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6.6 pm

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy). I do not want to talk about Europe at all this evening, but I entirely agree with him. The new alliance that the Conservative party has formed with some of those east European politicians is of the most dubious sort. There was a remarkable article by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), in the Financial Times on Monday, in which he called for a minor figure to be appointed as the new president of the European Union. He may well get his wish, but that would be entirely consistent with what the European Commission and the Brussels bureaucracy want. The role of president of the European Council was originally conceived precisely as a voice of the nation states of Europe and as a counterweight to the full-time Brussels bureaucracy. I am afraid that if the right hon. Gentleman's wish is granted, he may find himself with a strengthened, rather than a weakened, Brussels machine for this country to deal with.

I have enjoyed all the speeches. Members come and go, which is as it should be, but it is a shame that the Chamber is so empty. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) talked about the shift of power from Parliament to judges, but if we are absent from such debates-I confess that with a lot of European engagements and serving on the Council of Europe, I am sometimes, regrettably, absent-we have only ourselves to blame. I wonder whether we might look at the new nudge theory, which is very fashionable at the moment.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab) rose-

Mr. MacShane: I will give way to my hon. Friend who, I am deeply disappointed to say, is leaving the House. He is an adornment to it, and those of us who are lucky enough to be returned will miss him desperately-and if, after that, he has anything to put to me, I shall willingly take it.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am slightly embarrassed, because after the nice things my right hon. Friend has said, I am going to ask him this question: is he going to stay to
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listen to my contribution? That is the problem. I am rather old-fashioned-one could even say a shade conservative-and I believe that hon. Members should stay to the end and listen to all the winding-up speeches. An awful lot of folk who spoke earlier are not here now.

Mr. MacShane: That is a very fair question, and I shall wriggle on the answer, if I may. I certainly hope to come back for the winding-up speeches. There is a farewell dinner for retiring Yorkshire Labour MPs, for which I have already paid my contribution, and I feel that in due course I ought to go to it, but I will almost certainly read my hon. Friend's speech-if he makes one-with great interest, as I read everything he says here, in Hansard.

To return to the nudge theory, and as we look at this wretched problem of pay and allowances, perhaps we should consider having part of our pay in the form of remuneration for attendance in the Chamber. I do not want to start new hares running, but if hon. Members got £1 a minute for coming in, and we lost it if we left, and if that substituted for part of our fixed salary, it might encourage a few more to stay in the Chamber a little longer.

We are in a fascinating era of monumental political change, and the debate has not entirely risen to that occasion. Change is happening both at international level and nationally. We face one of those watershed elections next year. I am very confident, because I do not believe that the Conservatives are ripe for power. To be blunt, they are in a position similar to that of my party in 1991-92-nearly there, but not quite. I may be wrong, but in any event the British people are willing a new politics into being. They returned 65 Liberal Democrats last time, but I wonder whether we will revert to the old bipolar world that existed until about 10 years ago. We also have strong representation of Scottish and Welsh nationalists. Our representative system is changing before our very eyes, but we are not adapting parliamentary procedures to deal with that change.

The broader issue is the profound changes in the national and the world economy. I sum those changes up with one word: inequality. We see inequality of power between those who have, and those who have not. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) spoke eloquently of the need to combat the slow disappearance of the rainforests, but why is that happening? The poorest of the world are chopping the forest down because it is their only source of heating and cooking fuel. If we do not tackle poverty, we cannot expect people to die of starvation to satisfy the legitimate desire of comfortably off people in this country to retain the rainforests for the protection of the climate.

The right hon. Gentleman is standing down, of course, and obviously I hope that Labour will win that seat-but if we do not, the Conservative candidate, Rory Stewart, will be an interesting addition to the House. I hope that he will maintain the originality that he has shown in his remarkable books and career so far, and does not just become Lobby fodder for the Conservative Whips.

We also need to look at inequality in our own nation. I am proud of what has happened in the last 12 years. On Monday, I opened a new primary school in my constituency, Herringthorpe, which is spectacularly designed and built. It is of a quality that the working-class residents of that area of Rotherham have never enjoyed
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before. When I was elected as an MP 15 years ago, that school had rotting roofs and windows falling out of their rotting frames. It was left to rot because of the indifference to the basic core issues of social justice of the then Conservative Government, which did not invest in the poorer parts of the economy. It is those principles that my party represents, while the Conservatives only pay lip service to them. We have to be realistic about the opinion polls, and it is very worrying that we may face the return to power of a party that is of the rich, for the rich and by the rich. There are more millionaires in the shadow Cabinet and political leadership of the Conservatives than any other political party in the world, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia. It is a party principally of the south, and my constituents in Rotherham fear that if it were to win power they would be ignored, as they were between 1979 and 1997.

My party has to ask questions about why, after 12 years in power, so much inequality remains. Why is the Gini coefficient-one of the measures of inequality-as high, if not higher, now than when we came into power? Like Winston Churchill, I want to see industry more confident and finance less proud. I support the financial services industry, because we need banks; they are the petrol stations of the modern economy. However, perhaps we need more and smaller banks, working in a fully competitive framework, rather than giant behemoths accountable only to themselves.

The shadow Chancellor, in his party conference speech, said, "We're all in this together," but that is not the impression that my constituents have as they look at the Conservatives' policies of removing death duties for the richest people in the country, abolishing the tax credits that have so helped the poorer hard-working families in my constituency, and getting rid of the Sure Start programme that has made such a difference to working-class families. We see the incessant clamour for anti-Keynesian public investment cuts, when every other country and every reputable economist-from Nobel prize winners to members of the Monetary Policy Committee-are saying that there must be a continued level of public investment in our economy if we are to come out of this recession.

When that happens, we need to look at the inequalities in our country. We are not all in this together. I was a BBC trainee after university. How I wish I had stayed to polish that seat at the BBC. I could now be paid £300,000, £400,000 or even £500,000. Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, who is on £800,000, put forward the preposterous proposition that he and his mates have to be paid these huge amounts of money-which come from my hard-working, low-income constituents-to attract enough talent to run the BBC. I suggest that he put that proposition to the test. We should reduce all public sector pay to no more than the Prime Minister earns-£190,000-and if the people at the top of the BBC do not like that, let them go and work in the private sector. We would see who applied for their jobs. I have a sneaking suspicion that many young people out there-unpaid interns and other exploited and poorly paid people-would do those jobs every bit as well as the gentlemen of the BBC and other public sector bodies.

We cannot apply that argument to the public sector alone, and accept the idea that the private sector should have grotesque salary differentials. In 1996 I tabled a
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ten-minute Bill that proposed not so much a statutory minimum wage as a statutory maximum wage. I suggested that it should be set at a ratio of 20:1, between the top earner in any company and the average or median wage of employees in that company. That would still allow handsome salaries to be paid. Of course it was regarded as far too left-wing in those days and not adopted as Government policy, but if we want everyone to be in this together, we have to start thinking more seriously about high pay.

If our country is permanently divided between those with huge salaries, or the gold-plated, index-linked pensions of our top Whitehall mandarins-Sir Thomas this and Sir Christopher that-and the rest of the community who struggle to achieve a decent life in retirement, we will not all be in this together. We have to discuss these tricky issues. I support aspiration and good pay levels, but we have to put a stop to ever-growing inequality.

In 1996 I was a member of the Committee considering the Budget. I tabled an amendment that proposed a modest financial transaction tax on trades, sometimes referred to loosely as the Tobin tax. I showed my amendment to the then shadow Chancellor-I cannot quite remember what happened to him-and his chief lieutenant, now the Chancellor. It came back scrawled over with red ink, "No new taxes".

I was a loyal Labour man, so I immediately dropped my proposed amendment, but what a pleasure it was, two years ago, to hear my friend Poul Nyrup Rasmussen-the former Danish Prime Minister, now the president of the Party of European Socialists-proposing in a strong paper the need for a financial transaction tax. It was an even greater pleasure, last Wednesday, to hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box insist that this was a good and necessary idea. It has taken him 12 years to adopt a MacShane policy, but slowly, bit by bit, we are getting there.

We will need that and other measures, because another problem that we have to be honest about is that although the minimum wage has brought about a great deal of social justice, it has fixed far too many people on a very low wage. We need fairer pay for employees across the board, but that cannot be achieved without agencies and agents to represent their interests. That in turn means the rebirth of our trade union movement, which is now too focused on the public sector and too absent in the private, capitalist market economy sector of the world, here and in other countries.

So, there are three measures. We need to take a look at high pay. We need to consider a financial transaction tax, which could be for the next generation what North sea oil was in the 1980s. We also need a mechanism that would allow the Labour party-I would also invite support from other progressives in the House-to see what we can do to strengthen the right of workers to obtain a fairer share of the value that their labour creates, thus ensuring that they do not become dependent on benefits and credits. They should have fair pay for a fair day's work.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): It is wonderful to see the revival of socialism at the end of this Government's period in office. Does the right hon. Gentleman not feel acutely embarrassed, however, that after 12 years of a Labour Government we now have the most unjust, inequitable taxation system to be
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found anywhere in Europe, under which the poor pay a greater proportion of their income through direct taxation than the wealthy?

Mr. MacShane: Technically, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Knowing Europe quite well, I can assure him that the social justice and full employment measures that we have introduced-including the huge investment in our NHS and in the schools in my constituency that I have mentioned-represent a remarkable social democratic achievement, of which we on these Benches should be much more proud. I do not wish to see the Liberal Democrats being replaced by flinty millionaire Tories at the next election, but they have only a very short period in which to come to terms with the fact that we can shape a progressive alliance in this country and stop the return of the most reactionary, ideological Conservative party for many years. However, if all that the Liberal Democrats are capable of doing between now and the next election is to snipe and moan at those on the Labour Benches, they will be playing right into the hands of Mr. Rupert Murdoch and the Conservatives.

I want briefly to comment on political change, along lines similar to those explored by my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who opened the debate from the Labour Back Benches. I agree with him that we need transparent party funding. I will not make any detailed comments about the £2.4 million sitting in the Liberal Democrats' party coffers that belongs to other people, because I do not think that that would be fair. It would also breach my spirit of seeking co-operation and consensus. However, every other country in the world has had to move to a form of publicly available funding for political parties, in order to stop the corruption that has sent people to prison in France, Germany and elsewhere. We are the last country in the democratic world to hold out against allowing democracy to pay for democracy.

We have the money to do this: we voted £27 million a year to the Electoral Commission. I have to say, however, that since that body was set up, it has increased its pay and its staff, but it has decreased voter participation and confidence in the broad democratic political parties. Coincidentally-it is not responsible for this in any way-that period has seen the rise of extremist, anti-Semitic, racist politics in the form of the British National party and the horrible xenophobia of the United Kingdom Independence party, whose leader boasted of being paid £2 million in expenses by the European Parliament. That £27 million could be allocated pro rata, under supervision, to our political parties. That would stop our search for funds from those such as Lord Ashcroft, or the dubious investors who are now in prison, such as the one from whom the Liberal Democrats have taken money-or funds such as, I have to say in all honesty, some of the big-ticket trade union money that comes to my party.

My second suggestion is that we should support the call for fixed-term Parliaments. I have put forward this argument consistently for some time now. That measure could result in as significant a change as changing the voting system. We could vote on whether our fixed-term Parliaments would last for four years, as in America,
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Germany and Spain, or for five years, as in France. There could be a free vote in the House on the question. I earnestly suggest that other political parties adopt this policy, so that we would really know where we stand. We could nominate the first Thursday-although I would move the election day to Saturday or Sunday-of May or June, when the weather is nicer, and we would know that there would be an election on that day. We would not then have to play the endless, pointless political game of trying to put forward this or that measure simply to gain a bit of political support.

I also suggest that 15 to 20 per cent. of the legislation introduced in this House should come from Back-Bench MPs on a bipartisan, cross-party basis. It has been suggested that electing the Chairs of Select Committee will somehow provide a miracle cure for the so-called disregard in which many people now hold the House of Commons. I am not sure about that, however. I know of no governing deliberative assembly, from the Roman Senate to our own House of Commons, including the US Congress, where there is no party political management. That is simply the norm. There is a notion that a free vote, in which names would suddenly appear for consideration as Chairpersons of our Select Committees, would miraculously transform things, but I am not sure that that is the case. However, if a coalition of members of at least two or three parties introduced a Bill, and the Bill had to be given a Second Reading, that might begin to make this House more of a legislature, and not simply a group of followers of the Executive plus an Opposition who have their say but never get their way.

I also want to suggest fixed terms for Prime Ministers and Ministers-perhaps a maximum of two Parliaments for a PM or a Minister. Ministers often make the best Back Benchers when they return from being Ministers, because they know how things work. They know the dodges and the diddles of Whitehall. The eternal Minister, with his or her car and red box, however, devalues our ability to make this more of a debating legislature with real supervisory powers over the Government. Instead, we have endless queues of Members waiting to become Ministers-

Andrew Mackinlay: Former Ministers always get called to speak before everyone else, as well.

Mr. MacShane: I have to say that one rule that was changed early was that Privy Counsellors lost that privilege. I think that this is the first debate in which I have been called to speak before my hon. Friend. However, I am very much looking forward to either hearing his speech, or reading it tomorrow. I will ask other hon. Friends to take careful notes on it and report back to me when I return from my Yorkshire Labour MPs' dinner.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Would not a natural corollary to what my right hon. Friend has said be perhaps to cap the number of terms that individual MPs can serve in this place? That is a feature of some national legislatures, and there is some attraction in that; perhaps three or four terms might be appropriate.

Mr. MacShane: I am fully prepared to consider that idea. I think that there is real problem with our representativeness. Thanks to Labour's policy of all-women shortlists, we have many more women in the House. I
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congratulate the non-neanderthal Conservatives of Norfolk in seeing off what was obviously an unpleasant misogynist challenge there.

However, I worry considerably that as we search for more women, and the Conservatives search for more millionaires, the one group that is excluded is the one that used to be called "the workers". I wonder whether it is only my own party that needs all-worker shortlists to be introduced, so that people who once came to the House of Commons through the trade union movement and from a working-class background-and then made a huge contribution-will get another chance to be represented here. I am conscious that I had the privilege of a university education, even if I have worked with trade unionists for most of my life.

Let me finish by saying that as a House, we are not rising to the geopolitical and national economic and social changes that face us. As Horace put it:

The mountains laboured, and gave birth to a ridiculous little mouse, or rat. I want this House to be where the needs of a changing nation are heard and reflected. I am not sure that our party political system or our parliamentary system delivers that. I believe profoundly that if the Conservatives were allowed to form their millionaires' Cabinet, it would be disastrous for our nation.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on a workmanlike Queen's Speech, but let us now go out and make the argument for new thinking on equality, new thinking on fairness, new thinking on the rights of workers, new thinking on Parliament and new thinking on politics. We have to rise to the occasion, because if we do not, it will be Mr. Rupert Murdoch who continues to have too much influence and say over the affairs of our country.

6.32 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I advise an industrial group and an investment company and have declared that in the Register of Members' Financial Interests.

Listening to the previous speaker, one might forget that we have had a Labour Government for 12 years and one might forget that inequality has risen to new highs. One might also have been led to believe that we had not been through our worst recession since the 1930s, that Britain was somehow not doing far worse than most other economies of the advanced world, that we were not the only economy that was not coming out of the recession as quickly as the others that went into it and that we were not the only country that had had a deep recession because of the policies we were following. But the truth is that is the position we find ourselves in today.

I agree with hon. Members who have already made reference in passing to the lack of any sense of occasion on this Queen's Speech day. Members have referred to how few hon. Members have been present in the Chamber. By about 4. 15 pm, we were down to fewer than 40 Members in the Chamber, with only 13 on the Labour side; half an hour later, we were down by another 10 Members. It has been a very thinly attended debate. There were even empty seats going begging when the Prime Minister himself was delivering his remarks-something that I cannot recall ever seeing before during a Queen's Speech debate.

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