Previous Section Index Home Page

I had the unfortunate experience just the other day of discussing a small tourism enterprise in my constituency that was experiencing difficult times in winter, as tourism
18 Nov 2009 : Column 110
businesses always do. The owners have taken out a second mortgage, mortgaging their home to keep the business going. The bank provided the money, but demanded additional payments of £800 a week as a security because of the risk being undertaken. The owners are understandably experiencing great difficulties in finding that extra money in lean times. That example is a classic case of the bank giving an umbrella when it is fine and wanting it back when it is raining. There are far too many businesses in Wales and elsewhere suffering from such problems.

There are also measures on employment that we would have liked to see. I have spoken in the Chamber previously about the possibility of reducing VAT on labour-intensive industries. The Government might look at that later in the month or as we approach the election, but I would like to recommend it as a possibility that is now allowed for, following the most recent ECOFIN discussions. Other countries have taken that step and reduced VAT on, for example, building work for repairs and renovation, thereby injecting some money into labour-intensive industries, immediately giving the building industry a boost and getting repairs done on old buildings, of which we have many in Wales, including many pre-1919 buildings and bad houses.

Reducing VAT on repairs would be one way of getting those repairs done. However, not only would people be employed and the repairs get done, but it was apparently found in Italy that when the tax rate dropped to 5 per cent., 30,000 building companies appeared out of what is called the informal economy and started paying the rather more reasonable rate. The actual tax take went up, even though the tax rate went down. That does not always happen, of course, but the potential exists when one is looking at how to pay for such a step. We would very much have liked to see a reference to that course of action in the Queen's Speech and, given that Europe has been happy to recommend it as a way forward, it is possible that the Government will decide to take it up.

I want to turn briefly to a couple of other omissions from the Queen's Speech. For some time, my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy has been calling for a military well-being Bill to address a wide range of deficiencies in the treatment of our military personnel, such as the aftercare of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The Bill would also try to get to the root of why 10 per cent. of our jail population are ex-military: what is the root cause of that glaring problem, and what steps can we take to remedy it? There is clearly a chain of causality, and I know that my hon. Friend will take part in research on the matter very shortly.

Another matter about which my hon. Friend is keen-and I speak on his behalf now-is the lamentable state of service accommodation and housing, some of which is in very poor condition. Every week, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and other hon. Members have to stand up and express their concern and sympathy for people who have so tragically lost family members in conflicts abroad. It is quite right that we in this place state clearly how much we appreciate the sacrifice that people make, but my party believes that certain concrete steps should be taken, and that the corollary of expressing public sympathy is to look at problems such as the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

18 Nov 2009 : Column 111

Before I conclude, I want to speak briefly about two matters that I have raised already, and the first is the potential for changing the law on child poverty. Clearly, that is a huge problem, although I am not convinced that we need a new law to enable us to reach the Government's targets of halving child poverty by 2010 and reducing it to 10 per cent. by 2020. However, I had a quick look at the figures for Wales before I came to the debate and I found that in 1997, when this Government came to power, there were 216,000 children in poverty, or 36 per cent. of the child population. Five years later, the figure was 210,000, or 35 per cent., four years after that it was 186,000, or 31 per cent., and two years after that it was 174,000, or 29 per cent.-but the point is that by June 2009 the figure for children in Wales defined as being in poverty had risen again to 192,000, or 32 per cent.

We are going very much in the wrong direction, with the proportion of children in poverty in Wales rising from a low of 29 per cent. to 32 per cent. That is tragic when one thinks of the lives of the children involved, and of the hard work that the Government have put in. They had very well meaning intentions to attack this dreadful problem and it is tragic that they are not succeeding. I hope that the Government will redouble their efforts to tackle this most wicked of social ills.

There are two areas that I would like to see addressed in the months running up to the election, and perhaps they could be the subject of election manifestos. The first matter is the reform of the tax credits system. At every surgery that I hold, I still get one, two, three or four cases in which people describe finding themselves in deep debt to the Revenue thanks to past over-payments. That is still going on, despite the reforms that the Government quite rightly have brought in. The problem needs to be looked at again.

The other area is child care. Child care is difficult to obtain in urban areas, but it is a total nightmare in rural areas. In my part of the world, it is very difficult to access the good-quality, affordable child care that means that people who want to return to work are able to. It is not impossible, but it is a total nightmare. The people who actually access child care tax credits are few and far between, and they tend to be the more able. There is a class difference. The people who most need child care tax credits seem to be the least likely to access them. I hope that point will be addressed.

Lastly, I refer to the proposals on care for the elderly and for disabled people-the personal care at home Bill. I note from the BBC's Bill by Bill briefing that the measure applies "to England only", so I hope that, as a Welshman, I will be allowed to say a few words, because the proposals are part of a much larger consideration of care services. A week last Thursday, we debated the Government's Green Paper, one of whose proposals is that attendance allowance and disability living allowance for people over 65 might be taken to finance enhanced care services for older people and people with a disability.

The Green Paper proposals are about care in England. However, I assume that the proposals about attendance allowance and DLA will apply equally to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. When I asked the Secretary of State about that-a week last Thursday-he said there had been regional consultation with stakeholders and
18 Nov 2009 : Column 112
all kinds of users throughout England, because a large change was envisaged. When I asked him about consultation in Wales, he said there had been talks with Assembly officials. That is not good enough and I am sure that the Secretary of State felt embarrassed at having to say it. I hope he will quickly take steps to hold proper discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government and stakeholders in Wales, because at present it is unclear what "national" means in the national care plan that the Government propose. I think it means England. It is a perennial problem for people such as me.

Some years ago the Leader of the House was talking about an education measure and she kept saying "this country". Eventually, I intervened to ask her which country she meant. She had what is sometimes called an "Aha" moment and replied, "England", which was the point of my intervention.

To be serious, more and more people in Wales are beginning to realise that there may be changes in attendance allowance in the future, although not for the current recipients. People are worried about the future of attendance allowance and disability living allowance, so the sooner the Government clarify their intentions in respect of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as England, the better. I look forward to it.

9.28 pm

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): I have to admit that I have been known to fall asleep in the Chamber during the speeches of other Members in the past. That has not happened today, but I trust that I may be forgiven if I should fall asleep during my own speech this evening-after what is now seven hours in the Chamber without a break, I feel for the first time that it is quite likely.

We now know that it is Lord Strathclyde and not the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) who will be leading the Opposition charge in the next general election. Any piece of progressive legislation that the Labour Government introduce may be struck down by the noble Lord who has pronounced that it is

How condescending! How outrageous that the Conservative party is so brazen as to flaunt the fact that it intends to use its inbuilt majority in the House of Peers to strike out the Government's programme.

What is in this programme that the right hon. Gentleman is reported in today's newspapers to have described as "divisive" and mere "pettiness"? I shall focus my remarks on two areas: health and education. I welcome the Government's proposals to guarantee that all treatment for any illness should begin within 18 weeks of GP referral. I fail to see what is either petty or divisive about that. I welcome the Government's proposals to guarantee that, if one's GP suspects that one has cancer, one will be entitled to see a cancer specialist within two weeks. I fail to see what is either petty or divisive about that. I also welcome the introduction of a right to a free health check every five years for those aged between 40 and 74. That is not petty or divisive; it is what most people regard as common sense. It is, in fact, the opposite of divisive: for the first time, it guarantees a quality of health care for the many that previously has been available only to the few who can afford to pay. Empowering people by giving them guaranteed rights is not about
18 Nov 2009 : Column 113
division; it is about equality. It is no wonder, then, that the Conservative party-the party of Lord Strathclyde-wants to tear it down.

My constituents remember only too well the last time that the Conservatives were in government. Treatment within 18 weeks-some chance. Their target was 18 months and patients routinely waited much longer. Eighteen weeks was what the wait felt like if one was unlucky enough to have to visit an accident and emergency department under the Tories. Now, almost all patients at A and E are seen within four hours. The Conservatives had put the national health service into intensive care; it was this Labour Government who invested in it and turned it around. In 1997, 50 per cent. of all hospital buildings in this country were more than 100 years old. Today, more than 50 per cent. of hospital buildings have been built since 1997.

The NHS has gone from a poor service, where patients got what they were given, to a good service, where patients have rights and the service is structured to suit them. Targets were important to drive up standards; guarantees are important to lock in those reforms and to empower patients. As targets become rights, not just the patient but our society is healed and becomes more equal, less divisive. Her Majesty's Gracious Speech is right; Lord Strathclyde is wrong.

On education, today's headline in The Daily Telegraph was the most extraordinary mixture of outrage and incredulity. So what did it say? Merely this: "Children get legal right to a good education". That was it-that was the headline. How outrageous indeed-children having a right to a good education. What-all children, not just those of the rich who can pay for private education and enshrine that right in a legally binding contract? How preposterous! No wonder the newspaper condemns the Government's proposal as a "whingers' charter". No doubt it says the same about the contracts that parents sign with Eton and Harrow, Winchester and Ampleforth, Fettes and Gordonstoun-whingers' charters all.

So just how petty and divisive are the educational guarantees that Lord Strathclyde wants to strike down? I welcome the fact that all seven to 11-year-olds who fall behind are guaranteed to receive one-to-one tuition in English or maths. I fail to see what is petty or divisive about that. Perhaps the Opposition are not concerned if primary school children fall behind their classmates, but parents are. They want the Government to be just as concerned as they are, and they want Government action to help to sort it out.

I welcome the proposal to guarantee all five to 16-year-olds access to five hours of high-quality physical activity and sport every week. I fail to see how that is either petty or divisive. Children at private schools have always had that guarantee. Giving it to all children is about equality, not division. It is about doing something positive to address the growing problem of childhood obesity. I welcome the guarantee that every teenager should either be in education or in training at least until the age of 17 from 2013 and at least until the age of 18 from 2015. How is that petty, when that youngster's future prospects depend on the skills and qualifications that he or she secures before the age of 20? How is that petty, when our country's productivity and prosperity depend on our preparing our young people for the jobs that tomorrow's economy will require?

18 Nov 2009 : Column 114

My constituents well remember the last time that the Conservatives controlled education, both in the country and in Brent. In 1995, the Audit Commission report for London said:

In those days, schools in my constituency regularly struggled to achieve even 40 per cent. A* to C grades at GCSE. Just one example is Wembley high technology college, which used to achieve only 32 per cent. This year, it achieved 92 per cent. A* to C grades at GCSE. I am hugely proud of it, and I pay tribute to its extraordinary head, Gill Bal, who was the runner-up this year as woman of the year in the leadership and diversity awards for her work improving the life chances of so many young people from so many varied backgrounds. There are other schools in my constituency that I could equally well name: St. Gregory's, whose awards ceremony I will attend tomorrow night; Claremont; Preston Manor; JFS; and Kingsbury high school-all of them with A* to C achievements in the 80 to 90 per cent. bracket. That is the transformation that has taken place in my constituency in education.

Perhaps the year that was most indicative of what things were like was 1996, when the Conservatives in Brent set the council's budget. They omitted entirely to put a single penny into special educational needs. It was a statutory responsibility, yet not one penny was allocated in their budget. My constituents know what is petty. No funding for the most disadvantaged children-that was petty. My constituents know what is divisive. No funding for disadvantaged children-that was petty and divisive, which is a precise description of what Conservative party policy on education was all about.

This Queen's Speech is right to talk about the need for action on climate change and to look forward to COP15 in Copenhagen next month. With a number of hon. Members, I had the privilege of attending the Globe Forum on climate change and energy in Copenhagen last month. There I chair the commission of Globe on land use and ecosystems, so it was with particular pleasure that I listened earlier this evening to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), who, as he informed the House, was speaking in his last Queen's Speech debate before leaving the Commons. He spoke of the need to preserve rainforests.

The proposals that will go forward from the Copenhagen conference next month are critical for tackling climate change through reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation. By 2020, if the world is to achieve a 450 parts per million trajectory, we must reduce annual emissions of CO2 by 17 gigatonnes each year. That is 17 gigatonnes from business as usual, but only 5 gigatonnes can be achieved at a cost of less than €60 per tonne from the developed world.

The irony and injustice of that will be patent to everyone in the Chamber. What it means is that 12 gigatonnes of that abatement have to be achieved from the developing world, which did not create the problem in the first place. It is essential that the post-2012 settlement, when the Kyoto protocol comes to its conclusion, should include a process of reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, but to date the REDD process that has been talked about by Governments is inadequate to the task. It offers a method for paying Governments to reduce their emissions, but that is like boarding a train without knowing the destination.

18 Nov 2009 : Column 115

Each country must be assumed to act in its own economic best interest. It will therefore seek to maximise the revenue that it can accrue from the minimum amount of emissions reductions over the longest period. That is what any rational economic agent would do. However, the world does not need the process of emissions reductions spun out over as long a period of possible. It needs early and dramatic reductions in emissions. That is why, in setting the framework for REDD at Copenhagen next month, it is absolutely essential that the argument be made to ensure that the REDD support package's financial weighting incentivises early and dramatic reductions and rewards a transition to a stabilised point of zero net emissions. Unless it is clear that the REDD process has that end point, we cannot hope to achieve the emissions reductions that are required to get the world on a 450 ppm track.

It is essential also that there be a stabilisation fund as part of the REDD negotiations-a fund that will show countries just why it is in their self-interest to arrive at a point of zero net emissions. Only if there is such a stabilisation fund will countries make the transition that is required to achieve the climate change results that the world hopes Copenhagen may bring.

The issue of Equitable Life has been before this Parliament and its predecessors for almost 10 years. Although it is right and proper that we discuss the things that the Queen's Speech contains, it is also important to mention the things that it has not addressed. It was interesting to hear an Opposition Member-I cannot now remember which hon. Gentleman it was-talk about the need to consider people who had been imprisoned and subsequently released, because they were found to be innocent, and the compensation that should be made available to them. The hon. Gentleman used the phrase that, tragically, many are now dying off before that compensation can be paid.

In Equitable Life, we do not have a few miscarriages of justice, with people suffering and not being in receipt of compensation before they die; we have literally tens of thousands of people, who have suffered because of poor regulation as well as the maladministration of that company, and to whom compensation is undoubtedly due. Unfortunately, many are dying before it is possible for them to receive that compensation, and it is a major failing of this Queen's Speech and of this Government that we have not moved far more swiftly to address the plight of those people. It is quite simply wrong for them to be struggling in their old age without the financial support that they believed they would receive and, indeed, had spent their lives saving for. Now, they find themselves in penury, and many are dying before they are able to get what they deserve.

Next Section Index Home Page