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The Prime Minister:
Those on our Benches have just applauded action to deal with home owners problems, small businesses problems and the problem of jobs. It is
our side that is leading the way in taking action; it is the Conservative party that refuses to support the action that is necessary.
Daniel Kawczynski: I am grateful that the Prime Minister has given way. One group of people whom he has not mentioned today is the policyholders of Equitable Life. We recently had a debate in Westminster Hall, which was initiated by the Liberal Democrats. Will the Prime Minister give us a concrete date for when the Government will respond to the parliamentary ombudsmans report on the issue?
The Prime Minister: There will be a statement before the House rises at Christmas. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that that will be done. [Hon. Members: Answer!] There will be a statement before the House rises this Christmas.
Mr. Tyrie: The Prime Minister has announced a series of measures to deal with repossessions, which are of course the consequence of a gigantic recession. On reflection, is he prepared to say today that at least some of that recession is a direct consequence of his decision to over-borrow and mismanage the economy over the past 10 years?
The Prime Minister: Every country in the world is facing a downturn. Only the Conservative party thinks that it is a national matter, but this is a world downturn that has to be dealt with by world action. I know that the Conservative party opposes action in Europe, but action in Europe is essential to deal with the problem. Action around the world, by calling the G20, is necessary also. It is amazing: nowhere else that I go in the world do I hear politicians saying to me, Lets do nothing, but that is the policy of the Conservative party.
To help people through the downturn, we are also raising the pension, effectively from January, with £60 for pensioners and vulnerable people in the new year. We have brought forward Aprils increase in child benefit to January to help people. We have also invested more money in our communities to enable them to regenerate themselves and so that public investment and public works happen through the downturn. In the Queens Speech, there are measures to reform our public services, including more say for parents, a new NHS constitution, more help with law and order, more action on alcohol and drugs, and stronger powers to tackle unacceptable care such as that exposed by the baby P case.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD):
When the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister, he gave an undertaking that Parliament would be able to scrutinise the Government. Does he, as a parliamentarian,
recognise that it is not acceptable for Government Bills to pass through on Report without reaching swathes of grouped amendments which you, Mr. Speaker, have selected for debate, and without debating scores of Government amendments? Will he, as a parliamentarian, undertake to sort that out in this Session?
The Prime Minister: Of course we will respond to Back Benchers amendments, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we are changing the royal prerogative and giving more power to Parliament over peace and war, and over treaties. We are also planning to make the Intelligence and Security Committee more linked to parliamentary action and parliamentary decision, and for more reports to Parliament. Let us remember that Labour is the party that brought in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to enable people to have information [Interruption.] The Conservatives laugh, but they opposed putting the European convention on human rights into British law. Far from standing up for the rights of the individual, they refused to support that.
Last year, the Opposition said no to education at 18, no to nuclear power, no to planning reform, no to airport development, no to our big investment in skills, no to additional public spending. In the past few months, they have said no to action on Northern Rock, no to action on share speculation, no to our fiscal package, no to our VAT cuts, no to our public works, no to our public investment. When it came to the crunch, they reverted to being what they always were: a Conservative party that did not want to take action, and that was uncaring and unfair about the difficulties that people face.
This is the era, as everybody can see, of Yes, we can. All over the world, people are saying, Yes, we can. Only the Opposition are saying, No, we wont. They are on the wrong side of the British people in taking action to deal with this downturn, and they are on the wrong side of history. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Many hon. Members are leaving the Chamber, but they would be well advised to stay. After all, the Liberal Democrat party identified the risks of the recession before any other party, and it was also the first party to identify any of the solutions.
I, too, should like to express my sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of Marine Tony Evans and Marine Georgie Sparks, who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan last week. Later, I should like to ask the Prime Minister about the review of Government policy in Afghanistan and Iraq that he has announced.
First, I should like to pay tribute to the right hon. and hon. Members who have sadly passed away in the past parliamentary year. No one could forget Gwyneth Dunwoody, who was a great servant of her constituency, this House and the country. She is sorely missed by everybody, not least by people such as me who received tongue-lashings from her fairly frequently. John MacDougall will be remembered fondly for his 30 years of unbroken and unstinting service to the people of
Glenrothes. His death, from asbestos-related cancer, reminds us of the work that we still need to do to protect the health and welfare of people in the workplace, and of the research that still needs to take place to stop that terrible and cruel illness in its tracks.
I should like to thank and congratulate the proposer and the seconder of the Loyal Address. The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) spoke with great affection about his constituency and his family, as well as deftly poking fun at me and other right hon. and hon. Members of the House. He also reminded us of his great track record of speaking out on behalf of people with disabilities. I congratulate him on that. When I did my research on him, I noticed from some of the newspaper clippings that he was described as being both a member of the Scottish mafia and boring but safe. It is an extraordinary feat to be both those thingsalthough when I look at those on the Government Front Bench, I sometimes think that it might be easier than it seemsbut I suspect that he would not wish to be remembered as either.
It has rightly been observed that perhaps the greatest service performed by the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) was to keep Robert Kilroy-Silk at bay in her constituency. She did not sayI would love to know whether it is truewhether she had a hand in having him evicted from the Australian jungle last week. If she did, I would like to congratulate her, and also urge her to take urgent steps to get David Van Day sent home as well. Many people would congratulate her if she could do that.
The proposer and seconder have, of course, upheld a great tradition of the House. Today, we are celebrating the democratic traditions of the House and our role in scrutinising the Government and holding Ministers to account. That great tradition has been called into question by recent events, however. Unlike the Prime Minister, I feel unambiguously that it is wrong for the police to gain entry into the offices of any hon. Member of this House without a search warrant, and I cannot understand why he will not say precisely that, too.
It is with comic timing that the Governments Queens Speech has included words about the need to strengthen the role of Parliament, given that this Government show no sign of understanding how much the House has been neutered by the over-centralised, over-secretive and over-mighty Executive that exist under our non-constitution [ Interruption. ] The Secretary of State for Justice shakes his head. If he understood the degree to which real parliamentary scrutiny had been placed in jeopardy by the actions of his Government, he would have included three more Bills in the Queens Speech. The first would have been a Bill on parliamentary privilegeas was recommended 10 years ago by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilegeto codify clearly, once and for all, the rights of Members of the House to hold the Executive to account, and to set out in what exceptional circumstances, if any, those rights may be infringed.
The second such Bill would have been a civil service Bill to protect and enshrine the impartiality of the civil service and to ensure that undue political influence could never be applied to any civil servant. The third would have been a Bill to restore the protections for whistleblowers that have been systematically removed and demolished by this Government and their predecessors.
Mr. Redwood: Does the Liberal Democrat leader also agree that we need more time to consider the Budgets, the statutory instruments and the laws that go through the House with very little of their content being debated?
Mr. Clegg: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. That involves the much wider issue of the lop-sided nature of the information, power and prerogatives of the Executive, compared with the increasingly feeble powers and prerogatives of the legislature.
From the point of view of the public, this matter should not simply topple into an arcane, introspective debate about parliamentary privilegea concept that the public have probably never heard of, and about which they care even less. This is about defending the simple principle that anyone wanting to unearth information about the way in which we are governed by the Government of the day should not live in fear of the anti-terror police arriving on their doorstep. This is not, and should not be, an argument between parliamentarians. It is an argument on behalf of the public to ensure that every citizen has the right to tell the truth about the Government of the day, however much that might embarrass Ministers at the time.
Before I turn to the Queens Speech, I should like to ask the Prime Minister certain questions, if I may. He does not want to listen, but it would be helpful if he would do so. He has made some important announcements this afternoon. As ever, with him, those announcements were not even highlighted, signalled or flagged up in the Queens Speech. They related to the Governments policy on Iraq, on Afghanistan and on repossessions, and I want to ask him three questions.
On Afghanistan, when the right hon. Gentleman conducts this review, will he accept that any lasting stability or peace can be established or maintained only if there is a regional dimension, so that the powers that encircle AfghanistanPakistan, Russia, central Asia, China and Iran as wellmust indispensably be included in any lasting settlement? Secondly, the Prime Minister has highlighted the fact that we are effectively on our way out of Iraq. Does he not think that it is time to admit that we need a full public inquiry into the circumstances that led to that fatal decision to invade Iraq in the first place? Finally, on repossession, I welcome much of what the right hon. Gentleman has announced todaybut if only he had listened to us three or four months ago when we made precisely the same recommendations. Will he tell me how many households that are falling into arrears will be helped by these new measures? The previous measures covered roughly one in 10 of all households in arrears; how many does he think will be covered by the new measures?
Today was a very important opportunity. This has been a terrible year for millions of British families who are struggling to make ends meet, struggling to pay this months mortgage bill and this winters heating bills, and who are worried about whether they can give their children the sort of Christmas they deserve. People are waiting, anticipating, asking and pleading, Please help us. The Prime Minister says that he is Winston Churchill and the Business Secretary, never known to be outdone in hyperbole, says that he is not Churchill, but Moses. People therefore have the right to expect something big from the Governmentperhaps a tablet of stone to fix their everyday problemsyet all they get is this meagre
document, dressed up as a solution. We are facing an unprecedented economic crisis and people need a helping hand, yet most of this Queens Speech is lifted directly from the Prime Ministers pre-Queens Speech announcements in May. Has he not noticed that the world has changedand changed utterly? This non-stop drum beat from the Government is like a sort of legislative muzak, an irritating hum in the background, of no use or no help to anyone.
We see from this Queens Speech that the Government are once again to prove to be hyperactive in areas of public policy where they should back off and inactive in precisely those areas where they should do something. They act where they should not act and they fail to act where they should. How on earth can the Government justify the 26th criminal justice Bill without a single mention in the Queens Speech or in the subsequent debate on the Loyal Address of the environment or the climate change crisis, which remains the greatest crisis facing us for generations to come? How on earth could the Prime Minister have unveiled legislation that, if reports are to be believed, will give the police the power to check everyones identity in this country, so smuggling in the ID card system by the back door, while saying absolutely nothing about reducing fuel bills for those people who cannot pay them at all?
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): My right hon. Friends constituents, like mine, have been seriously affected by flooding in recent years. Does he share my bewilderment that after a year and a half of consultation and deliberation, including the recommendations of the Pitt review, which were widely supported as far as they went, the Government have promised us only a draft Bill and yet more consultation, so almost ruling out the prospect of real action on flooding before the next general election?
Mr. Clegg: I agree with my hon. Friend. I can certainly speak on behalf of my constituents in Sheffield, where a young boy lost his life in the floods, about the intense anger they will feel as they see once again that procrastination has taken over where action is needed from the Government to protect us from future floods.
In other words, this is a Queens Speech for a fag-end Government, running out of ideas. It runs to 650 words and 14 Bills, but not a single one of them will help anyone pay their fuel bills this winter. Not a single measure here or in the pre-Budget report last week will put a single penny back in the pockets of people who need help. Rarely has so much been promised and so very little delivered.
We have been living in strange political times. For years now, we have been witness to an extraordinary amount of political cross-dressing between the two Front Bench teams: new Labour was in effect Conservative lite and the Conservative party, for a while, at least, was all cuddly and green. But now they are back in their corners. That is why the public remember quite why Labour and Conservative Governments have failed them, their families and communities for so long. One lot want to do everything and the other lot want to do nothing: it is a terrible choice between a wrong direction or simply going backwards. This Governments determination to do very little only seems to be outdone by the Conservatives determination to do even less.
Listening to my right hon. Friend[Hon. Members: Oh!] I am just checking that he is paying attention. Listening to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), I do not know what he would actually do. He seems to think that public spending should be cut in 2010 when we will still be in the teeth of a recession. He calls this being responsible; this from the party that has been responsible for most of the worst recessions that this country has seen in the post-war period, and is trying now to steal the cloak of so-called prudence.
Labour imagines that the recession will look good for its poll ratings. The Conservatives seem to think that it is good for peoples health. Labour seems to be fiddling while Rome burnsthe Conservatives would prefer to hide the fire engines in the first place.
The Queens Speech should be offering hope where there is fear, reassurance where there is anxiety. The pre-Budget report and the Queens Speech should have delivered big, permanent and fair tax cuts to people on low and middle incomes who are struggling to make ends meet, paid for by closing the multi-billion pound loopholes that only benefit wealthy individuals and large businesses. The pre-Budget report and the Queens Speech should finally have released local authorities from the restrictions that prevent them from borrowing money against their own assets to buy up unsold properties to provide more social housing to families who have no permanent roof over their heads.
The pre-Budget report and the Queens Speech should finally have signalled that banks will be forced to lend to businesses and, if not, that the Government would start lending to businesses directly themselves. Instead of using £12.5 billion to give a temporary VAT cut that no one has noticed, that is helping nobody and which everyone will have to pay for later, any borrowed money should have been used to invest in our common future; in greener energy, public transport and better and more social housing.
Finally, the Queens Speech today could have been used to propose legislation to stop the scandal of the way in which energy companies now charge people for their heating. At the moment, the first units of energy are billed at a higher price than any subsequent units of energy. It sounds technical, but what does it mean in human terms? It means that a pensioner on very modest means, scrimping and saving to heat one single room in her house, will be paying more for her energy than a millionaire heating five floors of their mansion from top to toe. That is wrong, it is a scandal, it should have ended and the Government could have done something about it now.
The banking Bill will not restore lending to struggling businesses. The local government Bill will not allow councils to invest money in housing and the education Bill will not stop the loss of apprenticeships. The tub-thumping populism that we have had for 10 years now on law and order will not cut crime, either.
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