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10 Jun 2009 : Column 889

We on the Back Benches are not the Government. We hold the Government to account, and that function does not belong solely and exclusively to those on these Benches. This House has lost its lustre because people who stood as Labour candidates, were elected as Labour Members and who believe in Labour policies did not think it necessary to insist that the Government’s policies should be argued and reasoned, and that they could go forth and convince the people that the Government’s policies were worthy, because the Government won the argument.

Unfortunately, the evacuation from the Chamber of the Secretary of State for Wales meant that he did not answer the questions put by my right hon. Friend about the conduct of business. As the hon. Gentleman said, we now have an opportunity for this House to revive itself. I believe that profoundly, but with this personnel—with these Members—it cannot have the confidence or authority to sustain a Government. That is what the House does, collectively, but this Government have no purpose now.

The reform of expenses has now been taken out of the hands of this House, effectively, because the people have thrown their derision and scorn at it. Freedom of information was mentioned, and one need only look at the list of those who voted, including Ministers, because they were available on a Friday. Whips were imposed by both parties—I do not pretend otherwise—to defy the very principle of open government and our accountability for our use of public money.

We comforted ourselves with the thought that the system was out of the sight of others and that our integrity was reinforced by the fact that it was authorised. That has been swept aside, and we all recognise that. A process is under way. We look forward to Sir Christopher’s review. We will bear it heavily, perhaps, but it is right that the people should have the response that they wanted and that this is no longer in our hands.

This issue should not be about the Prime Minister outbidding the Leader of the Opposition, or about star chambers. The Prime Minister used the term, but a Star Chamber put fear into this country for 100 years. The king appointed judges to sit in a little courtroom not far from here. He made charges, and strangely enough, his chosen judges found people guilty and he would then say that the verdict was right. That is what we have slipped into in our crisis. It denigrates our tradition of liberty and it is contrary to our sense of process and fair trial. That is what we have reduced ourselves to—to accepting that, when we can do better.

It will not be for us to do better. Our time has passed. This House is dead on its feet and it needs the renewal of authority that, in our tradition and purpose, justifies its being a cradle of democracy and the little Chamber that was once an example to the world. That is the restoration that we can seek through the people. This House has no time left. Whatever initiative is announced or programme proposed, there will be a summer recess and a Queen’s Speech, but we all know that the parties will be working on their manifestos. That is what it is about. Perhaps some still hope that something will turn up, but the public mind knows that we are a busted flush. In truth, we know that too: there should be an election.

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6.20 pm

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). He speaks with great sincerity, but he and I are coming from opposite sides of the argument. I come from a background where, if something has gone wrong, the duty lies with the individual or individuals who have got it wrong to start to put things right and to mend— [ Interruption. ] He says from a sedentary position that we have, and, yes, I think we have put interim measures in place to deal with the whole allowances fiasco. An independent reviewer will come to us with their views. I sincerely hope that the whole House would get 100 per cent. behind that and would accept what is being said.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): One of the problems is that people in the areas where some of the MPs who have abused the allowances system are standing down will not have any representation. It is not realistic to call umpteen by-elections, which need to happen. In those seats, people will not accept MPs simply standing down but—potentially—getting a salary for another nine months and a pay-off. Those MPs should go now. The only way to do that sensibly, I am afraid, is to dissolve this House and call an election, so that we can get rid of those people who have abused the system in the ways that we have seen over the past few weeks.

Mr. Brown: I accept, to a certain extent, what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but let me go back to the point made by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) in opening the debate. There is a clear indication that at the moment people are fixated—justifiably so—on the allowances and the expenditure that falls into the hands of elected Members, and on the way in which some people have abused that. I have committed things to writing in the past on allowances, and I have said things. In the past couple of months, I have voted in a certain way. Never in my wildest imagination did I recognise what was going on. I defy anyone to stand up and say, “Well, I knew that that was going on.” I do not think that the majority of this House did. What the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) says makes sense. I do not fear for myself, because there was life before this House and there will be life after it, but I do fear that we will sweep away far too many good and decent people. We have a judgment to make. Do we tolerate for another few months those who might have abused the system, or do we run the risk of sweeping away honest, decent people who deserve to come back here to build on the strengths that we have put in place?

May I quote a few words? They are

Those were the words used by the late John Smith some 15 years ago in a speech he made the evening before, tragically, he passed away. Members—and I would include myself—would do well on occasion to remember why we are in this House. We are here to represent people. We are not here to save our political skins or our necks. We are here to do a job. I fear the results of the hostility towards each and every one of us, which I witnessed during the European election campaign. I witnessed people who would normally support my party saying on polling day that they were not coming out. It was their chance to protest. We all saw what happened last Thursday.

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Dissolution would mean an election, and an election is about policies and manifestos. We would be asking people to vote when they were angry, and not really aware of what any party was proposing. Some might say that it is time for change, and we have heard that often enough. It was time for change back in 1997, when my party brought forward a manifesto containing pledges on a national minimum wage, devolved Government, the new deal, cutting class sizes and NHS investment. People who wanted change could get behind that manifesto.

The people who have led today’s debate said that it was time for change two years ago, but I do not believe that they expected to be able to form a minority Administration in Scotland after that election. The Scottish National party’s manifesto contained a number of pledges, but it is important that people who lay out their stall in that way stick to what they propose.

The pledge to introduce a local income tax failed. Up to now at least, the pledge on the Scottish futures trust has also failed, and there have been failures on class sizes, probationary teachers and student debt.

Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the governing party in Scotland has 47 MSPs, yet the Budget in Scotland was approved by a majority of more than 120.

Mr. Brown: There was undoubtedly significant wheeling and dealing—grown-up politics, but fundamentally different from delivering on pledges and commitments to the people.

The Scottish Administration have failed on police numbers, prison overcrowding and support for first-time buyers. I am only disappointed that I could not get hold of the Scottish National party’s election leaflet so that I could bring it to the debate and say, “Could do significantly better.”

Pete Wishart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brown: No, as I have only two or three minutes. At general elections, people deserve to have manifestos laid before them.

Mr. Bacon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brown: No, as I am not taking any more interventions. People deserve to have policies and manifestos laid out before them, but before I finish I want to take up the earlier reference to 1979.

My late and good comrade Bob Cryer began his contribution to the debate on 28 March 1979 at 8.20 pm by saying:

He went on to say:

He went on to talk about the individual responsibility that every hon. Member bears.

Mr. Bacon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Brown: Given that the hon. Gentleman is bigger than me, I will give way very briefly to him.

Mr. Bacon: I detected some dissatisfaction on the hon. Gentleman’s part with what the Scottish National party had said and subsequently done. Will he explain how it was that the Scottish nationalists were supported so strongly by the Scottish people?

Mr. Brown: Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, above the guffawing that is going on, that I expected a honeymoon period, but it has gone beyond that and what the Scottish National party has had is more than a fair wind; it has been a love-in that John Lennon and Yoko Ono would have thought brilliant. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) says from a sedentary position that the SNP Government are not doing anything. They complain and whinge about a £500 million cut in a Budget, when in actual fact they are getting—people need to know this—£700 million extra this coming year.

Mr. MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brown: No, because, in spite of all this, I wish to finish by paying a compliment to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I want to share a secret with him and everyone else in the House—nobody else is really going to know this. At the time his party was selecting its last leader, I was in a room with about 15 other people who were all members of a Conservative association—I did not know that at the time. I said that the best individual to lead their party was him and that he would be the next Conservative Prime Minister. I think his time as party leader came early, because as far as I am concerned he stands head and shoulders above anyone else on the Conservative Benches. That may upset the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and I sincerely hope that it is not the kiss of death for the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks.

In conclusion, I thought that this evening we might have been able to get an answer from the SNP to a question that it was asked twice: what would it prefer to see after the next election? Would the SNP prefer to see a Labour Government or a Tory Government returned to this House? What is the SNP’s view? We do not get an answer to that.

Mr. MacNeil: Can I get an answer from the hon. Gentleman that I failed to get from the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire)? Would he have preferred an independent Scotland with a Labour Government during the 1980s or 18 years of a Tory Government from Westminster? What is his answer?

Mr. Brown: Let me say slowly, so that the hon. Gentleman can understand, that Labour is a party of the Union; we do not believe in independence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, we would much have preferred to see a different form of words used today; the nationalists could have used this Opposition day debate in a much more constructive manner. They have failed, and although the people of Scotland have not recognised it yet, they will do; time will catch up with the SNP. I hope that my Labour colleagues will vote against the motion.

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6.33 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): We have had a wide-ranging debate, which started with a fine speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson). He referred to the fact that the public are demanding that we go to the people and ask for a fresh mandate. I believe that what he said was right, and that this whole idea of the British National party was not an aberration; it is not going to go away unless we tackle it head on. One of the reasons why that evil has come into politics is because Parliament is discredited as an institution—that is obvious.

It would have been better if the Prime Minister had been here for this debate, because many of the points raised in it were made in his earlier statement, with which I agreed almost entirely. The timing and the re-announcements perhaps were not good, but generally what he said was good and worthy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Moray referred to the fact that this is not, and is not meant to be, a motion of no confidence. He mentioned the various surveys and opinion polls that have been carried out recently, which found that the vast majority of the public have come out in favour of an immediate election. We are talking not about one or two polls but about several, and the majorities involved have often been very large. We will doubtless be able to read the exact percentages at our leisure. He rightly said that we need to grasp the nettle, because we must sort this out. The expenses scandal has been sorted out in part, but we need to accept what the Kelly commission says, be it good, bad or indifferent. We need to accept it fully, because we cannot cherry-pick. If we do so, we will be back in the same position. My hon. Friend put to rest the idea that it is wrong to have an election during an economic crisis, referring to India, the USA, Canada and other places. The idea that we cannot have an election is preposterous, as was underlined very well also by other speakers, including the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

The Secretary of State for Wales is out of practice as a Front Bencher, I have to say. He picked up a speech that was frankly not worthy of him. He did not write that speech, because it was drivel. He would not have written it; I say that because I know that he is an intelligent man. However, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, we are all playing the game. The Secretary of State played the game but, with respect, not very well. That was not his fault; it was the fault of the speech-writer— [Interruption.] Oh, it was? I beg the Secretary of State’s pardon. I am awfully sorry, but he is out of practice, after all. I welcome him back.

Mr. MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Llwyd: I have very limited time left; I am sorry. The Secretary of State has conceded defeat at the next election, because he said that calamity would follow if the motion were put to the vote and the vote was won. He referred to lancing the boil, but waiting nine months to lance a boil is not, medically, a good idea. Boils need to be lanced fairly quickly. Waiting would only lead to septicaemia; I know that, and I am not a doctor. There was a bit of knockabout, I accept, but at the end of the day, the Secretary of State needs a bit of practice. However, I welcome him back; he is a worthy Front-Bench
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Member, but he was skewered once or twice by pretty sharp interventions from Members on the nationalist Benches; some pretty accurate darts were thrown, I thought.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, in an erudite speech—which is what we expect of him—referred to the tasks ahead. He spoke of the national democratic renewal council, that wonderful institution, reflective of everyone in the House, that is peopled by Ministers and that meets behind closed doors. No doubt it will be given a great deal of credence and will have a great deal of legitimacy when it comes together. He said, rightly, that the majority of people now believe that an election is necessary. He referred to the polls, and rightly said that dissolution is really in the public interest. He mentioned that Labour support is at its lowest since the 18th century. He referred to the famous time when the Prime Minister bottled an election, and said that the Prime Minister does not want one now because there might be “chaos”.

The reference made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks to Ceausescu was interesting. It was meant to be a jest, but there is some rather interesting background to it. No doubt the new national democratic renewal council will be quoted at length on the “Supreme Leader” page of Private Eye. It reminds one of some lines written by Brecht—whom we all read regularly, no doubt—after the anti-Government riots in East Berlin in 1953:

That does make one think about the situation in general. The right hon. Gentleman went on to refer to the huge democracies of India and the USA, which had elections in an orderly manner—no whiff of chaos there, but apparently the Prime Minister believes it is impossible to have an election here because it would be chaotic. That undermines the credence and the intelligence of the British people.

Chris Ruane: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Llwyd: I have no time; I am sorry. If the hon. Gentleman had remained in the Chamber throughout the debate, I probably would have given way to him.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, referred in a very humorous manner to Cardinal Wolsey and to Lord Mandelson— [Interruption.]—or Archbishop Mandelson. That was a tour de force. It was hugely amusing and very effective.

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