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I was disappointed that there was no mention in the Queen’s Speech of Equitable Life. The Government have gone against the findings of the parliamentary ombudsman in the past at their peril, and, certainly in the case of failed pensions, have later had to recant—as it were—and reverse their position. The Prime Minister promised us a statement on this matter before the House rose for the Christmas recess. I hope, on behalf of Equitable Life policyholders and all people who save for the future, that there will be a fair resolution to the
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issue. The savings system in this country is in a bad way, and if people are to be encouraged to make reasonable and responsible provision for the future, we need to clear up this matter and give people confidence in the future of their savings.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman is well known across the House as a decent, fair and reasonable individual. Would he accept the widely recognised view that the roots of the Equitable Life saga—I guess that it is rather more than that—go way back beyond 1997? Does he acknowledge that there is a shared responsibility between the previous Conservative Administration and this Government, and that it would be premature to allocate responsibility as though the problems started only in 1997, as they clearly did not?

Andrew Selous: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect. I was not really seeking to allocate blame as such, but the fact is that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine have been pretty badly let down through no fault of their own. That is a matter on which the parliamentary ombudsman—an Officer of this House, Mr. Deputy Speaker—has spoken very clearly to the Government. The hon. Gentleman’s party is in power at the moment and that happened under his watch, so it falls to Government Ministers to come up with a fair and reasonable solution, notwithstanding any points about how those events have come to pass. Our economy does not need the vision set out by the Government, which will plunge the country into really frightening levels of debt for the future that our constituents will have to pay off with increased taxes for many years to come.

I look forward to seeing a freeze on council tax for the first two years of a future Conservative Government. Only this week I had e-mails from a number of constituents who were deeply concerned about future council tax increases. This is a tax that hits poorer people and pensioners, for example, particularly hard, so many of our constituents will find that any small cuts in VAT will be hugely outweighed by such increases.

I would also like to see employment costs for small businesses reduced by cutting national insurance and providing a tax break for jobs, which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has already outlined. We desperately need to get credit flowing to businesses with the sort of insurance scheme that guarantees commercial lending in the same way as does the scheme for inter-bank lending that the Government have already put in place. This is not state interference in decisions properly taken by banks, but amounts to standing back and providing an insurance-based guarantee that is already happening in parts of the financial system. That brings me back again to the issue of whether, when it comes to supporting our smaller businesses, we are getting value for this huge amount of taxpayers’ money.

I also want smaller businesses helped with their cash-flow problems by delaying their VAT bills for six months. Over the weekend, I spoke to a business man who employs between 30 and 40 people and he told me that that sensible and practical proposal would really help his business. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) said earlier, we need the introduction of some form of American-style chapter 11 proposals. That idea has been put to Ministers time and again, yet they continue to resist it, claiming that previous
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legislation has done all that needs to be done. We are reaching a position that none of us wants to see, whereby businesses that are fundamentally sound risk going out of business for want of such chapter 11-type protection as is available in America, but not in this country.

I was also alerted over the weekend by a Dunstable accountant—I am grateful to him for the information—to the fact that evidence from his clients suggests Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is taking between two and five months to repay money it owes to small businesses. In these times of great cash-flow difficulties, it is incumbent on Treasury Ministers to ensure that their Department does its bit to ensure that money owed to businesses and individuals is actually paid back far more promptly.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) mentioned earlier that he welcomed the falling pound and hoped that it would drop further. I wish I could introduce him to a small business man in Dunstable whom I had the pleasure of visiting earlier this year. He is a talented and ambitious young man who runs a small, but growing business. He faces problems largely because of the fall in the pound by about a quarter of its value over the past few months. That is causing tremendous difficulty for his business as the cost of what he imports has gone up. We need to remember that.

Locally, there is an onus on local authorities to do what they can to help businesses get through these difficult times. It will be for each local authority to see what it can do; it may have to look at parking charges in some areas. In my constituency, the one thing that would help our local economy, encourage businesses to stay and new businesses to come would be to get a key by-pass built north of Dunstable, now known as the A5-M1 link. I very much hope that that will happen sooner rather than later, as I understand that the difficulties formerly identified by the Government are now being overcome.

I am concerned about what happens to constituents who fall through the net, whose eligibility for different types of benefit is questioned and who suffer delays in processing their claims. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made a statement to the House on work and welfare recently in which he said—I thought slightly complacently—that the current system was working well. I have experience in my constituency, as I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House do, of people who have fallen through the net. When the Jobcentre Plus office closes at 5 o’clock on a Friday night, those people have no money. They have not been able to get through to the social fund and they are not even going to be able to eat over the weekend. I call on the Secretary of State to undertake an urgent review of Jobcentre Plus, district by district across the country, as to what arrangements are in place to help people in those situations. We are not talking about huge numbers of our constituents but it matters desperately and it is a shame on our country that in Britain in 2008 we have people who fall through the welfare system. I know of instances where charities have had to take food round to people who would not have eaten over the weekend. I will say more about the people who did that later in my remarks.

There is a proposed Bill in the Queen’s Speech entitled apprenticeships, schools and children’s services. Education is a passion and an interest of mine. I serve as a governor in a local school and I pay tribute to the
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dedication of teachers in our country, and to the work of school governors, which is unpaid, voluntary and involves a great deal of time. We are blessed in this country with people within our education system who are extremely dedicated, but the fact that half of the children in the country are still not getting five good GCSEs, including English and maths, should shame us as a country.

I know that there are problems with discipline in many schools. I am grateful to one of my head teachers for a thoughtful and considered letter that I received last week, explaining why he had been unable to exclude a child from his school who had perpetrated a violent assault on another pupil. He went through carefully all the reasons as to why he could have been overruled and why that would have made the situation more difficult within the school had he been second-guessed, which he thought he was in great danger of so being.

I put it to Members that that is not a good situation for head teachers in schools up and down the country. We need urgently to give more power and more responsibility to them. They only reach that position after a long time in the teaching profession and through proper assessment as to their suitability for that role. It is time to trust the judgment of our head teachers more.

John Hemming: On exclusions from schools, in my constituency a few years ago—before I was elected—a child who had assaulted a classroom assistant was excluded from school but then reinstated by an appeals panel. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must have no tolerance of violence in schools?

Andrew Selous: There should certainly be no tolerance whatever of violence in schools. Schools should be places where the children of our country can go in complete safety and security to learn. That is what they are there for, and the idea of violence in schools is as abhorrent to me as I am sure it is to every Member.

Moving from schools to skills, I was horrified to learn recently when the Government brought out their climate change report that the major constraint on building more nuclear power stations—regardless of our views on whether to do so is right or wrong—is that there is a shortage of suitably qualified engineers to build the nuclear power stations that we may need to keep the lights on and to keep us in business in this country. Sadly, in some parts of our country, engineering training is not all that it could be. Some local businesses have reported to me experiences that do not reflect well on the engineering training that certain of their employees have received. I also recently learned that in three major local education authorities—Blackpool, Darlington and Islington—not a single child took one of the three mainstream sciences at GCSE in 2007. I am shocked by that. Are we really saying that there are no children with any scientific ability in any of those three boroughs?

If we are to diversify our economy—as thinking Members in all parts of the House realise we need to do in order to get away from our over-reliance on financial services, property and public spending—we need engineers for the future. We need people with a grounding in science so that if we require nuclear power stations in future so that we can keep warm and keep the lights on, we have skilled people who can enable us to provide that. We need to look urgently at our science base.
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People cannot go on to be more skilled engineers and scientists later on at A-level or university or in further study if they do not have the GCSE base. We must look into that.

A number of my hon. Friends have commented on the Government’s local economic development and democracy Bill, which was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. I view that Bill with a little incredulity given the experience of my constituents in recent years, who have had major decisions on housing growth, and especially the number of local jobs and the transport and infrastructure links that must go alongside that, taken out of their hands and appropriated either to regional bodies or back to Government Departments.

I strongly echo the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who called for more powers and discretion to be given back to our local councillors. I am worried about the regional spatial strategy approach of the Government. If we are going to ask our constituents to go out to polling stations on wet Thursday afternoons to vote for local councillors, then those men and women who are duly elected by proper process, as we in this House are, need to have the power to take decisions locally, and also to be accountable for them so that if they muck up—if they are not building the houses an area requires or meeting the needs of the community—they can be voted out and a new lot of councillors can be allowed to try to do better. That is the basis of our democracy, and we undermine that locally at our peril. The value and worth of our democracy in this House is intimately linked to the value and worth of our democracy at the local level.

I want to move on to another area that is not touched on in the Queen’s Speech: family stability. This has some tangential relevance, because a child poverty Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech. I was pleased to hear that, not least because I am likely to be leading on it for the official Opposition. I very much look forward to that Bill. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition committed us to supporting it, because we, too, want child poverty to be eradicated.

I mentioned family because, sadly, we know that a child whose parents separate is twice as likely to end up in poverty as a child whose parents stay together. Earlier this year, Mr. Justice Coleridge, a man with 37 years’ experience of the family courts in this country, told the national conference of Resolution, the family lawyers’ association, that he believed that restoring family stability and doing something about family breakdown needed to be at the top of the Government’s agenda. His remarks were prescient, and Members of this House should listen to a man who has 37 years’ experience of this country’s family law system. The events involving baby P, which shocked all in this House, are a tragic reminder of what can go wrong when families break down in a truly shocking way.

We learned today from a report in The Lancet that 10 per cent. of children suffer some form of ill treatment every year in our society. That figure is far too high, and I want us to spend more time focusing on prevention, rather than on cure. There have rightly been cries for more inspections of social services and so on, but where is the focus, the vision and the determination from those on the Government Benches to give our constituents the skills and support to make a success of this area of their lives in the first place? Right relationships, responsible
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fatherhood and motherhood, healthy marriages and positive parenting are some of the most important things in people’s lives, and we all pick up the pieces and pay for the consequences when those areas go wrong.

I wish to pay tribute to Cambridgeshire county council—the neighbouring authority to the county of Bedfordshire, which I represent. Its “Vision For Cambridgeshire” has committed to reducing the amount of family breakdown in Cambridgeshire—that is doing something positive. I am in discussions with the new shadow Central Bedfordshire authority to see whether my local authority can commit to doing something similar.

Although we do not have a Bill on this subject in the Queen’s Speech, I want to discuss a slightly different area in the final part of my remarks. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister what had happened to the Government’s intention to do something about British values—I think he mentioned the British day and the Government’s paper on Britishness. My right hon. Friend’s questions were well put, because I am sometimes saddened by the lack of focus on what binds together our diverse country, which has people from many different backgrounds and races, and in many parts of which there are segregated communities. When the Queen arrived in Parliament today, we saw her ability to be a focus of unity for the whole country. My right hon. Friend has suggested a national citizen service as another thing that could help to bind us together. I say to Ministers that there needs to be more thinking about what draws us together, whatever our background and racial origin, and whatever part of the country we come from. We need to spend more time focusing on the things that unite us.

In the closing minutes of my address, I wish gently to rebut some comments made by certain Ministers over the past year or so. They have said in various media interviews that Britain is a secular society. That is part of the whole debate about Britishness and British values, and I disagree that ours is a secular society. It is a very diverse society, made up of people who are secular and people of very great faith, and many people at various points in between. I do not want to live in a theocracy, but nor do I want to live in a secular society.

I understand that in the last census, some 70 per cent. of people said that they were Christian. Some 1.7 million Anglicans visit church every Sunday, and Church membership is actually growing, as are other faith communities in our country. By contrast, the membership of the British Humanist Association is some 5,000 and that of the National Secular Society around 3,000. So when Ministers—and the chief executive of a Government agency whom I heard the other day—state confidently that we are a secular society, I would say that that does not tell the whole story. A political system with real plurality is surely based on the biblical injunction to love your neighbour as yourself.

I shall give two examples of why I think Britain would be much worse off if we did become a secular society. I wonder whether hon. Members remember the mass of protestors who went to Edinburgh as part of the Make Poverty History campaign before the G8 summit there. We all received the postcards about that. It is not generally known that some three quarters of those who went were from Churches and faith communities up and down the country, and their disproportionate influence in that campaign should not be forgotten.

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I mentioned that sometimes some of my constituents literally have no food or money on a Friday evening, because the Jobcentre Plus office closed at 5 pm and they have not yet got their benefit. When that happens, I am so grateful that I have two Salvation Army centres—one in Dunstable and one in Leighton Buzzard—that I can ring and know that they will take food round so that that family can eat over the weekend until the Jobcentre Plus office opens on Monday. That is immeasurably important to me, and we should remember the work that such organisations and faith groups do on behalf of our constituents.

9.8 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). For four years, we sat next to each other in the Work and Pensions Committee, so I know his views well. I do not agree with him in all cases, but we share an agenda in many areas, especially the ending of child poverty. There is much to welcome in the Queen’s Speech, especially the Bill to enshrine in law the Government’s promise to end child poverty by 2020.

I also welcome the Bill on welfare reform, which I hope will take the welfare debate on a stage or two. I give credit to the Chapel street Jobcentre Plus in my area, which has been given a reprieve thanks to the announcement last week by the Secretary of State. It will remain open because of the likely rise in unemployment, although I hope that that rise is not too great. In Aberdeen, we have been relatively insulated against the effects felt in the rest of the country from the economic downturn, partly because of the continued high price of oil and the fact that we have a labour shortage in the area rather than a jobs shortage. That is not to say that people are not losing their jobs. Obviously, with the normal turnaround and with people moving in and out of work, it is important that Jobcentre Plus is sensitive to that.

Our local jobcentre and its staff have been very good at stepping up to the plate when there has been a crisis. When factories close, as one did a few years ago, the staff have been prepared to come in on a Saturday morning to interview people and to ensure that they get the emergency money. The local manager was willing to go beyond his obligations to ensure that the redundancy payments were in place very quickly so that the situation mentioned by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire did not arise. I hope we will see that in offices of Jobcentre Plus across the country. They are much more flexible nowadays and the way in which they do business is very different from that of the old Employment Service and Benefits Agency, which we inherited when Labour came to power in 1997.

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