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6 Nov 2007 : Column 33

The Prime Minister: The difference between their policy and ours is that under their policy, just over 3,000 of the richest estates in Britain will each get an extra £280,000. That is 3,000 of the richest estates getting £280,000—a modern miracle, the Conservatives’ feeding of the 3,000.

Mr. Cameron: I tell you what, look me in the eye and tell me that you were planning to reform inheritance tax before our party conference. Can the Prime Minister look across the Dispatch Box and just say it?

The Prime Minister: The answer is yes—unequivocally yes. Every year— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: All the records will show it, under whatever rule they are released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr. Cameron rose—

The Prime Minister: Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman this question—

Hon. Members: Give way.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: I will give way for the right hon. Gentleman to answer this question: is it not true that the difference between our policy and his on inheritance tax is that, under his policy, 3,000 of the richest estates in the country would get a benefit totalling £1 billion? That is an average of five people in each constituency taking the £1 billion that could employ 25,000 teachers and nurses. Is it his policy that 3,000 of the richest people get £1 billion?

Mr. Cameron: The difference between our policy and his— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Cameron: The difference between our policy and the Prime Minister’s is that we thought of it and he stole it. While we are on a mission in pursuit of the truth, let us try another one on the Prime Minister. Will he look across the Dispatch Box and tell us that he was not looking at the polls when he cancelled the general election?

The Prime Minister: Is it not amazing that, when it comes to real policy and discussing the long-term future of this country, the right hon. Gentleman is not in a position even to join the debate?

Think of it, Mr. Speaker: a modern miracle—the Conservatives’ feeding of the 3,000 richest estates in the country £1 billion. Every week, we will ask them why they would spend £1 billion on the 3,000 richest estates in the country every year thus, if the policy went ahead, depriving the country of the chance to employ 25,000 teachers and nurses. What does that tell us about the Conservative party? It is more interested in tax cuts for a very few than in helping millions of people in this
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country. What does it tell us about the Conservatives’ economic competence that they are promising £6 billion in tax cuts with only £500 million of revenue to pay for it? Unaffordable tax cuts, spending promises that cannot be met, risks to stability—the same mistakes they made when they were in government.

On every major issue—Europe, tax, spending, education for a few—the Leader of the Opposition has failed to face up to the big challenges ahead. He is not really for opportunity for all and he is failing to meet the stability test. The Conservatives’ unaffordable tax cuts and their threat to stability are too big a risk to this country.

The first law in the world to curb carbon emissions; the biggest educational reform for 60 years; the first universal right for adults to study free of charge; the first new towns for 40 years; building 3 million more homes by 2020; youth centres for every area of the country; progress on health, social care, transport and energy—this is a legislative programme that takes the next step forward for a stronger, fairer Britain, breaking down the barriers to opportunity, meeting the rising aspirations of the British people and ensuring security for all. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.

4.8 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I start by paying tribute to the dead firemen. Firefighters put their lives on the line every time they go about their duty. The same is true of our servicemen and women, to whom we shall pay proper tribute on Remembrance day this weekend.

May I add my tribute to Piara Khabra? He was not only the first Sikh Member of Parliament but the last Member of the House who served in our forces during the second world war.

I thank the promoter and seconder of the Loyal Address. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) is the ambassador—the tsar—for the 2018 World cup. If he is looking for venues, he need look no further than my constituency of Twickenham. My local football club, Hampton and Richmond, has a regular attendance of 250, but on Saturday it reached the heady heights of the first round of the FA cup. At the team’s current rate of progress, it will match Chelsea and Arsenal in 10 years.

May I also thank the hon. Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler)? [Hon. Members: “Where is she?”] She is not here. She is clearly enjoying her stay in Parliament, but I fear that it will be a short one, because she will soon encounter my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather)—soon to become my formidable and popular colleague for Brent, Central—after which she can resume her no doubt valuable career as a trade union official. I also note from her website that the hon. Member for Brent, South describes herself as a spokesman for youth. It is rather nice to feel that somebody is speaking for me.

The Queen’s Speech has been long in anticipation. The Prime Minister has been waiting for it for 10 years. He has had a 35-year political career distilling many of the ideas that have come forward today. He postponed the election in order to inject more vision, but the sense of anticlimax is deafening. We have heard little new, no
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ideas and little vision. Is that really what we were waiting for? I fear that the Prime Minister now cuts a rather sad figure. He was introduced to us a few months ago by his predecessor as the great clunking fist, but the boxing story has gone completely awry. Like a great boxing champion, as he once was, he has somehow made himself unconscious falling over his own bootlaces and is now staggering around the ring, semi-conscious and lost, and hanging on to the ropes. What is certainly absent is any forward movement or new ideas.

Buried in the Queen’s Speech is the germ of a big new idea—a grand coalition of ideas between the Conservatives and Labour on policy. The Prime Minister was the author of the Red Book, to which I contributed, and has now written the Queen’s Speech in the bluest ink. There are wide areas of policy on which Labour and the Conservatives have exactly the same position. They advocate the same tax policies with the same indifference to widening inequality; they are in the same love affair with the discredited council tax; they are both bidding for the anti-immigrant vote; they are both trying to prove how tough they are on crime by packing prisons with petty criminals, the mentally ill and people with addiction problems; they have both signed up to an energy policy that is centralised and depends on new nuclear power; they are both willing to sacrifice the environment for new airport development; they are both willing to load student tuition fees and top-up fees on to highly indebted students; they both have an obsequious relationship with the Bush Administration, which has led them to support the war in Iraq and new initiatives, such as the star wars programme; and they both sign up to a fundamentally unethical, cynical foreign policy that led them to get together at the beginning of last week for that little jamboree celebrating three decades of corrupt arms dealing with one of the most unsavoury regimes in the world.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I am slightly mystified by the hon. Gentleman’s lambasting the Labour and Conservative parties, considering the summit that the Liberal Democrats attended in Edinburgh yesterday with those very parties in order to carve up the future of Scotland. Why does one come to this Chamber and say one thing, but say something completely different in Edinburgh?

Dr. Cable: The hon. Gentleman will find that it is the Liberal Democrats who are leading the debate on devolution, as we are on all the issues that I have mentioned and many others, on which we are wholly distinct from those other two parties.

This debate gives us an opportunity to reflect on where the Conservatives are coming from. We heard some perfunctory references to state schools and health in the response to the Queen’s Speech, but the Conservatives keep coming back, over and over, to this cluster of issues: Europe, immigration, Scottish Members of Parliament and the politics of identity. Unfortunately, these days, nationalism has to be dressed up in politically correct language, but we all know the message that the Conservatives are trying to get across. We can all hear the dog whistle.

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One of those issues, Europe, will be at the centre of the legislative programme. We believe that there should be a referendum on the issue of British membership of the European Union. The details of the treaty are important, but more important is the cumulative effect of three decades of widening and deepening the EU, and the fact that nobody under 50 has had an opportunity to express a view on Europe through the ballot box. We can have as much legislative scrutiny as we wish, but the fact is that, unless the British public are persuaded of the need to sign up to the European project, this issue will continue to poison British politics. That is why we want to go out and campaign for the European Union, and we want the Government to do the same in the context of a referendum.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I am that we have yet to hear any condemnation from the Leader of the Opposition of the comments about Enoch Powell from the Conservative candidate for Halesowen?

Dr. Cable: I thought that the Conservatives put forward their views in very polite language, but I am afraid that, deep down, the prejudices are all too plain.

The proposed counter-terrorism Bill will be an important piece of legislation. I think that it is the Government’s eighth counter-terrorism Bill, which suggests either that the previous seven were not very successful or that the Government are using legislation as a cover for inaction. There is a big, sensitive issue involved here—namely, pre-charge detention. We recognise that there is a delicate balance to be struck between individual civil liberties and collective security. Because this is a delicate issue, it is important that decisions should be driven by evidence and facts. The fact is that, when the Home Secretary recently appeared before the Home Affairs Committee, she acknowledged that no recent case would have been helped by extending the detention period beyond 28 days. If the Government persist with their proposed policy, it will be not merely unnecessary but counter-productive. As we have heard from the noble Lord West in the past few days, people are still actively recruiting to terrorist organisations, and they must not be encouraged. The same argument applies to identity cards, whose introduction the Government are persisting with. They are unnecessary, counter-productive and massively expensive, and they should be abandoned.

We see merit in some of the Government’s constitutional proposals. They are rather minor, and they do not address the big constitutional anomaly presented by the first-past-the-post voting system. That is a far bigger constitutional anomaly than the West Lothian question or, for that matter, the Lords question.

Mr. Redwood: A large number of people in England think that the big constitutional anomaly is the poor treatment of England. What is the hon. Gentleman’s party going to do about that, given that bogus regionalism in England is extremely unpopular and makes English people feel even less well represented?

Dr. Cable: We recognise that there is a constitutional anomaly, and that it must be dealt with properly and carefully, and in the context of finance. We are the only
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party, as far as I am aware, that wants to open up the issue of the Barnett formula and to reconsider whether resources can be better distributed on the basis of need.

We note that the Government have flunked the issue of legislation on party funding. We believe, as do the public, that there must be limits on the amounts of money spent on party politics by political parties between and within election periods. There must be a cap on individual donations, whether from rich individuals or from trade unions, and that must be dealt with on an even-handed basis.

There are other areas in which we have common ground with the Government. We welcome the principle behind the Climate Change Bill. We believe that it could be greatly strengthened by introducing annual targets, and the fact that the Government have recently been backsliding on targets for renewables reinforces the need for that policy to be firmly anchored in legislation.

We are more concerned about the planning Bill, which has the potential to transfer a great deal of power from elected representatives to an unelected quango. Of course, the purpose behind it is to drive through new nuclear power and airport developments—very little to do with planning—and it threatens to undermine completely the checks and balances that have held the planning system together for many years.

The same centralising instincts seem to lie behind the new education Bill—this rather naive belief that we can fundamentally change the behaviour of grown people through compulsion. We are heading now for an absurd situation in which large numbers of adults are clamouring for more education and more retraining, but cannot get it because their local colleges are having their funding taken away, while at the same time the Government are trying to force young people into courses at local colleges that they do not want to attend and are completely unsuited to their circumstances.

The Government’s reputation—and particularly the Prime Minister’s reputation—ultimately hinges on what happens to the economy. The Prime Minister is quite right that we have had a decade of stable growth. However, as I have warned over several years, that growth is seriously unbalanced by growing private debt linked to an inflated bubble in the housing market. Not just me, but many other people are starting to warn of the dangers. The International Monetary Fund is so warning, as is the chief economist of the Bank of England. Last week, we saw alarming evidence of the rapid rise of repossessions, which is what happens when we have a combination of excessive debt and a slowdown in the economy.

The Government are providing new legislation on the specific issue of deposit protection—the aftermath of the Northern Rock affair. That is a reaction to what happened, but what we now need is some forward thinking about the new threats to the economy. When the Prime Minister first came in as Chancellor, he introduced some visionary legislation—the Bank of England Bill. It served this country very well; I gave my maiden speech in support of it. But the world is now a very different place and we need mechanisms to deal with inflation and deflation in the housing market and to deal with the looming problem of large numbers of people who cannot maintain their mortgages, facing
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the risk of losing their homes. We need mechanisms to ensure that the Chancellor’s homilies about responsible and old-fashioned lending are translated into practice. We are not going to get this while the Government simply hang on, waiting for good news. We need vision, new ideas and fresh thinking, which are totally absent from this Queen’s Speech. That is why we shall oppose it.

4.22 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I want to make a few comments about the Gracious Speech. I note the Government’s intention to increase the availability of affordable housing, which is one of their priorities. I want to express encouragement in that laudable objective, but also some concern. As MP for Thurrock, I was persuaded that the Government were charged and seized with the idea of building up the Thames Gateway, regenerating brown, fallow and derelict land in that area and producing new affordable homes to rent and to buy, which they saw as a great prize. The emphasis was on planned growth of essential public services commensurate with the increase in housing units.

At the last general election, I was prepared for and, indeed, enthusiastic about the ideas behind the Thames Gateway regeneration and I was proud that the Government had created a Thurrock urban development corporation. However, after some years, I have to tell the Government that there is very little to show for the legislation and policy that they put forward. I am justifiably very irritated. I am irritated because a plethora of Ministers have had some responsibility for this. We have seen numerous quangos with “Thames Gateway” or similar terms in their title. Every week I am invited to what I can refer to only as “junkets”—though they are also called receptions and dinners—by people who claim to be involved in part of the regeneration. I spurn them—there are far too many junkets and receptions in this place anyway—but I am also concerned that such people seem to see receptions, dinners, exhibitions and conferences as a substitute for bricks and mortar. It is not good enough.

The Minister in charge is now on test. The Thames Gateway needs housing units, and it also needs appropriate demonstrable growth in essential public services to meet the increase in housing units. There has been no indication of that happening. If we look at the age profile of my general practitioners, we see that many are old and in single practices. A lot of people were put on quangos—some of whom I did not commend to the Government, but my advice was ignored—who have not been able to produce much. I am getting frustrated, and I will not put up with it.

The Government need to show some dispatch. Ministers have all these buzz words—gateways, stepping-stones, blue-skies policies and so on—and one of them is joined-up government. Their performance in this area is the opposite of joined-up government. The Department has within it—I forget what it is called now—what I used to call the ministry of housing and local government; I am a bit conservative about such things. Whatever the Department is called now—communities or whatever—part of it wants to build up the Thames Gateway with regeneration and so on, while a junior Minister in another part of it is holding
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things up. Apparently, he or she is in charge of approving something called the spatial strategy, the approval of which keeps being pushed back.

I have never coveted being at the Dispatch Box, but I have to say that I could do a better job than some of those who have been doing it for some time. It is now time for a bit of candid speaking. I have never asked to see a Prime Minister before, but I shall ask to see the new Prime Minister if there is not appreciable movement, a reduction in junkets, receptions and dinners and, instead, a manifest regeneration in the Thames Gateway. I have now got that off my chest.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this malaise affects the entire country? Although the matter is in part devolved to the Welsh Assembly, does he agree that we must have a joined-up strategy across the United Kingdom? At the moment, many young families are forced to live in appalling conditions while trying to raise a family, often living in their parents’ front room. Is he saying, as I hope he is, that at this point we do not have the luxury of delay? Until we achieve this, we will not fulfil the Government’s affordable housing targets.

Andrew Mackinlay: The hon. Gentleman’s point is correct, but it also draws attention to one of the problems of our political system—its adversarial, gladiatorial nature. Let us be candid: people in all parties peddle in their own environment resistance to house building, while at the same time deprecating the inadequate housing supply, particularly for young first-time buyers or for rent. Over the years I have mellowed, and I think that our adversarial political system is wrong. It is particularly flawed in this area, and a settlement ought to be reached.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem is not so much adversarial politics as local communities having lost control over the planning system? Does he agree that if local communities could determine the type of housing, where it should be, what products should be used and what is the right mix, resistance would be much less?

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