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A great deal has been said today by Members, including the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, about the forthcoming conference at Copenhagen. The Prime Minister spoke about vision and resolve, and intermediate targets. In the Gracious Speech, the Government declared that they would seek effective global and European collaboration through the G20 and the European Union to sustain economic recovery and combat climate change, including at the Copenhagen
summit next month. I therefore welcome the Government's commitment to the summit in the Gracious Speech. It is three weeks to the climate change conference, which seeks to pick up where the Kyoto protocol left off, and there is now closer co-operation between the United States and China, following the President's visit to China and his talks with President Hu. We are seeing movement towards progress, even though it is not entirely clear that there will be a binding agreement at Copenhagen.
I turn briefly to the European Union, which is a great subject in the House and will be for many years to come. The treaty of Lisbon has been ratified by 27 member states. The president, with a maximum term of five years, will be appointed on Thursday and a High Representative will also be appointed. The forward march of the Union can now be continued in the development of a common foreign and security policy, an environmental policy to be expressed at the Copenhagen conference and immigration and energy policies, all to the benefit of the British people. It may be a paradox, but the current economic downturn means that our active membership of the Union is more important than ever for our prosperity.
I do not wish to detain the House as other Members wish to speak. With reference to the conclusions of the Gracious Speech and the statement that I made a little earlier, the House of Commons must come to terms with major issues of our times, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and the middle east. All these matters must come together, and we must be not only the debating Chamber for all these issues, but the focal point of the country.
During the Falklands war, the great focal point was the fact that on the Saturday morning the House met and calmed down the British people. A clear line was given by the Prime Minister of the time and that line was followed. In so far as we allow ourselves to take routes such as those down which the media will take us, such as obfuscation and confusion, the House of Commons will never be itself. We have gone through the difficult period when the focus was on allowances. We should come out of it and restore the reputation and confidence of the House from within and towards the British people.
I commend the Gracious Speech to the House, and I commend the Government's proposals. We will have an interesting debate up until the general election. It will be based on issues and clear differences of policy. At the end of the day, the British people will come to their own conclusion. When that conclusion is reached, it will be more supportive of Labour than the opinion polls show.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD):
Following on from the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) and his concluding remarks in particular, may I point out that many of us felt, long before the allowances issue or the expenses scandal-choose your terminology as you wish-earlier this year, that there was a distinct sense of drift about this Parliament? Curiously, that goes right back to the aftermath of the 2005 Labour general election victory. I was struck by how soon after the historically successful outcome of that election, among colleagues and friends in the parliamentary Labour party, the plot internally moved
on to the question of how long Tony Blair would stay and, if it looked as though he was going to stay too long, what means could be found of moving him out sooner rather than later. We saw a failed attempt at that. Eventually Blair did go and the present incumbent came in. What finished it for him was the election that never was. He must look back now not in anger but in sorrow at the missed opportunity that he had.
We now find ourselves at the tail-end of this Parliament. The late Roy Jenkins once said to the present Prime Minister when he was Chancellor that if he inherited the Labour leadership and the premiership with it, he would not want to inherit it in Callaghan-like terms, taking over when things had already gone wrong and managing as best he could towards probably inevitable defeat. That is the strong sense that we have about the drift that has characterised the past 18 months, made disastrous by the international circumstances and particularly the parliamentary circumstances of the past six to 12 months.
Mr. Kennedy: Yes. The Liberal Democrats have an awful lot to answer for in this Parliament, because, having been first out of the trap on that issue, we found enthusiasm for it. I had almost lost count of the number of leaders we went through before we reached this happy situation-where we are now and will, I hope, remain for many years to come. Other parties have followed suit, and I can only say that our position, looking towards the next election with our change of leadership over and done with, is happier than that of the right hon. Gentleman's party. I wish him well in the future leadership contest or contests that he may have to look forward to. It is not so much a case of waiting for Godot as waiting for Gordon, but the Prime Minister should remember that "Waiting for Godot" was always defined as a two-act play in which nothing happened twice.
This has been something of a broken-backed Parliament, certainly since the expenses issue, and today we have had a very thin Queen's Speech. That is out of necessity. I do not blame the Government, because all Governments legislate far too much anyway, and a more limited Queen's Speech is rather welcome. However, something struck me about today-it was true this afternoon and when the House convened for Prayers this morning. As I said, it is a thin Queen's Speech and that is a product of necessity, but there is a rather thin sense of occasion about everything-in terms of attendance, energy about the place and the inescapability of the political choice that we all know is only five or six months ahead of us.
That sense of dispiritment, which goes to all parts of the Chamber, is more than a reflection of the turnout in the parliamentary by-election in Glasgow just a few days ago. Indeed, that was the worst turnout for any Scottish parliamentary by-election in modern times: two-thirds of the electorate did not even participate in the choice of a new Member of Parliament. As my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats said earlier, we really must look beyond the content of the Queen's Speech today to the wider political vista over the next few months. The challenge is upon us all to try not only to gear ourselves up again, but to re-engage the electorate along the way.
My right hon. Friend was right to speak about the broad issues, most of which do not feature today. However, in the cause of reform, I welcome the further nod in the direction of the House of Lords. Let us hope that we do not have to nod in its direction too much longer, and that we bring it on to a properly accountable, elected, basis like the House of Commons. It is only a century overdue.
There is also a nod in the Queen's Speech to the final report of the Calman commission on the ongoing evolution of Holyrood and Scottish devolution. I do not intend to get into a great debate about that this afternoon, but one irony of the expenses scandal is that it has made many people-not just elected Members but those in authority in and around the Palace of Westminster-realise that there are other ways and-would you believe it?-better ways of managing parliamentary institutions. Lessons can be learned from the new devolved institutions. That is true of the way in which Holyrood has managed expenses, and it has also been proved true in legislative terms. For example, there is pre-legislative scrutiny, which this House has now embraced and which all of us, who have had any experience of it, would say is a good way of widening people's participation in, and influencing of, legislation in a more consultative way than ever. We can learn from elsewhere.
Mr. Kennedy: I most certainly do. I suggest to the next House of Commons, and to whichever party or combination thereof forms the next Administration, that they look at the basis on which Parliament is structured, so that the relationship between this body, the legislative body, and the Executive is defined more rationally and reasonably.
I hope that this side of Christmas we will see the publication of greater intent on the part of the Government politically in terms of their response to Calman, if for no other reason than that that would greatly inform the debate in Scotland at the next UK general election. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have all signed up to this, although I would like to see the full colour of the Conservatives' money. Those of us who want to continue to reform and improve the United Kingdom-in my preference, in a more federal direction-without seeing it separated out into constituent parts would like that argument, in its varying shapes and forms, to be on the front foot, and the nationalist alternative to be very much where it belongs, in a UK Westminster election, as something of a sideline, or certainly on the back foot. I hope that the Government will take note of that in the light of what is in the Queen's Speech.
I want to touch on two specific measures, particularly from a constituency point of view. Both are broadly welcome, and I think that my experience locally will be not dissimilar from that of colleagues in all parties and in all parts of the country. First, the Government have spoken about energy policy in the context of the wider environmental issues; Copenhagen has been mentioned, and we hope that that will yet succeed. Earlier this year, I was able to introduce a private Member's Bill on this
subject. I can see that by fortuitous coincidence the Minister who was involved, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), has just arrived on the Treasury Bench. The Bill was probably not going to make much headway, but we were able to discuss the broader issues of carbon capture and storage and whether there might be a window of opportunity to deal with them in the Queen's Speech. I know that he, like me and many others, will welcome the fact that that has proved to be the case, which is a welcome step forward. May I enter a plea to the Government? Against the backdrop domestically, by which I mean domestically in this country and in terms of people's fuel needs and consumption in their homes, lower energy prices mean that we need to maintain the political pressure, right across the board, on the big suppliers to continue to invest in energy-saving devices and technology generally if there is to be the proper return that we would look for.
The Government say that they will want to further the whole issue of energy in the legislation announced in the Queen's Speech. That is very significant for those in fuel poverty. Let me give an example from my constituency. A couple of days ago, the citizens advice bureau for Skye and Lochalsh issued a statement in which it described many of its clients as drowning in debt. That is because, as in so many places, unemployment has gone up, incomes have not risen, certainly in the case of pensioners and those on low earnings, and people's financial reserves, if they had any in the first place-those who I am talking about probably did not-have been all but exhausted. The category of families and households who have to spend a large proportion of what domestic income they have-a good deal of which probably comes in the form of state benefits of one kind or another-on their fuel needs, and who therefore find themselves in fuel poverty, is very marked. When the Government are considering this legislation, they must recognise those people's circumstances, particularly in relation to heating fuels. This time last year the Prime Minister talked a good game on energy conservation, but a lot of it has been left to the big energy firms, and the reality does not always match the aspirations set out by the Head of Government himself.
I mentioned the area of Skye and Lochalsh in my constituency. Last month, a constituent on the Isle of Skye was informed, at the hands of BP, of an increase in the unit cost of liquid petroleum gas by 50 per cent. in a single increment. When I raised the matter with BP, it responded that as a global company fuel poverty was not something that it could be concerned with. It said:
"The issue of fuel poverty is clearly a very serious problem, and the best way to alleviate it in the long term is to ensure a competitive market, and to encourage efficiency in both the production and use of energy."
"But in terms of addressing the social consequences of fuel poverty today, this must be an issue for government in determining how best the tax and benefit systems should alleviate the hardship. Fuel poverty levels differ in both scale and severity across the world, and a global company such as BP has neither the legitimacy nor the ability to deal with this problem on a national basis".
There is a big argument in this respect; time does not allow for it today, but it can perhaps be gone into in greater detail when the legislation is introduced. The
Government have left it too much to the six biggest energy companies to take action, particularly as regards social tariffs, and have done nothing to address the rest of the energy sector. When one sees the dramatic impact that that can have on a single household in a remote and isolated part of the United Kingdom, one realises that the difference between the rhetoric and the reality at a local level becomes very marked. I hope that the Government can deal with that properly in the legislation.
Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in rural and upland constituencies such as his and mine, the Government have seriously missed a trick when it comes to taking advantage of the natural renewable resources that exist there? I am thinking particularly of anaerobic digestion and hydro power. Given that there are 38 anaerobic digesters in this country compared with 25,000 in Germany, and that in my county of Cumbria, which has the fastest falling water in England, there are only four working hydro schemes, does he agree that the Government need to give much more attention to that aspect?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is not very helpful for him to turn his back on the Chair? It means that his words are less easily recorded by the Official Reporters.
Mr. Kennedy: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Two words that I am happy to re-record for the Official Report are "hydro board". Not only do I come from the home of Scottish Hydro Electric, which is in the highlands of Scotland, but my father's employment for many decades as draughtsman with the old Hydro-Electric Board brought in the money that put food on the table in our house, so it is very much part of the family in that sense. Tom Johnston, the post-second world war Labour Secretary of State for Scotland-a great political figure of his time and one of the great definitive Scottish Secretaries in a century of that office-spoke about power to the glens when referring to the development of the hydro schemes of that time. In terms of social impact and economic well-being, those schemes probably did more than anything else in history to transform for the better the prospects of our part of the country.
I want to look forward to something that has an equal role to play and represents something as revolutionary as did hydro power in its time in the highlands and islands generally. Broadband is another issue to which the Government have given welcome attention in the Queen's Speech. I want to enter another plea. I represent a part of the country where a significant number of people have no broadband, or have broadband connections only by means of satellite because of their distance from an exchange. It is hard to help those categories of people.
However, broadband provides the big, historic, electronic opportunity to overcome at speed the disadvantage of those in the Lake District, part of which my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) represents, or in my part of the country or any other of the peripheral parts of the UK's islands. Those parts of the country are at a natural economic
disadvantage, for all the obvious reasons, including geographical factors such as transport infrastructure links, distance from the larger markets and the higher prices it costs to import raw materials that can be used to make something that can be exported from an area. Ironically, our areas find it most difficult to get the access that would begin to create the sense of a more level playing field. We have suffered the disadvantage of the uneven playing field for so many years and decades past.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): My right hon. Friend is perfectly correct. I was on the Isle of Coll on Saturday and found that there is a limit to the number of available broadband slots, and that BT seems to have been operating the situation very haphazardly. For example, when a constituent who came to my surgery moved house, he lost his broadband connection, and the slot was allocated to the lucky person who happened to phone BT on the day he moved. That is haphazard. My right hon. Friend is right: we need a system of universal broadband to cover the whole country.
Mr. Kennedy: I completely endorse what my hon. Friend says. I have noted time and again in my constituency precisely the kind of anecdotal example to which he draws the House's attention. Indeed, if I have any sympathy at all, it is not for the Government, who are trying to deal with these problems, but for the Hansard Reporters during my short contribution. Given the many locations I have mentioned and the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, this is becoming a bit of a round Britain quiz, but that at least makes the point that broadband is vital precisely because of the nature of the communities that we represent.
In the mainland area of the Highlands, which encompasses quite of lot of my constituency, the city of Inverness, and the larger towns, such as Dingwall and Fort William, everybody should be able to access a universal standard. However, getting the edge on broadband speed is important when it comes to fast-tracking the next generation of broadband. Representatives from across the political spectrum and those of us in elected public positions have learned-from our own work as MPs, but certainly from schools, the vital public services such as the police, hospitals and the health service, and business generally-that providing broadband services is the big problem that has to be overcome more successfully if we are to have a properly and fairly connected UK operating with the economic success that broadband technology can bring.
Although there is not long left in this Parliament, there will at least be further parliamentary time to debate the social opportunities and social injustices of fuel poverty and fully flexible and modern broadband connections, which are insufficient at the moment. The time available to us, as representatives, can be well spent discussing those matters.
Finally, I welcome the obligatory reference at the outset of the Queen's Speech to Europe. That reference is encouraging because of the history and future of the fuel poverty and broadband issues that I have raised-and not only for the area that I represent, but for the country as a whole. An awful lot of the decision making is now done at European level, and rightly so. The infrastructure investment that becomes available is crucially
dependent on our being able to attract funding from the EU, and to match funding out of our UK coffers for the funding that is available from the EU. That underpins the need for this country to have an ongoing, sane and constructive engagement at a European level.
Although I have great and deep criticisms of the Prime Minister and his predecessor for having missed tremendous, historic opportunities for this country where Europe is concerned, I none the less feel reassured that this Queen's Speech acknowledged Europe's role in a sane and rational way, even if I would like the Government to be more ambitious in their approach. Heaven knows what kind of approach would be signalled following a change of Government and a Conservative Queen's Speech in six or seven months. I hate to think of the damage that that would do to the long-term interests of all our constituents.
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