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I argued at that point for a referendum on Maastricht. Leaving aside the other details, I, as a pro-European, thought that if we were changing the status of Her Majesty the Queen from the sovereign and monarch to a citizen of the European Union, it must have constitutional
implications for the country. That should have been put to the vote. Of course it was not.
I have never seen the present constitutional or amending treaty as commanding that kind of necessity. I am critical of the Government for missing the opportunity, under a previous leadership, when they had the ball at their feet; it remains to be seen what the present leadership will do. But they have not gone out and made the case convincingly and persuasively for Europe. Too much of the sceptical, negative case has been allowed to predominate. That is a criticism of those of us on the pro-European side. I am not critical of those who are willing to engage and argue until the cows come home as to their opposition, scepticism and criticism of all things European; that is what democracy is all about. But there has not been a proper counterbalancing argument.
The issue is not really this constitutional treaty any more than it was the Nice treaty or Maastricht. The Government of the country can never satisfy Euro-sceptical ambitions and paranoia; that is what John Major found out, to his immense cost. He fed the monster and the monster kept coming back and eventually devoured him. We are arguing for a root and branch referendum campaign to settle, for another political generation, our relations and involvement with Europe. That is long overdue and this Queens Speech and amendments that Liberal Democrats will move to it gives us that opportunity.
Mr. Evans: The right hon. Gentleman was keen on a referendum on Maastrichtlike him, I remember those long, bitter nights and I still have the scars on my backbut he was right and I was wrong. The important thing about this constitutional treaty is not whether there is a two-and-a-half year revolving presidency or whether we have, in effect, a Foreign Secretary for the whole of Europe. The fact is that the British people were promised in a manifesto in 2005 that they would have a vote in a referendum. All the major European leaders, who think that it is the right thing to say to their peoples, say that 96 per cent. or more of the treaty is exactly the same as the one rejected by the French and the Dutch.
Mr. Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman and I are not particularly at odds over the need at some stage for a proper plebiscite of the British people and, whether on this measureagainst which the Government have turned their faceor on the broader front, that engagement will have to take place. When in the privacy of my living room I listen to the leader of the Conservative party on television calling for a referendum, I think to myself that he is calling for the referendum on Europe in much the same way as he called for a general election: demand it, demand it and say ones prayers at night that the Government do not actually concede.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that at Maastricht the then Government got an absolutely watertight opt-out from the main point, the single currency? We know that that opt-out works because even this Government have very wisely taken advantage of it. However, this Government do not have an equivalent opt-out from the unpleasant things in the
constitutional treaty. The protocols and the emergency brakes will not work and some 60 vetoes will be given away. That is why we think a referendum is needed.
Mr. Kennedy: Given that a lot of time will be spent on the Floor of the House over the coming months on the details of this matter, I do not want to get drawn too much into the argument. The right hon. Gentleman talks about opt-outs and his concern over the revised treaty. The biggest opt-out on this occasionit has never appeared beforeis the right for an individual member state of the European Union to withdraw and to put in process the mechanisms that would lead to disengagement. Political institutions are only a reflection of the human beings that shape them and there may come a point, for whatever reasons unimaginable now, that what the European Union was pursuing was so inimical or unacceptable to Britain that even people such as me would be saying that it was time to view the exit door. I welcome the fact that that option is there and it should act as a reassurance to those with a more sceptical approach.
The second point concerns the issue of Scottish MPs. I was one of the generation of Scottish MPs who came in in 1983 when Mrs. Thatcher was reigning supreme, the Opposition were divided and disputatious amongst themselves and, on 40 per cent. of the vote, the Conservatives kept winning with three-figure majorities here. Any semblance of devolution for Scotland, Wales or wherever seemed a forlorn hope.
One of those who benefited most from the Conservative ascendancy of those days became Scottish Secretary, fulfilled his ambitions by becoming Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary and had a glittering career at the top of his party and of Government. The only problem was that the base for that career dissolved beneath his feet and he now represents Kensington and Chelsea. He now makes this singular contribution to improving our constitutional procedures having set his face against anything similar in the years when he was in a position to do something about it. That was despite his earlier resignation from the Conservative Front Bench when he took a rather principled stand when Mrs. Thatcher changed the policy from Ted Heaths days to say no to any devolutionary impulses.
The unwritten British constitution is a bit like a water mattress. If one starts to press down on one bit, there will be an instantaneous but somewhat unpredictable reaction elsewhere. That is where we are at the moment. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), aided and abetted by a few others in the supposedly Conservative and Unionist party in unholy alliance with the Scottish National partyhow the two can be wedded together in a coherent intellectual force is beyond me, but it is for these purposesis offering a short-term, expedient approach to the issue. It is not the correct approach.
The House should seekthe Office of the Speaker has an important role to play herea broadly based constitutional convention that looks at the rights and responsibilities of all United Kingdom MPs, because there are anomalies right across the board, rather than short-term, opportunistic devices that will weaken the very fabric that we are here to maintain and to improve.
Finally, I want to make two brief local points. The Government are giving a great deal of emphasis in the Queens Speech to housing policy. Obviously, in the Scottish context housing policy is devolved, but the sheer extent of the debt currently attached to housing stock is not. It remains a UK Treasury concernand a concern for many of us at a constituency level. As we know, many local authorities are often unable to invest to the extent necessary to tackle fuel poverty in older housing stock. Where existing housing debt, on both sides of the border, has not been properly addressedparticularly in rural areas, where it is an especially sensitive issuea plea is going out to the Treasury to wipe out much of that debt. That way, money could be released for maintenance and for investment in energy efficiency, as well as for new houses. I and a group of Liberal Democrat colleagues from the north of Scotland have been seeking a meeting with the Chancellor and the relevant Minister to talk about housing debt in the UK context, as it pertains to the Treasury, to see whether something can be done. If something is not done, the very situation that some of the measures and good intentions behind the Governments approach to housing seek to address will get worse.
Finally, there is something missing from todays Queens Speecha marine Bill. That is a disappointment, and if we cannot return to that issue during this Session, I hope that we will return to it later in this Parliament, depending on how long it runs. Marine conservation issues are obviously very important, and as those of us who live in my part of the country know, the amount of oil tanker trafficnorth and southwithin the Minch is increasing. There have been terrible examples of spillages over the years, but the threat and danger remains live. Without properly designated channels within the Minches for fully laden oil tankers, the potential for a major environmental catastrophe is very strong. I first took an interest in this issue, which the European Commission, the British Government and successive Transport Ministers have looked at, back in 1983. However, we have never really made the tangible progress that has been sought. I hope that the absence of a marine Bill in this Queens Speech does not indicate a lack of continuing application on the part of the Government to this crucial long-term issue.
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con):
I remind the House of the interests recorded in the register. This is a 10th anniversary Queens Speech and 10 years on, it is quite a good time to weigh up the progress made by the previous 10 Queens Speeches. On education, fewer than half of our 15 and 16-year-olds get good GCSEs. A quarter leave school without basic literacy or numeracy, and last week the Prime Minister sadly reflected that only 10 per cent. of those whose parents are unskilled progress to higher education. On crime, even in relatively safe areas such as west Kent, violent crime has doubled, and our town centres and villages are overwhelmed with vandalism and petty crime. On immigration, Ministers clearly have no idea just how many people have come into this country. There is complete confusion regarding estimates of population, the issuing of national insurance numbers and the count of those entering or exiting our country. On the
national health service, instead of curing the patients entrusted to its care, my local acute NHS trust appears to have helped kill at least 90 of them with the outbreak of clostridium difficile. The economy is almost totally unbalanced. Record numbers are in debt or filing for bankruptcy, the housing market is unstable and there has been the first serious run on a bank since that on the City of Glasgow bank in 1878. So the issue for the House today is: does this Queens Speech start finally to meet these challenges? My answer is clear: it does not.
Let us look at some of the detail. On education, the Prime Minister must be right to identify failure of aspiration as one of the key problems besetting the British education system. Aspiration is choked off in our systemit disappears in some Bermuda triangle between local education authorities, ministerial initiatives and the teaching unions themselves. Declaring war on failing schools is not quite enough; we have to ask why failing schools are failing, and why they have been tolerated for so many years by the LEAs running them. In fact, we would not have known about failing schools had it not been for the initiative of the last Conservative Government. Conservative Ministers established Ofsted and league tables, and of course, we need to remind ourselves that league tables were bitterly opposed not simply by the teaching establishment, but by the Labour party. We would not know which of our schools are the failing ones that the Prime Minister wishes to tackle, had we listened then to the advice of Labour Members.
Rather than the tinkering proposed in this Queens Speech, we need a proper education Bill that gives head teachers the freedom to employ their staff and the power to expel disruptive pupils, without the endless appeals that we have at the moment. LEAs have clearly failed time and again in inner-city areas. We need to give parents in inner-city areas where there is sufficient public transport the benefit of a voucher that will enable them to cross inner-city borough borders, and we need to encourage new providers into the market.
We have in this Queens Speech yet another Bill
to reform the criminal justice system.
It will create yet more offences, procedures and paperwork, instead of empowering local police commanders and repealing those parts of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984I know that it was a Conservative Act, but it was enacted some 25 years ago and it needs modernisingthat actually prevent them from taking the action necessary in our town centres and villages; instead of giving local magistrates the power to impose longer custodial sentences; and instead of reopening the many local cells that have been closed, so that they can hold overnight the hooligans and vandals who disrupt the quality of life of everybody else.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab):
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a thoughtful person and he is making a thoughtful speech, but does he not see a connection between his strategy of pitching children out of schools by giving teachers the right to throw them out on to the streets, and the problem that then occurs on those streets, which requires his remedies of hard policing and more
imprisonment? What is he going to do about the people who are being failed by society, and who find that school has nothing to offer them?
Mr. Fallon: I accept the spirit in which that intervention is made, but the problem is that there is no serious disincentive for those who are not interested in school and who simply will not turn up, or who want to disrupt lessons for the majority. There is no serious sanction against them. They can be expelled, but they appeal, the governors are overturned and they come back into the class. We have to find more serious sanctions. I do not see the connection that the hon. Gentleman makes between expelling the very small minority who impinge on the right of the rest of the class to get the education that they deserve, and the hooligan group who might later terrorise town centres.
On immigration, the Government have only themselves to blame for losing control of the numbers. People now simply have no confidence in the official statistics: they come from different sources; they are quoted by different Ministers. Clearly, no one believes in an authoritative Government source for how many people are coming to this country, are leaving it or are here. We do not have a proper system of controls. On the contrary, we have far too many categories of people who are here under different programmes and initiatives. The different types of status, such as highly skilled or leave to remain, mean that we do not simply know how many people are here. Nothing in the Queens Speech gives me any confidence that we will know more accurately in a years time exactly what the numbers are.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) has referred to the unbalanced economy. Nothing in the Queens Speech shows us that Ministers have really learned the lessons from Northern Rock. We are promised some reform to
ensure confidence in the banking system.
We have a banking system of supervision in which there is total confusion. We have two bodiesthe Bank of England and the Financial Services Authoritythat seem to be responsible for different aspects of liquidity: the Bank, for overall liquidity; and the FSA, for the liquidity of individual institutions. The Bank of England is theoretically the lender of last resort, but it has been unable to mount such an operation covertly, because of various restrictions and regulations that the Government have put in place.
If any Labour Member still believes in the sanctity of the tripartite system, which was put in place by the then Prime Minister and Chancellor back in 1987, they should consider the fact that, on 14 August, all parties concernedthe Bank of England, the FSA and Treasury Ministerswere told that Northern Rock could run out of money. On 14 September, Northern Rock did run out of money. The tripartite system failed, and we urgently need legislation to improve it, to ensure that we never have a run on a bank like that again and that we have a proper system of depositor protection.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather strange for the Chancellor to make periodic speeches and to give periodic interviews to condemn the practices of the banks that he regulates, when we might have thought that, as the chief regulator, he
would have continuing private conversations to sort out the problem, rather than undermining the Citys reputation?
Mr. Fallon: Yes, the Chancellor has been too keen to blame the banks for reckless lending, when his system is responsible for supervising the work of the banks and when his performance since the middle of August has failed us. We learned today that he was told long before the fatal weekend that the system of depositor protection was too weak and that the Governor wanted it improved. He failed the Governor, and he has further questions to answer.
Michael Connarty: I had the pleasure of studying financial institutions when I studied for my degree, and there were great debates about the regulation of the financial system and whether flexibility and allowing the markets to expand and be self-regulated was the way to go or whether there should be more regulation. Is not the root cause of the present problem in the banking system the fact that the banks were taking risks by giving credit to people who clearly could not pay it back? With people getting mortgages of five times their joint salaries, we are in danger of running into the same problem in this country if we do not regulate and discipline the banks, so that they lend only when there is clearly a possibility of sound financial practice by those who are borrowing.
Mr. Fallon: The hon. Gentleman must be right: there has been loose lending and loose borrowing by the banks in the wholesale markets. Of course, the directors of those banksNorthern Rock, in particularcannot escape their own responsibility for ensuring that their banks were liquid as well as solvent. Equally, there is a supervisory system, which the Labour Government put in place in 1997, and it has clearly failed. There was confusion. When I asked the Governor during a sitting of the Treasury Committee who was in charge of the tripartite system, he famously replied, Define what you mean by in charge. That tells us all that we need to know about why people were queuing around the block to take out their money.
I want to turn finally to the national health service. If there is a single document that sums up the Blair-Brown years, it is the Healthcare Commission report on the tragedy that affected the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust in my constituency. The report should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the destructive tension in place between clinicians and managers, between senior managers and the board and between the trust and Ministers in Whitehall.
The Healthcare Commission, of course, identified the gaps in cleanliness, nursing and so on, but it also identified the culture of targetsnot simply clinical targets, but financial targetsthat the trust was fixated on having to meet. Of course, it is true that the trust was poorly ledit was incompetently managed; it did not have the calibre of senior management to copebut it is also true that that trust was under enormous pressure from Whitehall to clear a huge deficit, year after year.
If hon. Members read the report, they will see that the reluctance to employ extra staff, to change the
various practices and to tackle some of the deep-seated problems at the three hospitals the trust is in charge of sprang very largely from the financial constraints imposed on the trust by Ministers in Whitehall. As a result, 90 people in west Kent sadly lost their lives, with C. difficile at least a contributory factor. That was not a private company. Those were not contractors. It was an acute NHS trust in the front line of patient care, running three hospitals. The answer that the Prime Minister gave was to set up yet another regulatory body. That will not deal with the problem; we need a better run, more accountable national health service in which local communities can have real confidence.
The Government have had 10 years to start to tackle those problems and get these things right. The reform that has been endlessly paraded in front of us has not been real reform. Billions of pounds have been wasted. We end up, 10 years later, with an education system that fails half of our children, with a criminal justice system where criminals cannot be sent to jail because the Government have failed to build enough prison places, with a Government who have not a clue how many immigrants are here, whether or not they are taking British jobs, and with a national health service that is killing the very patients for whom it is supposed to care. There has to be a better way.
David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I wish to begin my remarks tonight by paying tribute to the four firemen who tragically lost their lives a few days ago. I commend the valued efforts of their colleagues and others in searching for the bodies, so that their loved ones may at last have closure. I pay tribute to themI hope that the House will not misunderstand my remarksbecause I wish to draw attention to their exemplary courage, which seems to have gone against the grain of other examples that we have seen in the past few years or months, when other public servants have not acted with sheer indifference to risk and their own lives.
I am thinking of the police community support officers who, apparently, would not go into a pond to save a drowning boy because they had not been trained in the correct way to do so, or because of our health and safety culture. I am thinking of the ambulance men I read about at the weekend who would not run along a sandy beach in case they trippedagain, because it might have been against their own health and safety rules. I am thinking of many other examples over the past few years of local councils imposing arbitrary and unnecessary restrictions on peoples fun, whether on bonfire night, at conker matches or at street parties. There have been restrictions on other activities, too, including on the Royal British Legion being able to collect in its normal way. Too many such incidents have happened, and in many ways that has curtailed peoples ability to take risks and do things.
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