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Business without Debate

Sittings of the house

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Sovereign Fields (East Northamptonshire)

6 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I would like to present an unusual petition, in that I have never had a petition before in all my time in the House that so many people in the area affected have signed. Almost 100 per cent. of them have signed it.

The petition states:

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Government and the Legislature

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Lyn Brown.)

6.2 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): As you will know, Mr Speaker, it is the custom when we come to this place for a new Member to make a maiden speech. With your indulgence, I wonder if I might initiate a new genre tonight: the valedictory speech.

I have been in this place 23 years. I hope that, during that time, I have left the occasional footprint in the sand, but I am under no illusion. Only a handful of those of us who currently strut these corridors will still be remembered in 10 or 20 years' time and I do not expect to be among them. Before the waters close over my head, however, I would like to take this opportunity to place on record a few random thoughts that might be of interest to those who come afterwards.

To those who ask where I am coming from, I reply that I am a socialist with a small s, a liberal with a small l, a green with a small g and a Democrat with a capital D. Although most of us are more prosperous than we have ever been, we live in an age of disillusion and corrosive cynicism. It is fashionable to believe that all politicians are useless, that nothing works, that everything is bad and getting worse and that all political activity is pointless. I do not accept this.

Despite the catastrophe of Iraq, I sincerely believe that the achievements of the previous three Labour Governments have been considerable. I have only to look at my constituency to see the truth of that proposition. With hand on heart I can say with confidence that during these previous 13 years the lives and life chances of many of my least prosperous constituents have been immeasurably improved. The Government have, for reasons I can only guess at, been rather shy about it, but we have redistributed some wealth. The minimum wage, working tax credits, pension credits and the huge investment in health, education and public transport have made a considerable impact and I defy anyone to argue otherwise. In my constituency in 1997, and one has to pinch oneself to recall this, a significant number of people-security guards, mail-order workers and care workers-were earning as little as £1 an hour. The waiting time for a hip operation at Sunderland Royal hospital was up to two years and it is now 18 weeks and falling.

There is a secondary school in my constituency, Sandhill View, at which 15 years ago less than 10 per cent.-I repeat, less than 10 per cent.-of GCSE pupils were achieving five A to C grades. Today, Sandhill View is under dynamic new management. It has been entirely rebuilt, sharing a library, sports and other facilities with the surrounding community. It covers exactly the same catchment area as the old school, and around 60 per cent. of pupils obtain five A to C grades. To be sure, there is still room for progress, but I think that the House will agree that there has been a dramatic improvement on what went before.

Nor do I believe that such changes are confined only to Sunderland. City centres such as those in Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, once in near terminal decline,
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have been reborn. No doubt there are many reasons why this has happened, but I do believe that it has something to do with the fact that we have enjoyed more than a decade of Labour Government.

There has been progress, too, in other important areas, such as the environment, criminal justice, and international development, and above all in Ireland, where peace has been achieved after many years of apparently intractable conflict. And who would have thought that we would live to see the day when a new Labour Government took a controlling interest in three major banks with-eventually-Conservative support?

There are social and constitutional reforms that were controversial in their day but which, having been enacted, will endure for ever. They include the bans on smoking in public places and on cigarette advertising, the requirement that political parties disclose their source of funding, and the Freedom of Information Act-painful though that has proved for us humble servants of the people. Whatever the outcome of the election, no one can take those achievements away from the Governments of the previous 13 years, and I note that no Opposition party is intending to do so.

I would like now to address the future. Whatever the achievements of the past, we are all well aware that we are as far away as ever from achieving nirvana. Although in some respects my political views have modified over the years, I continue to doubt that there is a long-term future for an economy based on shopping. The frenetic consumerism of recent decades surely contains the seeds of its own destruction, and even more so now that China and India are falling over themselves to make, with knobs on, the same mistakes as we have made.

I truly believe that this age of consumerism is only a very temporary period in the history of the human race and that, if we carry on as we are, it will end badly-perhaps within the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. As things stand, we are using up the resources of the planet as though there is no tomorrow and, if we are not careful, there will be no tomorrow.

One way or another, we have to devise lifestyles that are sustainable, and that may well require changes to our way of life that most people have only dimly begun to contemplate. This I regard as the greatest single challenge facing the new generation of political leaders, regardless of which side of the political spectrum they come from.

I think that we can all agree too that the neo-liberal experiment of the past two decades, which has bewitched politicians on all sides of the House and both sides of the Atlantic, is well and truly over. The near meltdown of the global banking system was a wake-up call, if ever there was one.

Not everyone has got the message, however. Three months ago, at the annual dinner of the Institute of Directors-I get some invited to some very odd places these days-I was interested to hear the man in charge still chanting the mantra of light-touch regulation and demanding less Government intervention in the workings of the market. I thought to myself, "Lucky there was some big government around when the banks went belly up."

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Nor should we imagine, as we sit tight in fortress Europe watching other people's catastrophes on our television screens-and perhaps averting our eyes by switching channels-that we will remain indefinitely immune.

The world is increasingly a village. What happens in one part has consequences in another. The danger for western Europe is that, if the world beyond our frontiers is allowed to disintegrate-as the oceans rise, the rivers evaporate, the deserts expand and populations multiply-the flow of economic refugees from Africa and Asia will gradually become a tide that will gradually overwhelm our fragile social, economic and political systems.

I do not say that that will happen, but it must be a possibility that can no longer be overlooked. We are deluding ourselves if we imagine that this process can be halted by increased repression. In the end, it can be reversed only by addressing the root causes, and that requires political leaders of courage and vision, willing to face their electorates with home truths and not merely pandering to the basest prejudices.

Here in the United Kingdom, our problems are exacerbated by the fact that for a generation or more, our citizens have been encouraged to believe that they can enjoy European standards of public services and American levels of taxation. Sooner or later, choices must be made. Perhaps the moment has come. If we want higher standards in our schools, better hospitals, better pension provision, and long-term care for the elderly, they will have to be paid for out of taxation. Let us not pretend, as some do, that such benefits can be paid for merely by taxing the rich; they cannot. We, the pampered inhabitants of middle England, will have to make a larger contribution. By all means crack down on waste and demand value for money, but do not pretend that that alone will solve the problem. At the end of the day, there are choices to be made, and each choice has consequences that we must face maturely. I keep reading how heavily taxed we are, but I note that the basic rate of income tax today is well below what it was in Mrs. Thatcher's day.

Government needs to become a little less frenetic. The practice of annual reshuffles is massively destabilising and confers enormous power on the civil service. There have been eight Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions in the 10 years since that Department was invented. Of late, we have been getting through Home Secretaries at the rate of one a year. Goodness knows how many Health and Education Ministers we have got through. We are on our 10th Europe Minister.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Twelfth.

Mr. Mullin: I defer to my right hon. Friend. We are on our ninth or 10th Prisons Minister. I was the sixth Africa Minister and the current incumbent is the ninth. That does not make for good government.

I turn briefly to our 24-hour media. The free flow of information is the lifeblood of democracy, but I do wonder if we politicians have not gone too far in trying to ride the tiger. Perhaps future Prime Ministers should spend a little less time feeding, appeasing, and canoodling with tabloid editors and their proprietors; in any case, it almost always ends in tears.

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I refer to another issue that ought to be of concern to all those of us who care about the condition of our democracy: the funding of politics. We have come some way in recent years in regulating party funding, but it remains an unhappy fact that all the main parties are, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on the favours of rich men. I believe that this demeans our politics, and it is time that it was addressed. The dilemma that we face is that we live at a time when the public are less inclined to join political parties, do not wish to donate and, above all, do not want their taxes to fund political parties. But-and here is the rub-they all wish to live in a democracy. That is the circle that we poor, despised, inadequate politicians have to try to square. There are no easy solutions, but the one that I favour is for every taxpayer to be given a tax-free allowance of up to, say, £250, which he or she is entitled to donate to the political party of their choice in return for a strict cap on individual donations.

In passing, may I say a word about what I regard as one of the most insidious developments in recent years-the growth of outsourcing or agency work? Increasingly, there are two classes of people working alongside each other in this country. There are those fortunate enough to be employed on a contract, as we are. They are in full-time work, and are entitled to paid holidays, occupational pensions, sickness pay, redundancy pay and all the other hard-won benefits that we used quaintly to associate with the 20th century. Alongside them, there is a class of people who qualify for none of those things, who can be put down and picked up at will, and who are often paid less than others doing the same work.

Regrettably, the practice of outsourcing is spreading. The outsourced are all around us. There is a school of thought that believes that to be desirable. I regard it as a most ominous development, storing up great problems for the future. We talk of lifting families out of poverty, but outsourcing drives people into poverty. We are heading remorselessly back towards the 19th century, back to the days of casual work, when workers assembled at the shipyard gate, and the foreman said, "I'll have you, you and you, and the rest of you can go home." I hope that future Governments will consider long and hard before pushing more people down that road in the name of the great god efficiency. At the very least, if the practice cannot be reversed, it needs to be carefully regulated.

Finally, a word to the coming generation of politicians. I have one simple message: take Parliament seriously. If we, the elected, do not, why should anybody else? By all means one should support the programme on which one's party was elected, but we are not automatons. We are not sent here merely to be cheerleaders, or to get stiff necks looking up at the fount of power. We are here to exercise our judgment-to hold Ministers to account for the powers they hold. And that means proper scrutiny. It means insisting that Ministers engage seriously with Parliament, and that they are open to dialogue. It means, so far as possible, insisting that the Government publish legislation in draft so that it might be improved before it is set in stone. And, if you want an easy win, Mr. Speaker, so far as the public are concerned, it means doing away with the 80-day summer recess.

In conclusion, there are many people whom I must thank: the people of the Sunderland, South constituency for having allowed me to represent them these past
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23 years; members of the Sunderland South Labour party for having allowed me to be their candidate through five general elections; friends and colleagues from all parts of the House for the pleasure of their company; officials great and small with whom I have worked over the years, both in government and in the House; and last but not least, yourself, Mr. Speaker, for doing me the honour of presiding tonight, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and her distinguished shadow, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), both respected colleagues over many years, for their presence.

Mr. Speaker, I depart with mixed feelings. I have heard it said that most MPs stay one Parliament too long, and I thought it better to go while people are still asking "Why?" rather than "When?" There will be withdrawal symptoms. Leaving now is either the best thing I have ever done or the biggest mistake of my life. At this point, I have no idea which. I do know this, however: I count it a privilege to have been born in a democracy and to have served in this place. The great thing about democracy is that, although harsh things are sometimes said, we are not actually trying to kill each other. Differences are ultimately resolved at the ballot box. One side wins; one side loses; and the loser lives to fight another day. Mr. Speaker, those are the last words that I shall speak in this place.

6.17 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): It is, indeed, a privilege for me to reply to this valedictory speech and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). He made wide-ranging and, as ever, interesting comments on the future of this place, noting the good that the Government have achieved and reminding us of some of our shortcomings.

My hon. Friend is noted for his independent mind and passionate commitment to the cause of justice. He will most definitely leave a footprint, not least in the minds of the families of the Birmingham Six, those who campaigned to free the Guildford Four and the men wrongly convicted of killing Carl Bridgewater. But tonight I would like to take this opportunity to honour my hon. Friend's work, both as a Minister in a Labour Government, no matter how reluctant at times he appeared to be, judging by his diaries, and as a parliamentarian. As an assiduous Back Bencher, he was chair of the parliamentary Labour party's civil liberties group in opposition and a member of the Home Affairs Committee, serving in a very distinguished way as its Chair from 1997 to 1999 and again from 2001 to 2003.

On leaving the Government at his own request, my hon. Friend became a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, and last year he served with great energy and determination on the Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons. On the day that I have tabled motions to give effect to the decisions of the House to establish a Back-Bench business committee, I hope he feels that his work has resulted in a profound reform of this House and a strengthening of Parliament's ability to hold the Executive to account-surely another of his footprints in the sand which will stand the test of time.

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Parliament has now agreed to a comprehensive range of proposals, including measures to strengthen the Select Committee system, which is so dear to my hon. Friend's heart; to introduce private Members' motions; and to improve public engagement with the House and, in particular, the legislative process. I intend that the Standing Orders be brought before the House for formal approval as soon as possible, and I want to clarify my comments during business questions: the House will not be asked to approve the Standing Orders on Monday, but it will be asked to do so very shortly.

I pay tribute also to the work of hon. Members from all parts of the House who will not be standing for re-election at the next general election. All have made contributions to the work of Parliament, as well as representing their constituents. Despite the difficulties that Parliament and parliamentarians have gone through in the past year, some of which we brought upon ourselves, many will never happen again because we have brought forward reforms. As my hon. Friend wrote this year in his advice to new candidates, which I recommend to everyone:

I am sure that the whole House will agree with that and look forward to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority taking that on in its new role.

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