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4.58 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to be called in a debate with such high-quality contributions. I listened with rapt attention to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who got the balance between two distinct parts of the Queen’s Speech eloquently and passionately right. I was also impressed by the speeches of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), except for one small part, which I will come to later.

This, like all Queen’s Speeches, is, I hope, driven by the people we represent; otherwise, why is the Queen making such a speech? My experience in the House suggests that this place goes wrong when we cease to listen to what is happening outside, to what people are feeling, to what they care about and to what they are prioritising.

In 1989, after the Green party got nearly 15 per cent. of the vote in the European election, suddenly, every political leader said, “We would never have a party elected in this country that did not prioritise the environment as the No. 1 issue.” Over the years, we have all seen both public prioritisation and political prioritisation of the environment fade away. Three years ago, I spoke to the most senior member of the Government, urging him to give greater priority to the environment. Interestingly, even three years ago, I could not convince him but, during those three years,
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there has been an amazing turnaround in consciousness about the importance of the environment. Things have changed.

The Queen’s Speech is welcome. I received 350 cards urging a climate change Bill and I am pleased that many of my constituents will be happy that there is to be one. However, it must be the right climate change Bill, and it is a shame that we did not have a marine Bill as well.

Before I talk in depth about the environment, let me point out that I had lost my voice last Thursday, so I could not speak in the education day of the Queen’s Speech debate. We have the wonderful tradition of being able to speak about anything in the Queen’s Speech and I wish to say what was left out. There was talk of sustainable and viable communities, but let us look at what has happened in my constituency. It is a pretty average constituency—Huddersfield is fairly representative of the rest of the country—and, during the time that I have represented it, I have been able to see how many well-paid manufacturing jobs have gone, to be replaced by very low-paid jobs in retailing and distribution. That sometimes makes me wonder: Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and the other major supermarkets make enormous profits, as do other service sector companies, but I go into their stores and the people who run them and give tremendous service seem to be paid very little. There is something strange about a sustainable community in which we have a large and increasing number of people who are expected to live on not much more than the minimum wage. I shall return to supermarkets and the environment.

Something else missing from the Queen’s Speech debate is sufficient emphasis on housing. I intervened during the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to point that out. That is not only the responsibility of the Government, because the financial sector has also been irresponsible, by, for instance, selling people mortgages on five times their average earnings. As we all know, people can self-authenticate their salary for a long time. That bodes ill for the future and, if there is a downturn in the housing market and a hike in interest rates, it bodes ill for people’s ability to maintain themselves in their accommodation, while helping to continue to fuel the rise in house prices.

House prices in Huddersfield have increased by about 100 per cent. in three years. That means that the first-time buyer, who used to be able to take their first step on the property ladder by buying a little back-to-back house or a conversion, can no longer do so. Now, we in my local authority of Kirklees have 10,000 people on what is an authentic waiting list. That especially impinges on younger people. In some parts of the country, that ladder does not exist, and I would have liked some attention to have been paid to that in the Queen’s Speech.

Prisons is another matter that worried me when I read the Queen’s Speech. I was the shadow Minister for prisons for the four years up to 1992, so I got to know the police and prison services fairly well, and one lesson I learned is that we cannot change criminality in our society by building prisons. That has been tried in the United States and it has never worked. We can keep on building prisons until an enormous percentage of the population are in prison, as in the United States,
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but that will not address the cause of the problem. We need much more focus on rehabilitation. About nine months ago, my Committee—the Education and Skills Committee—published a report on prison education. When prisons are as full as they currently are, there is a decline in what can be done to rehabilitate prisoners. There is something very wrong with the prison estate, and if that is considered in parallel with the undermining of the probation service, that is wrong. That should have been addressed, and I hope that it might be addressed as the Queen’s Speech progresses through the Commons and the Lords. It is not right to undermine a profession that meets all its targets and has a real reputation for delivering, despite scant resources and the backdrop of the National Offender Management Service reforms over several years that have destabilised the entire prison estate.

As the Member for Huddersfield, it would be dishonest of me to ignore immigration. There is a lot of populism associated with immigration and many dangers inherent in talking about it. My constituents are pretty fair-minded; indeed, we live in a fair and balanced society in which all the communities and faiths work and live together and get on extremely well. I have heard of no one in my constituency who does not want an effective, speedy and fair immigration system, but we do not have such a system. There are lost souls living in my constituency who cannot work or sustain life. They should have been given a decision and sent back whence they came a long time ago, rather than being tortured by long delays. There should be a guaranteed period within which all immigration cases are decided.

We must also have an immigration system in which the cheats do not prosper. In the household in which I was brought up, one of my mother’s favourite watchwords was, “Cheats never prosper.” Those who believe that should not look at immigration, because there, too many cheats do prosper. I have honest constituents waiting to be reunited with members of their family—waiting for a legitimate decision on a particular immigration question—who see people who abuse the system and jump ahead of them. That causes great discontent and unhappiness.

Returning to my education and skills brief, in looking at our immigration system, I wonder how many more unskilled people we need in this country. Yes, we need skilled people, but bearing in mind the complexion of my constituency and of our society, I am not sure how many unskilled people we need. A balance should be struck in terms of prioritising the skills of those who migrate to this country.

Turning to the subject that I normally focus on, I hope that there will not be as many surprises in the education element of this Queen’s Speech as there were in the last one. What looked like a fairly innocuous Bill gave me an enormous amount of work over the ensuing months, but we eventually put to bed a much improved Education and Inspections Bill that has now received Royal Assent. The further education Bill in this Queen’s Speech is an interesting one. I hope that its progress through this House will be influenced by my Select Committee’s recent report on the FE sector, and by our observation that a balance needs to be struck
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between the driver of “train to gain”—of training for a particular job—and remembering our responsibility to community education. That will be very important as we face the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford referred to: how to teach people about the environment and make them understand that they can make real changes in their lives that will make a real difference as we try to meet the climate change challenge.

In meeting the climate change challenge, too much emphasis is put on international Governments, rather than on what we as individuals can do. As I said in a speech to a school the other day, it is about the individual as well: it is about changing ingrained habits that will not be easy to change. I said, “Are you going to give up eating so much fish? We in this country eat a lot of fish—indeed, there is a fish and chip shop on almost every street corner. Are you going to give up your cheap holidays in Spain?” We went through a catalogue of such issues. Unfortunately—this was the day after the Stern report—I also said, “Are you going to give up your bonfires on bonfire night?” Of course, I have now become known in the House as “Bonfire Barry”, but this is a serious point. I would still like to know why the person at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who was telephoned about this issue said that bonfire night had a negligible impact on emissions, given that the National Society for Clean Air tells me that 14 per cent. of all dioxins are released into the air on or around 5 November. There is a lesson to be learned there.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an important announcement on education, and it is always pleasant to hear an announcement on an issue on which one has been campaigning for years. It is a disgrace that anyone under 18 should leave school and enter work or unemployment without training. It is our duty to our children—and all those under 18 are still children, despite the Liberal Democrats’ wishes—to refuse to countenance them starting work with no training at 16 or to become unemployed at that age. Every child should be in training, a job with training or education. My right hon. Friend recently made a speech about that, but the Queen’s Speech contained nothing about the delivery of it.

I finish by returning to the important issue of climate change. It will be delivered only by individuals making sacrifices. We should not kid ourselves that it will not be painful. It will not happen without some pain, and that may mean taxation. If the rumours are right that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote to the Chancellor saying that we may have to raise taxes to pay for tackling climate change, I welcome that. As I say, we may have to give up things that we like and make sacrifices in terms of heating our homes and so on. Other possible changes have been mentioned today.

Queen’s Speeches are marvellous. They give us a sense of direction for the rest of the Session. We hope that we end up with well-written laws and decent pieces of legislation because we have improved them, but laws also have to be administered. Sometimes, Ministers change jobs so fast—especially in education and environment, two of the areas that I hold dear—that they have moved on by the time they get a grip on the subject. That is not good for government or for any of
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the big issues that we face. There is also churn in senior and middle ranking civil servants, who are moved on—it is called continuous professional development—soon after they get to know the job.

Not many people in my constituency deal with £50 notes often, but this year Adam Smith will appear on them. His philosophy suggested that the benign effect of everyone pursuing their own selfish interests would add up to the greater good, but that will not work for climate change, which will need national, international and individual co-operation to achieve.

5.13 pm

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) who gave an expert speech on a range of issues. He reflected the quality of the speeches in this debate and I associate myself particularly with his comments on prison reform and rehabilitation.

As shadow Minister for young people, I went round many young offender institutions. I do not understand how we can expect a young person who is put in a 9 ft by 5 ft cell with someone else for 18 hours a day, with little access to education or reading and no chance to better themselves or learn a skill, to come out a better person. There is a disjuncture between punishment, which is a necessary part of the system, and rehabilitation, which is equally important.

We also need to address mental health issues in our prisons. It is a scandal that so little is done on the matter. That was highlighted last year by the inquest on Zahid Mubarek’s death in Feltham and the case in my constituency of Daniel Meehan, a young man who committed suicide at the age of 29 after failing to receive the right mental health support in prison, which he was entitled to expect. I hope that the Mental Health Bill can be adapted to look at the mental health needs of people in our prisons.

Turning to the issues confronting us today, there was a remarkable contrast between the speeches from those on the Front Benches. From the Secretary of State there was a sense of tiredness, of boredom perhaps, that this was another Queen’s Speech and there was not a huge amount to say. She did not seem to have a great deal of enthusiasm for her subject or indeed a sense of direction. On the other hand, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) gave us a sense of direction and an understanding of the issues involved and the urgency of dealing with them.

Like my hon. Friend, I very much welcome the climate change Bill but, as with so many such things, the devil will be in the detail. In just a year, there has been a huge change. A year ago, we were still debating whether action was necessary and whether there genuinely was climate change; now the whole debate is about what we can do to make changes more quickly so that we stop climate change happening at all.

I am not sure how much we can achieve by voluntary agreement. If things are left to the good will of property developers and the builders of new housing, it is doubtful that the necessary changes will happen in time. We have to recognise that new build is only 1 per cent. of the housing stock and if we truly want change much more needs to be done through building
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regulations to bring existing housing stock into line over time so that it, too, can make a contribution.

There are unique opportunities for the United Kingdom and its businesses. My constituency of Wealden in Sussex was a significant farming area, but farming has almost died out in the south-east and in areas such as Sussex; the value of land and farmhouses has gone up so much that people can no longer afford to buy them as farms. There are tremendous opportunities for farming to make a comeback in areas such as Sussex through growing biomass, but that will happen only if there is a structure that encourages investment in biomass activity. The cornerstone of that will be to put a price on carbon, to cap carbon emissions each year and to require people to buy certificates if they emit carbon during the generation of electricity. Over time, that will make it more attractive to invest in other forms of renewable electricity and generation.

At the same time, we must remove some of the absurdities in the system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), in his extraordinarily impressive contribution, spoke about aviation. As a north-west MP, he is a regular user of Virgin trains, which are powered by red diesel taxed at 6p a litre, yet if biomass, which is taxed at 47p, were added to the diesel, not only it but the red diesel would be taxed at 47p a litre. We have an absurd system in which the moment that people try to do the right thing environmentally, they have to pay a higher cost.

We wanted other issues to be addressed in the Queen’s Speech, but they are not covered by the Bills proposed so far. I welcome comments about devolving power to local government, but we are sceptical about how what is possibly the most centralising Government ever run things. Regional assemblies are a case in point: all the powers for the regional assemblies were taken away from district and county councils, rather than genuinely devolved from central Government.

I hope that we shall not go down the route of further reorganisation, which would be massively expensive: £3.5 billion that could be spent on local services would instead be spent on reorganisation itself. Above all, reorganisation is unloved and unwanted. It would mean getting rid of a genuinely popular tier of local government—either the county councils or the district councils—to give more power to regional assemblies. There is no demand whatever for that in our communities. The Government failed to get through their referendum in the north-east, which may be the only area in the country where there might have been popular support. In the end, there was massive feeling against that degree of change. Having failed to achieve that through democratic means, there is now a desire to try to push it through in legislation instead.

We in the south-east do not have that sense of regional identity that the Government wish to believe that we have. In the Government’s mind, the south-east spreads from Dover to Portsmouth, to the outskirts of Cheltenham and the fringes of Oxfordshire and up to Milton Keynes. No one in my constituency in East Sussex believes that someone in Oxfordshire or Buckinghamshire lives in the same region. It is an artificially created structure, and we should be considering abolishing it, rather than seeking to give it more powers.

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Nothing gave greater clarity to the division of approaches between those on the two Front Benches than the issue of infrastructure and development. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government does not seem to recognise that the extent of overdevelopment that is proposed is causing a massive infrastructure deficit. Indeed, it is estimated that, to bring the infrastructure of the south-east up to the level required for the number of proposed houses will cost £45 billion—£1 billion for every local authority. Clearly, when put across the whole nation, the figure becomes astronomical.

In March 2006, the South East England Regional Assembly proposed that 28,900 new houses should be built in the south-east annually. The Government are considering a figure that may be 60 per cent. higher, but the infrastructure investment is absolutely woeful. Set against the deficit of £45 billion, the Government’s plans for the infrastructure in London and the south-east amount to just £295 million. Things will get worse if section 106 agreements are replaced by a planning gains supplement, which will become yet another aspect of the Government taking funds away from the south-east and redistributing them to other parts of the country.

The Government should require, through legislation, an infrastructure audit to be carried out on all significant new developments, so that we can ensure that the implications for the infrastructure will be met. We find great anger in our constituencies not just about the sheer number of houses that are proposed, but about the fact that the infrastructure will not exist by the time that the houses are built. When the houses are built, people will say, “Where will the children go to school? Where will people find a dentist? How will they get the water to come out of the taps?” Unless we consider the infrastructure first and foremost, we will end up with a massive imbalance.

We must therefore consider a number of different aspects, the first of which is health. It is estimated that a further 1,300 acute hospital beds and 600 general hospital beds are needed in the south-east over the next 20 years to cover new housing growth, but what are we seeing? At the three hospitals that serve my constituency—the Kent and Sussex in Tunbridge Wells, the Princess Royal in Haywards Heath and Eastbourne district general hospital—there is a massive question mark over the future of their accident and emergency units and maternity services. We are seeing the greatest ever threat to hospital provision in the south-east. We should be considering what new investment is required to ensure that those who live in the new homes that will be imposed on us have the required health care provision.

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