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We are committed to personalising and improving our public services. This is the 60th year of the NHS—a very proud anniversary to celebrate. We propose to introduce an NHS Bill to enable the NHS to offer a higher standard of care and to focus on prevention as well as treatment, and to make it more accountable to local people and patients. The Bill will establish a constitution for the NHS that sets out what patients can
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expect to get from the health service, including entitlements to minimum standards of access, quality and safety. It will also set out the right of NHS staff to be consulted and involved in taking services forward.

Protecting the safety of the British people is paramount for any Government. A policing and crime reduction Bill will create directly elected representatives to give local people more control over policing priorities and responsiveness. A law reform, victims and witnesses Bill will give the victims of crime more legal rights. A citizenship, immigration and borders Bill will put in place our new and tougher test for permanent residence or British citizenship.

We are also committed in this programme to safeguarding and enhancing our heritage and our environment. A heritage protection Bill will increase protection of our historic sites and buildings. We will consult in draft on legislation to implement the recommendations of this week’s Pitt review on the 2007 floods, so better to protect vulnerable communities in the future. A marine and coastal access Bill will protect our seas and our shores with new powers to designate marine conservation zones and to create a path around the whole English coastline, with public access for walking. We are also committed to a constitutional reform Bill, to a community empowerment Bill, and to the equality Bill, on which I made a statement this morning.

We will build on the themes of this programme—economic stability, making the most of people’s potential, personalised and improved public services, and constitutional improvement and fairness—through legislation and a range of other Government action. The draft legislative programme not only sets out the Government’s plans and priorities but enables this House and the wider public to consider and give their views on these plans before they are finalised. I commend it to the House.

1.52 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): This draft legislative programme is a massive disappointment for the people of Great Britain. It does not deal with the real problems of our country, such as the causes of poverty, falling educational standards, and the need to improve social mobility. In his speech to the House on 14 May, the Prime Minister spoke of choice and freedom for people, but a closer look at the proposals shows that there is little to give people more control over their lives and the communities in which they live.

Nor does the programme show that the Government have any understanding of what people really want. For example, their plans for polyclinics could lead to the closure of 1,700 doctors surgeries throughout the country—although not in the Prime Minister’s constituency, of course—and there is no comfort for people who will see their local post offices close. The shutting of surgeries and post offices will rip out the heart of many communities. It affects not only my constituency but the constituencies of Members across the political divide. I note that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) is smiling. I hope for her sake that no post offices are closing in her constituency and that she will not be losing any surgeries.

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Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): Is the hon. Gentleman’s party prepared to put the funding into the post office network that we have put in? Has he received, as I have, representations from constituents who are working families and who are trying to juggle home and child care? They welcome the chance to have a doctor’s appointment between 8 o’clock in the morning and 8 o’clock at night, seven days a week.

Mr. Vara: I am happy to put the hon. Lady out of her misery. First, I remind her that this debate is on the draft legislative programme. As for spending commitments, I will certainly not make any such commitments on behalf of the Conservative party, because we do not know what other horrors we have ahead of us after having just witnessed the first run on a British bank for 125 years. Given how this country is run at the moment, Lord only knows what it will be like in two years’ time.

This is not a programme for the greater good of the country but a programme to try to save a failing Prime Minister who leads a discredited Government who have lost their way and have no vision. It clearly shows that the Government are bankrupt of any new and fresh ideas. That is why the proposals contain no fewer than 12 Conservative policies. As for the rest, they are recycled policies and measures to clear up the failures of the past 11 years.

Incidentally, the Leader of the House failed to give proper credit to the Conservatives even though the Government have taken on board our policies. I would like to be generous and say that that might have been an inadvertent error of omission, given that she has enormous responsibilities in other capacities. However, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will make good the omission and give credit to the Conservatives for yet again helping out the Government with their policies.

Let us consider some of the proposals in a little more detail. We welcome the Government’s acceptance of our proposal to have directly elected police chiefs and the pledge to cut red tape in police departments. The House will appreciate, however, that this is the very same Government who have spent 11 years increasing red tape for the police force, only now to realise that it needs to be cut. It is regrettable that the programme makes no mention of dealing with the chaos of overcrowding in our prisons. Nor is there is any indication that the Government understand that when a judge sentences someone to serve time in prison, that does not take into account that part of the sentence that is served on early release outside prison.

At a time of enormous housing uncertainty, it is good to see that the Government have adopted our proposals to help first-time buyers to get on to the housing ladder through shared equity schemes. However, the public will appreciate the contradiction. The Government speak of helping people to get on to the housing ladder, yet through their nationalisation of Northern Rock they are repossessing people’s homes. That brings me to the banking reform Bill, which is necessary because the procedure for financial oversight set up by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor proved so ineffective when there was the run on Northern Rock. I am pleased that in this respect, too, our proposals have been adopted by the Government.

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The citizenship, immigration and borders Bill is a perfect example of a Government in disarray. It is the seventh immigration Bill since 1997, during which time immigration has quadrupled. When will the Government understand that what Britain needs is an annual limit on economic migrants from outside the European Union? Until they recognise that such a limit is required for the greater good of the country, all their immigration policies will continue to fail.

In 1997, Tony Blair repeatedly proclaimed, “Education, education, education”, yet the Education and Skills Bill comprises several rehashed announcements, while the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families indulges in empty rhetoric, showing that he is more interested in political scheming and manoeuvring than in looking after the welfare of British children’s education and skills. May I respectfully suggest that he spend a little more time dealing with the problem that almost half the 11-year-olds in our country cannot read, write or add up? He should reflect on the fact that despite the Government’s spending £1 billion on trying to deal with truancy, truancy has gone up by 45 per cent. since 1997 to a staggering 1.4 million pupils in 2005-06.

In a speech to the House on 14 May, the Prime Minister had the audacity to say:

He said that despite the fact that his Government announced in September last year that funding would be phased out for higher education institutions, directly affecting part-time students, lifelong learners and women returning to work.

We broadly support the measures in the constitutional renewal Bill, but I have to put on record the fact that they are not new. They were announced before the last draft legislative programme. That is not to say that the Bill is comprehensive, because it most certainly is not. Major issues have been ignored. Why, for example, is there no proposal to give English Members of Parliament the final say on English matters? Despite several high-profile cases of electoral fraud, why are the Government still dithering and not bringing in individual voter registration to safeguard effectively our electoral system? Failure to do so not only encourages the continuance of fraudulent practices, but further undermines an already damaged process.

The welfare reform Bill highlights the Government’s desperate position. Mandatory skills assessment and training for the unemployed are not new measures. The Prime Minister announced them five years ago, in 2003. Our proposal that incapacity benefit recipients should undergo assessments has quite rightly been adopted by the Government, but this Bill is no way to deal with the serious issue of welfare reform. Almost 5 million people are on out-of-work benefits and 2 million people are economically inactive and want to work. One in six young people are not in employment or education, and the UK has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other European Union country. Apart from re-announcing five-year-old policies and acquiring Conservative proposals, what else have the Government done on welfare reform? It has had 10 strategies in two years and more than 30 announcements in one year alone, and none of them has delivered for the millions who desperately need the Government’s assistance.

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The NHS reform Bill is welcome, not least because it contains Conservative proposals, such as a constitution for the NHS and new rights for information about health care, but plans for hospitals to receive payments depending on patient satisfaction miss the point. The point is not whether a patient feels satisfied, but whether the treatment received by the patient has improved their condition.

Ms Harman: It is both.

Mr. Vara: The right hon. and learned Lady chunters from a sedentary position that it is both. If she looks at the small print of the draft legislative programme, she will find that it talks about satisfaction. It does not talk about end results. There is a distinction, and a very big distinction.

Continuing Government interference in the NHS will not help. If the NHS is to be truly successful, it must be at arm’s length from political interference. Regrettably, the NHS reform Bill fails to address major concerns. Centrally imposed, politically motivated targets will not be scrapped. The scandal of mixed-sex wards continues and cancer survival rates are lower than almost all European countries except the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia.

As for the substance of the law reform, victims and witnesses Bill, we broadly support its measures to protect victims and witnesses. There are, however, matters that we oppose. We oppose the creation of a sentencing commission, which would consider the size of the prison population when setting sentencing guidelines. That simply is not right. There should be prison places for all those who have been sentenced to serve time in prison. Sentences should not be restricted because of a lack of spaces.

It is important to appreciate that we are debating a draft legislative programme—I emphasise the word “draft”. By definition, that means that there is the possibility that the programme may be changed in some way. However, it is clear that the Government have already made up their mind, and that there is no intention to incorporate the points that may be made in the debate today. That was confirmed by the statement that we heard today on the equality Bill. The equality Bill is part of the draft legislative programme, but earlier this morning, the Leader of the House stood at the Dispatch Box and spoke about it as if it were a fait accompli and how it would now become part and parcel of the Government’s legislative programme. So much for consultation of the people in this House or in the wider country.

The fact that the draft legislative programme is a sham is also confirmed by the online consultation programme to which the Leader of the House referred. She helpfully informed the House that there have been 400 responses to the survey, despite the fact that the five questions asked are of a broad, general nature. Members of the public wishing to contribute to the debate are allowed to use only 500 characters, including punctuation and spaces, for comments on each Bill. Incidentally, that is 500 characters fewer than they had last year. Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to explain why, despite the fact that she is so keen to tell the public about this consultation process, she is not so keen to listen to them, other than by restricting them to only
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500 characters. I would also be grateful if the Leader of the House would inform us how much has been spent on this sham consultation, which consists of meetings throughout the country. Perhaps she could inform us how many meetings there have been and how many people took the trouble to attend them.

This draft legislative programme leaves no doubt that this Government are tired, have run out of steam and have no vision. They have vision only when they borrow policies from my party. The Government do not understand people’s concerns, nor do they want to understand those concerns. Instead of leadership, there is dithering. Instead of substance, there is rhetoric. Instead of hope, there is despair. The people of Britain deserve better.

2.6 pm

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara). A little later, I shall refer to one point on which I agree with him, notwithstanding the fact that we appear to have snaffled half of his programme.

If I welcome our programme, it is on the basis that there is room for a more open debate about the type of programme that Governments wish to implement in their years of office. I think that this is a welcome innovation, and I intend—notwithstanding the acres of empty seats today—to hold the House enthralled while I speak at length about the need for a Labour programme.

If I may wax a little philosophical, it seems to me that over the past 20 or 25 years, the country has become less of a community, and become more atomised and more individualistic. While one sees many merits in the enterprise, drive and real excitement that individuality can bring, it seems that opportunities have been wasted, lost and thrown away—opportunities to bring together those talents into a more meaningful whole by working together and understanding we can do certain things much better together than by providing for them individually. A little later I will mention the three core services that Government and local government should try to administer efficiently, effectively and in the interest of developing community opportunity, equality and fairness in communities.

This is the Labour party’s programme. I make no apologies for that: it is a political programme that concerns the Labour party and the Labour Government. It has been a disappointment to me that fewer and fewer people seem to have a real understanding of what the Labour party does, what it is for and what its real aims are—its goals and its purpose. People do not seem to know what it wants to achieve, behind those glorious sentiments that we have held so dear for so long—equality, fraternity, friendship, community, equal opportunities and equal outcomes. I am not sure that the people whom I represent know quite what the Labour party means now. People in my constituency always knew where the Labour party stood on, for example, grammar schools, private health care and private schooling. They knew that we were working in the opposite direction and that we wanted to produce more collective responses to the needs of our people in education, health and equal opportunity. Now, they are not sure because, over
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the years, we seem to have adopted a pragmatic, right-of-centre view about the nature of our collective response to the need for housing, for example.

I have always believed that one of the great achievements of the Labour and Conservative Governments that immediately followed the war was the production of 400 million houses that the local authority owned, controlled and managed. For many years, they provided a safe haven for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers who knew that they had a home that was protected and for which people were democratically accountable. People could go to their local councillor and say, “This hasn’t been done, that hasn’t been done. They’re hopeless—they ought to do this.” The opportunity to make representations through an elected person was valued—not spelled out, trumpeted from the roof tops or even articulated, but understood. It was in us—we knew that a councillor was not too far away to whom our mothers could go if they could not get on the housing list. We have taken much of that contact away and we are the poorer for it.

Council housing was a massive success and perhaps the greatest public health measure that an advanced country has taken anywhere on earth. It provided standards and made decent provision for the preparation of food, for hygiene and for sleeping accommodation that was not desperately overcrowded. I do not claim credit only for the Labour party because the Churchill, Macmillan and Eden Governments followed that path and recognised that people in our society do not have to aspire to home ownership. Council housing provided a huge safety net for people who otherwise would have fallen on the sometimes less than gentle mercies of private landlords. Housing shortages led to Rachman. Labour and Conservative Governments failed to tackle the post-war housing crisis and that provided the opportunity for Rachman and his like to exploit people to a terrible extent, at a huge price to family happiness and welfare.

I believe that 300,000 homes were built under Macmillan’s rather benign rule, which did a huge amount to house the people of this country. Now we seem obsessed with finding new, different, more complicated—even labyrinthine—ways to fulfil the demand of the individual to be treated individually and not have to be part of the common herd. It is me, me, me and we have got to the stage at which we must introduce some corrective measures. I well recall and greatly admire—although I am not especially of his political persuasion—Anthony Crosland’s view of housing provision. He said that there should be a role for the voluntary sector. He estimated that 2 per cent. of the housing stock should always be untrammelled by price or local authority rules, which must be open, fair and transparent. He said that there would always be 2 per cent. who did not fit, and he believed that the voluntary movement—dating back to Octavia Hill—could provide the little bit of space for those who simply do not fit to be decently housed.

Before the first world war, private landlords owned approximately 90 per cent. of all housing in Britain. Some were good, some were indifferent and some were frankly appalling. We were moving away from that. Building societies grew in the 1920s and 1930s and the idea of mutuality was adopted—the virtuous circle of local savers putting money into their local building societies and the local builder building houses for local
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people. A feeling of belonging and warmth kept the virtuous circle going and people revelled in self-help and improvement.

Sir Robert Smith: The great advantage of the mutual building societies was that they had the savings to lend for the mortgages, so they did not over-extend themselves, get into trouble and put everyone at risk.

Mr. Purchase: The hon. Gentleman is right. The local nature of the building societies meant that they knew people and could help them before they got into serious trouble. The building society movement built on the idea of mutuality. It provided the opportunity for those who were earning more, doing better and aspiring to move not so much for social mobility but for geographical mobility to get to employment, to take advantage of living near relatives and so on. That movement has recently been crushed, again by the demands of selfish individuals: “I want my £600, £700, £800 by demutualising.” Building society after building society has demutualised. For what? A few coppers. In the great scheme of things, people are no better off for breaking up a wonderful community facility—our local building societies—and taking a few pence from that.

The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire mentioned Northern Rock. What a tragedy. Why did it happen? For the sake of a few hundred quid for the members of that building society. It resulted in overstretch, overreach, greed, incompetence and rules that were not intended to govern that sort of institution being smashed through. A few people got very rich indeed, but that was not for our overall benefit. We wanted to ensure that everybody had a fair kick of the ball and our building societies did that job.

I am sad that the Queen’s Speech contains no real understanding of how to put things back together, whether by again giving councils the right to build decent, proper homes for those who wish to rent, or revitalising our building society movement through the idea of mutuality and the virtuous circle that I mentioned. A Labour Queen’s Speech should impress those virtues into the text, but they are simply not there.

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