through the power of the royal colleges on the one hand, and the power of the trade unions on the other, we still have national rates, terms and conditions and working practices that do not enable the best trusts to vary, differentiate and experiment with different ways of working in the delivery of health care. Community hospitals are back in vogue and, properly, supported by the Government in a welcome White Paper, but that is not properly thought through.
Local primary care trusts that want to establish community hospitals find that they first have to sort out how the new trust that has just come into existence wants to take account of the overall pattern of community hospitals in the wider area, as well as having to compete for attention with the fit for purpose exercise that is examining almost everything else. Furthermore, the growing inflexibility of the private finance initiative means that acute hospitals are in danger not only from the purchasing and commissioning power of PCTs, which can change from year to year, but from the costs of longer leases whereby rental payments have to be paid for 25, 30 or 35 years to come.
As the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) rightly reminded us, we have an increasingly demoralised NHS work forcepeople who were, rightly, encouraged by the Government to train for and to join the NHS. We have all had in our constituencies cases of physiotherapists, midwives and health visitors who cannot find the post that they were originally promised and are denied the jobs for which they trained. Trusts are under such financial pressure that they are tempted to cut out what may be too cheaply labelled as the softer end of the NHSvital services such as physiotherapy, health visiting and so on, which are important in early identification and early warning as regards health and need.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is still with us. Perhaps he is still wrestling with the policy on the anonymity of sperm donation and the challenge that has been thrown at him, but if he is going to stand for the deputy leadership and deputy premiership of his party he will have to learn to multi-task and to get his head round these various topics. I will not pursue that analogy. To their credit, the Government have delivered more capital spending on education, with gleaming new buildings that are very welcome, if, as my friends sometimes tell me, rather expensive in terms of pounds
per square foot and the engineering and design and so on, compared with other buildings in the public sector.
We have the new buildings, yes, but head teachers and governors are still stuck with the same working practices and terms and conditions that were laid down 20 or 30 years ago. I fully accept that teachers working hours were laid down by a Conservative Government 20 years ago and that the Secretary of State has had to live with the consequences in terms of primary legislation. However, this Government have been in power for nearly 10 years. No other business or service organisation outside the public sector still has to work on the basis of working practices laid down 20 years ago. I do not understand why heads cannot be free to set their own pay for staff and to change hours and duties where necessary.
The question of competitiveness was ignored in the Queens Speech, which makes no reference to the need for a more competitive economy. It refers to a stable economy, but that is not quite the same thing. A stable economy is a necessary condition of our future prosperity, but not a sufficient condition. We need to be more competitive. I am worried that we are slipping down the various competitiveness league tables. Of course, Front-Benchers can bandy about league tables from different sources to prove whether we are fourth, fifth or 11th, and whether our position has worsened. Nevertheless, I want to share with the House the results of an exercise that I ask the Library to do every three or four yearsto measure gross domestic product per head, on a purchasing power parity basis to eliminate the differences in market exchange rates, between the United Kingdom, the 24 other European Union countries, the G7 countries, and all 50 of the states of the United States of America.
Hon. Members may be somewhat surprised to learn of the results. Five EU countries are wealthier than us per head. Much more interesting, however, is the comparison of GDP per head when the UK is ranked with each of the 50 states of the US, which shows that we would come 44th. Only Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Montana and Oklahoma are poorer than the UK in those terms, while states such as New Mexico, Utah and Arizona are wealthier. That is an extremely alarming position to be in.
There is no simple answer to reversing that trend, but this Government have certainly made things worse by increasing the burdens of taxation and of regulation. At first, the Prime Minister wanted to place us at the heart of Europe, but then he signed the social chapter. The Government are bending every sinew in Brussels to get out of the impact of the working time directive, which will not only hit businesses and make us less competitive but, as the Government know full well, hit our public services, not least the NHS. It will affect the social and caring services and doctors on split hospital sites such as serve my constituency and result in huge extra costs for the NHS.
Irrespective of what has been happening in Brussels, the Government have piled on the regulation here at home. The Pensions Act 2004, well intentioned though it was in dealing with the particular problem of the collapse of certain schemes, has added immeasurably to the burden of regulation on British business. I suspect, as I warned at the time, that that makes it increasingly difficult for weaker companies to be taken
over by stronger companies and rescued as they were previously. The Companies Act 2006, which we passed a couple of weeks agoour very own Sarbanes-Oxley Acthas piled on the bureaucratic burden in terms of lists of suppliers, compliance, business reviews and all the rest of it with which company directors will now have to cope.
The Government talk a good game on localism, and they have bandied around various phrases in recent years. For a while, we had earned autonomy, but it then turned out that almost no school had applied for it. In the great trust schools revolution, only 50 or so schools out of 24,000 have so far expressed any interest in trust status. That is not a great number. There are only 50 foundation trusts so farfewer than 20 per cent. of the total of NHS trusts. We do not hear quite so much about earned autonomy nowadays, perhaps because of the failure of various trusts and schools to apply for it. The Treasury has a different phrasethe constrained discretion model. I take the phrase from the book, Microeconomic Reform in Britain: Delivering Opportunities for All, by the Economic Secretary and his colleagues. On the ground it does not feel like a constrained discretion model because, as the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) reminded us, interference in planning, policing, health policy and housing occurs again and again.
I shall give two simple examples. When my former local police commander, who has recently retired, was already battling in west Kent with targets that the chief constable of Kent and the Home Office had set for him, the Government office for the south-east suddenly set him a new target. He received a letter telling him that he was underperforming on tackling bicycle thefts. That edict on behalf of central Government was delivered through Guildford to a local police commander who was trying to police his patch.
This week my district council, which had presented its planning policyas it had to dofor reference to the Government office for the south-east, received a letter commenting on it. Some of the detail might be of interest to hon. Members. The letter was from the senior planning officer and the title on the letterhead was, revealingly, Surrey, Kent, East and West Sussex Planning. That gives some idea of the power of the new Government regional offices. The officer is in charge of Surrey, Kent, East Sussex and West Sussex planning, and he writes a letter to interfere with Sevenoaks district council.
On the information before us, our view is that there is no apparent or convincing case to introduce the policy approach outlined in the SPD;
that your Council should instead have regard to the emerging PPS3 (and the Barker 1 response) and that, as it is a high demand area...it should consider applications for housing favourably where they meet the criteria.
In view of the serious reservations which we have expressed about this SPD, we would strongly urge you to abandon any further work on the document.
You should be aware that, should a planning appeal be made on this issue, this letter may be brought to the attention of the Inspector.
The council had set out a strategy to build more affordable houses in an area that is 90 per cent. green belt, and was on track to deliver the 3,000 or so housesa target originally set for the 20-year planning period. It was playing its part by proposing several hundred houses each year to comply with the target. Yet an elected council is suddenly told that it must allow any sort of housing because there is high demand, even if it is in the green belt. That is not what I understand by localism.
As this is the Prime Ministers last Queens Speech as Prime Minister, I want to say a word or two about him. He and I became Members of Parliament in the same year and we represented the same council area. I believed that he was interested in effecting radical change. Although he did not agree with the objectives and delivery of the Conservative Government and did not always vote with us when we fought to extend opportunity, widen ownership and encourage social mobility, in 1997 I had hopes that he might show us other ways of achieving that agenda. Three times he had the majority to do that, and he had a successful economy in which to introduce the necessary reforms. However, 10 years later, it all appears to have been frittered away. Of 25,000 schools, 50 are interested in trust status. Of 250 NHS trusts, only 50 so far have foundation status. That is a pitifully poor return for 10 years of absolute power, billions in public spending and Bill after Bill. For a truly radical Government, we must await the election of the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron).
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