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It would have been good to have a proposal in the Gracious Speech to ditch the quangos as a priority and return accountability to Ministers. Hon. Members are fooling themselves if they do not consider why fewer
and fewer people are interested in Parliament. It is because Members of Parliament are now ornaments, and not particularly attractive ornaments. We have lost so much power. Ministers have lost all their powers and given it away to the 790 quangos that we have at the moment, which employ just over 92,500 staff, with total expenditure at nearly £43 billion. A tenth of public spending goes on those quangos. Indeed, the figure is probably even higher. There probably are 1,000 quangos, depending on how we define them, and they cost the taxpayer probably as much as £60 billion. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) spoke about the pay and conditions of some of those working for such organisations. Sixty-eight quango bosses earn more than the Prime Minister, yet quangos face neither the ballot box nor systematic inspection. They are governed by boards that are totally unaccountable to the electorate.
The Government claim that they want to devolve power to local bodies, but when will that happen? Since Labour came to office in 1997, the Government have done everything that they could to undermine not only this place, but local government. What is the point of voting for local councillors any more? They have lost all their power, particularly in planning. According to a recent report by the Local Government Association, although the state spends on average £7,000 per person on health, education and care for the elderly, just £350 per person is controlled by locally elected politicians. That is crazy, and it has all happened under the watch of this Labour Government.
Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about the role of quangos, but he will recall from "Yes Minister" and the like in the 1980s, which were based on inside knowledge, that people could become the chair of the "Whitefish Authority", or whatever it was. Does he not accept that quangoisation has been happening for decades and is not just a new Labour phenomenon?
Mr. Amess: I am not going to pretend to be clever enough to get into a tangle with someone who in another life used to prepare and react to parliamentary questions. I am sure that there is an element of truth in what the hon. Gentleman says, but the role of quangos has grown out of control, to the point where this House is greatly diminished. We have only to look at some of the responses that we get to parliamentary questions to underline that fact. I will never forget what happened when I tried to help my constituents about the problem of badgers. Some people might not think it a big issue, but in the course of a two-year battle to get something done about badgers, the Minister responsible, who now happens to be in charge of climate change, lost power, and the power for overall governance of badgers went to a quango.
Councillors have accountability, which is provided by direct elections every four years. Quangos have no such accountability. The law requires council decision-making meetings to be open to the public, with papers available to the press and public in advance. There is no requirement on many of the quangos for such scrutiny, yet they have much more power in real terms. There is no doubt that quangos have systematically taken power away from local communities and locally elected representatives. I would have hoped that we could have a measure on that
in the Gracious Speech. For people to have trust in our democracy, they need to be assured that elected representatives, whether national or local, have the power to act on their behalf, but we do not. Decision making and taxpayers' money should not be monopolised by a growing group of unelected bureaucrats.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend deprecate, as I do, the fact that the Government's flagship quango, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, does not require its commissioners to declare any interests and holds its meetings in private?
If I can catch the eye of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), I shall reflect on a matter concerning Scotland. It is 32 years this month since the West Lothian question was raised in the House, yet we still have no answer to the problem. Scottish MPs should have no say in exclusively English matters, when English Members of Parliament have no say in theirs. That is another matter that I would have liked to see in the Gracious Speech. English MPs should have exclusive say over English laws. The whole idea of English regional assemblies has been an unmitigated failure. I could delay proceedings by talking about what happened in the eastern region.
Mr. Amess: I might leave it to the hon. Gentleman to pick that up in his speech. English regional assemblies were a failed attempt to skirt around the problem. All we are left with is a swathe of unelected regional development agencies-in other words, more quangos. We need to address the issues of representation and accountability immediately, to restore power to those who have been elected to make decisions on behalf of their constituents and rebuild faith in our political system. Nothing in the proposed constitutional reform Bill gets to the heart of the matter.
My second point about the Gracious Speech is about the energy Bill. I will now cheer up the right hon. Member for Leicester, East, because I welcome the measure, which seeks to tackle climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. It is imperative that we develop and expand renewable and low-carbon energy, in order to help guarantee our energy security and protect the environment for future generations. However, a series of measures are threatening to hurt those smaller producers engaged in green microgeneration-exactly the sort of producers that we should be supporting. The current excise duty differential of 20p a litre for biodiesel will cease in April 2010. Value added tax would thereafter be charged at the same rate as on other main road fuels. That will result in a price hike for greener fuels and many producers are worried about the future viability of their enterprises and the entire biofuels-microgeneration industry.
Biofuel producers are penalised in other ways. For example, methanol is commonly used as a reagent in the production of biodiesel from used cooking oil. A recent Ofgem ruling prevents biodiesels produced in that way from being included in the renewables obligation scheme because of the presence of a small proportion of fossil fuel-derived methanol. It will not escape notice that Ofgem is yet another unelected body that is making important decisions about our economy and the environment.
I listened to the speech earlier by the former leader of the Liberal party. I remind hon. Members that I was privileged-on the 18th attempt-to pilot through the House the private Member's Bill that became the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which laid a duty on the Government to eliminate fuel poverty. On that count, the Government have patently failed. The 15-year target seems to be slipping so we need a much firmer commitment to meeting it.
My third point in relation to the Gracious Speech has to do with the economy. I disagree with what the right hon. Member for Leicester, East said about the Bank of England. The Prime Minister once claimed that he had abolished boom and bust, but we are in the longest and deepest recession since records began. The right hon. Gentleman kindly did not blame the Opposition for the state that we are in, but I blame the Government for making the situation much worse than it would have been by taking the supervisory powers away from the Bank of England.
Key economic indicators continue to worsen while our European neighbours are emerging from recession. We had a slight exchange about that earlier, but the UK economy contracted by 0.4 per cent. in the third quarter of 2009, and the Government could not even get that right. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham said, everything is briefed to the media beforehand, and the media had been told that we were coming out of recession. However, when the figures were announced, that was clearly not the case.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I have listened extremely patiently as the hon. Gentleman has made his case, but does he not recognise that every reputable commentator believes that this country would be in a far worse position if we had followed the economic policies advocated by those on the Opposition Front Bench?
Mr. Amess: As my hon. Friend says, we should put the matter to the country. That is what we want and, if the Minister is right, no doubt a Labour Government will be re-elected. However, I doubt that the British people feel that the Government were not in any way culpable for the depth of the recession.
Over the past year, employment among 16 to 24-year olds has fallen by 7.6 per cent. That is more than in any other age group, and the Prime Minister's recent claims to the House about the Government's record on youth unemployment are absolutely wrong and frankly ridiculous. The Government have mismanaged the economy and their decisions have been catastrophic. The financial services Bill announced today is essentially an acknowledgement that the regulation set up by the Prime Minister has failed. What he did as Chancellor to take away the Bank's supervisory powers was very wrong. The Government bail-out of Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley added £142 billion to the national debt, taking it up to almost 60 per cent. of national income. When we have an election, the electorate must have that fact laid out in front of them.
Mr. Amess: I certainly will, and I shall lay out very clearly what I think that we should have done when faced with that problem. A total of £1.5 trillion of debt, largely caused by the huge liability of banks such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group, has been added to the public balance sheet. That is a nightmare that whichever party forms the next Government will have to face up to.
The Labour Government have offered £330 billion in guarantees to the financial sector. They have given no credible explanation of how they will address the debt crisis. We urgently need to get the £175 billion annual deficit under control. No political party wants to spell out clearly how it will raise taxes, but we all know that an incoming Government will have to face up to that decision. Banks' ability and willingness to lend have been slashed, and the problems have been exacerbated by falling consumer confidence and the realisation by many that belts need to be tightened.
I spent the whole summer recess visiting every small shop and business in the constituency that I represent. It was heartbreaking, because we used to be a nation of small shops. Many businesses have been operating for 10, 20 or 30 years, but they were as close as that to going under. I undertook the visits because I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on small shops, and I had the opportunity to observe that the entrepreneurial spirit of the British people is still alive-but my goodness they are struggling at the moment. I had hoped that the Gracious Speech would address the problems of the rising burden of regulation and tax when times are hard enough already.
I certainly talked with local traders about what they could do to try and get relief from business rates. That is another thing that the Government have not yet faced up to, but I am optimistic that a Conservative Government, if there is to be one, will address the problem of small business rate relief. There are, of course, encouraging signs in some sectors, but by and large activity is very flat.
I want to end with two final points, and the first has to do with Afghanistan. I can remember-in fact, the memory haunts me as though it happened just yesterday-the night we debated whether to get involved in the conflict in Iraq. The House was not as it is today; rather, it was absolutely packed, with people standing everywhere. I can remember Tony Blair standing at the Dispatch Box and saying very clearly that there were weapons of mass destruction, that they were targeted at this country and could reach us within 45 minutes. He was talking to people like me, people not blessed with military expertise. I believed what he said, and voted in favour of the conflict.
Barry Gardiner: May I urge the hon. Gentleman to consult the Hansard record for that day and that particular debate? I believe that he is referring to a debate that took place six months earlier than the one in which it was decided to go to war.
The procedure in those debates was so confusing that many hon. Members were rather confused about which debate meant that we signed up for the war. Whichever debate it was, I can remember the
dossier that was presented, and I was very aware of what was going on in an area of the House that we are not supposed to name. The then Prime Minister probably needed some Hansard books so that he could read his speech more carefully. As far as I am concerned, what he told the House that night was not the truth. If I had been told the truth, I would have joined my 18 colleagues and voted against the war with Iraq.
I turn now to Afghanistan. I do not think the House has ever had a debate in which hon. Members could vote about whether to get involved there. Yet again, we take the American lead, and I heard what the Prime Minister said today, but I am in despair. Support for our involvement in Afghanistan is definitely waning. It behoves the Government to be much clearer about our objectives and about the progress we are making to achieve them. This year has been the bloodiest year of action for our armed forces since the Falklands.
In the time before the election, the Government must set out much more clearly what is going on with the Afghanistan Government. One minute, we are told that they are dreadful. Then there was a presidential election that was a farce. Now the only candidate is back in post. It insults people's intelligence. The British people need to be told clearly what the purpose of our involvement is and how the Prime Minister sees it continuing.
Mr. Wills: I sense that the hon. Gentleman is about to sit down, and before he does so, I want to remind him that the purposes of that war have been set out very clearly. I also want to give him an opportunity to pay tribute to the armed forces who are serving so gallantly in that war.
Mr. Amess: Not only do I pay tribute to them, but I am a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and in January I hope that some of us will go to Afghanistan to see at first hand what is happening. I absolutely pay tribute to the armed services.
I am very disappointed that there is no proposal in the Gracious Speech to look at the criteria for holding public inquiries. The issue that is causing the most interest and concern in Southend at present is the expansion of Southend airport, which is very controversial for all sorts of reasons. Last week, a public meeting was organised by our excellent Leigh town council. It was very well attended and the overwhelming majority of residents were concerned about proposals for the expansion of the airport. Southend council will look at the proposals in January and the Secretary of State cannot give a view until after that planning meeting. Depending on how the meeting goes, he may or may not decide to call in the plans and hold a public inquiry. I have asked the advice of the Library and civil servants about the criteria for holding a public inquiry. They are not clear to me. In fact, I am of the opinion that the matter depends on the judgment of the Secretary of State of the day, but how he makes that judgment is not clearly set out, so I was disappointed that there were no proposals about that in the Gracious Speech.
I was aware that the Government and Labour had destroyed the country, but I had no idea that they would destroy Parliament. That is what they have done. We need a new Parliament. We need a general election and the return of a Conservative Government.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) said that he disagreed with a number of the things said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I think that the hon. Gentleman will disagree with everything I say, but that is nothing new in this Chamber.
Earlier, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) recalled the considerable number of Queen's Speeches that he has been privileged to hear in this place. That reminded me that I am merely in my 18th year here, and I feel like a cub scout compared to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with his vast experience. I mention that particularly because when I was bag carrier for the then Foreign Secretary, he was for a time the shadow Foreign Secretary. When I carried messages back and forth, he was unerringly understanding, exceptionally kind and very co-operative whenever he possibly could be. Although I have never given or sought quarter in the House, I have always been touched and moved, and thankful for the kindness with which Members from all over the House-
The Queen's Speech announced many Bills, including Bills on equality, child poverty, digital economy, energy and so on, and Lords reform, which enables me to mention one of my predecessors in the seat of Wolverhampton, North-East-a certain Major John Baird. He was a Scottish gentleman who from 1945 until 1964 served my constituency with great distinction. I mention him particularly because when I made my maiden speech I referred to him, as is the custom, and reminded the House that one of his statements included the words that the Labour party exists
"to make workers of Lords and not Lords of workers."-[ Official Report, 2 June 1992; Vol. 208, c. 749.]
In this year, 2009, we have yet another promise to reform the House of Lords. I am an abolitionist-unashamedly so. I believe that if this place organised itself properly, particularly in terms of the scrutiny function of Select Committees, it could very well do the job of examining legislation both before it came here and during its passage. To employ Members of this place fully on legislation here, we have to rethink our approach to scrutiny, which would give us the opportunity to diminish-if nothing else-the role of the other place. It could simply make recommendations for amendments, without any powers.
In an elected upper House, I see serious problems arising from a conflict of power-deciding who says what for whom, and when and why, and who represents the people of this country. I still believe that abolition is the best answer. I recognise that it will not happen, but in the next Parliament Members of this House must take on the proper scrutiny of the Executive in a more intense and structured way.
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