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"give local communities control over housing and planning decisions."
The Gracious Speech is the first instalment of the coalition's programme. I congratulate the Prime Minister on recognising that the inconclusive election result meant that the only way to provide strong and stable government was to form a coalition with the Liberals- [ Interruption. ]-the Liberal Democrats, I hasten to add. Some of my closest friends find coalition difficult to stomach, but if anyone imagines that, like King David, we could have hidden in the cave of Adullam, refusing to take up the mantle of government until all challenges to our authority disappear, they are mistaken. A coalition of the losers would have been a monstrosity; to govern alone, an impossibility; and a loose agreement falling short of a coalition, an absurdity. It would have left all the other parties free to dissociate themselves from the difficult decisions that we now know are inevitable.
I hope that my Liberal Democrat allies will not take it amiss if I say of them what John Major, not realising that his microphone was still on, said when he was asked why he kept certain Ministers in his Cabinet-including, now I come to think of it, me: "I'd rather have the bastards inside the tent, pi..."-relieving themselves-"outwards, rather than outside the tent, aiming in." As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's more elegant phrase has it, "We're all in it together." We are in the same boat, so we had better row in harmony. I welcome the Liberal Democrats' commitment to working together with us for a full Parliament.
Coalition requires compromise. Neither party can achieve all that it promised in its manifesto and many of us are receiving letters from constituents upset that measures they voted for are not included in the coalition programme. There is a simple reason for that. The Conservative party did not win enough votes or seats to deliver all our manifesto pledges. The solution is not to blame coalition but to win more support next time.
Meanwhile I believe the Gracious Speech represents not the lowest common denominator but the highest common factor between our two parties. Nevertheless, the dismay that many people feel about not getting what they thought they were voting for is a salutary warning about the dangers of coalitions. Should they become the norm rather than the exception, they could give parties an easy excuse for abandoning manifesto pledges
and a temptation to make pledges they had little intention of keeping. Nothing could do more to undermine the accountability of parties to the electorate. I support this coalition because a hung Parliament makes it necessary, but I would not support changes to our voting system that would make hung Parliaments the norm, so although I will loyally vote to hold a referendum on changing the voting system, I will campaign vigorously against the alternative vote.
I welcome the fact that the Gracious Speech makes reducing the deficit a priority, starting with yesterday's £6 billion cuts. The reason for starting early is not because we are indifferent to public sector workers' concerns about their jobs but precisely because we want to minimise the impact on them. Tackling a deficit is like treating an illness: the longer we put it off, the more drastic the surgery we need. By starting now, more of the necessary savings can be made by freezing recruitment rather than by imposing redundancies, and by voluntary redundancies rather than compulsory redundancies, and the sooner private sector growth can offset the slimming of the public sector.
I particularly welcome the inclusion in the Gracious Speech of plans to introduce an annual limit on immigration. That was the issue raised most frequently on the doorstep. Concern about immigration itself was coupled with a dangerous feeling of resentment towards the political class who had overridden public opposition while silencing debate. As Gillian Duffy discovered, anyone who raises the issue is liable to be dismissed as a bigot.
Why is it that when Prime Ministers leave their microphones on they reveal that they think anyone who raises contentious issues such as immigration or Europe is either a bigot or a bastard? The lesson my right hon. Friend should learn is not that he should take care to turn his microphone off, but that he should keep his receiver switch on to hear people's legitimate concerns, however unfashionable their views may be among the metropolitan intelligentsia.
The Gracious Speech rightly makes Afghanistan our top foreign priority. When Tony Blair started paying tribute at Question Time to British soldiers killed in Afghanistan, he probably expected it to be a rare ritual. Instead it has become a weekly litany of heroism and sacrifice, made all the more moving by its repetition-so much so that I for one can barely stop myself crying out, "Enough. No more. Bring them home." I know that we cannot overnight abandon commitments to allies and the Afghans themselves, but I urge my right hon. Friends to scale back our aims realistically and bring our young soldiers home with all due speed.
One issue the coalition has apparently not yet been able to reach agreement on is whether marriage should be encouraged. That is strange, as the coalition itself has been portrayed by the media as a marriage, albeit one that began as an arranged marriage but blossomed into romance. Last night, the Prime Minister celebrated this happy union with a reception at No. 10 for all his Ministers, and kindly invited the seconder-my honourable ally, the hon. Member for Bath-and me, since by tradition the Gracious Speech is read out for the benefit of Ministers who do not take The Sunday Telegraph. When my wife came to extract me from the reception, the policeman refused her entry. Forgetting my diminished status, she pleaded that she was one of the Ministers'
wives and should be let in. "Madam," he replied, "I couldn't let you in even if you were the Minister's only wife." I hope that the current situation implies no resiling from support for marriage, particularly as today is my wedding anniversary.
I commend the motion to the House.
Mr Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), who, as we all know, has served the House with great accomplishment and, as we have just heard, with great wit. Apart from today, that was perhaps best displayed in 1990, when he was the Trade and Industry Secretary. A survey found that just 2% of the British public knew who he was. To his great credit, he pointed out that that was a higher proportion than the percentage of the general public with whom he was familiar.
It is an honour and a privilege, both for my Bath constituents and for me, to second the Loyal Address, particularly because I am the first MP from Bath to do so since records began. Of course, over the years, many Liberals have had that honour, but most recently back in 1939, when Captain Frank Medlicott, in full military uniform, noted that
"the humble taxpayer is doing his part, and the resignation with which the recent Budget was received makes one feel that the popularity of the Chancellor increases with every shilling that he puts on the Income Tax."-[ Official Report, 28 November 1939; Vol. 355, c. 14.]
I hope that the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), are not seeking such cheap popularity. Even now, perhaps, they should be considering the issue of envelopes to be left to successors. This is a story that has been in our newspapers recently, but it merits repeating. It is claimed that civil servants advise Chancellors to prepare not one, but three, envelopes for successors. The first, to be opened during a crisis, contains a note saying, "Blame your predecessor." The second, to be opened in a severe crisis, has a note reading, "Blame the statistics." The third, for use in a catastrophe, reads simply, "Write three notes."
I mentioned my constituents early on because I am enormously grateful to them for electing me for the fifth time, and with an increased majority. I particularly want to thank them for totally ignoring the national Liberal Democrat election slogan. It urged them to vote for change, and I am pleased that they did not. Change was very much in the air during the election, and I feared that even in Bath voters would take to heart the adage that politicians, like babies' nappies, should be changed regularly, and for exactly the same reason. However, Bath voters bucked the trend, as they often do. They are special people, and they and I live in a special place. It is the only constituency that is, in its entirety, a world heritage site. As we develop a modern, 21st century economy, we have much that will help us. Bath boasts great sporting facilities and great sporting success. We have exceptional cultural festivals, two excellent universities, award-winning restaurants, the amazing Theatre Royal, and the groundbreaking children's theatre, the Egg. Alongside the famous Roman baths, we now have a modern spa complex. Although we still have areas of deprivation and an urgent need for more
affordable housing-issues that I hope the new Government will address-Bath is a great place to live.
We have generally had good relationships with monarchs-Queen Elizabeth I, for example, saw the potential of Bath and granted us a royal charter-but that has not always been the case. During an official visit to my constituency, the young Princess Victoria took offence at an overheard comment about the thickness of her ankles. She shunned Bath for the duration of her reign, and whenever she passed through the city on a train, she would draw the curtain of her window in disgust.
The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden has pointed out that it is customary for the task of seconding the Loyal Address to be offered to a young rising star. Clearly, I do not fit the bill, at least on the age basis, but despite that I still have hope on the other front, I am pleased to be sitting on the Government Benches. However, it is ironic that I started my parliamentary career by unseating a Tory and now sit with them. That Liberal Democrat victory in 1992 deprived the Conservative party of its chairman, and I can truly say that it deprived the House of an outstanding parliamentarian. It is some small relief that my dastardly act led to Chris Patten going on to serve this country with great distinction in a number of important roles. But, while that chairman left the House, there are many former ones on the Conservative Benches, showing the rapid turnover that goes with the job.
Similar rapid changes have taken place in the leadership of my party. I began in the House with Paddy Ashdown as leader, and a few years ago he sent me a complementary copy of the first volume of his diaries. I was disappointed that inside the front cover there was no affectionate comment, so I did what we all do: I turned to the index. Against my name, he had written, "Knew you'd look here first. Thanks and best wishes, Paddy." He was a leader of whom it was said, "People would follow him just out of curiosity to see where he would lead." He got up in the early hours of the morning-at roughly the same time that the next leader would go to bed. There followed such a gentleman that I would never speculate about his bedtime arrangements, and then an interim leader who began as "Dr" and soon, without even bothering with the normal dying requirement, became a saint.
Our latest leader has become Deputy Prime Minister. Parliamentary party meetings are now easier than ever before: all we have to say is, "I agree with Nick." But the House should be under no illusion: my Liberal Democrat colleagues and Conservative colleagues have had to make difficult decisions in forging the coalition and in agreeing the wording of the Queen's Speech, and of course it has not been easy. Those who question the wisdom of what we have done should be under no illusion about the scale of the problems and the urgent need for reform that this country faces. Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have had the courage to meet the toughest challenges of a generation by putting aside party differences for the sake of our country. In considering how that has been achieved, it is useful to recall the words of Humphry Berkeley, who said, "It is a bizarre fact that the Conservative party can be directed along a sensible left-wing path only by a leader with impeccable aristocratic connections."
Already, many of the Liberal Democrat policies for which I have campaigned form part of the Queen's Speech and the coalition agreement. Issues that I care about are to be enacted: fairer taxes and a greener, more sustainable economy; extra investment in schools and a better deal for pensioners; less intrusion into our private lives and a reformed political system. My constituents understand that compromises have had to be made, and I welcome the overall radical and reforming package and hope that they do.
I hope also that we can have more confidence in the outcome than a Russian politician had of changes in his country, when he said, "Yesterday we stood on the edge of the abyss, but today we have taken a great leap forward." As for Liberal Democrats, it is truly a vindication of all those years spent developing and costing our policies. Dictionary writers will have to go back to the drawing board. No longer can the definition of "futility" be listed as, "Serving on the Lib Dem policy working group."
I am happy to support the new deal. I hope that we will also work to change the way in which we do business. I congratulate all those who have been elected to serve in this House for the first time, but they will learn that on occasions we and those in what we quaintly call "another place" live in a strange world. That is perhaps best exemplified by the title of a debate in the Lords just six years ago, which read: "Commons reason for disagreeing to a certain Lords amendment in lieu of a Lords amendment to a certain Commons amendment in lieu of a Commons amendment to a Lords amendment." Many things must change, and I am confident that they will.
One of my predecessors as MP for Bath, William Pitt the Elder, said in 1761 of Bath that it was
"justly famed for its integrity, independence and zeal for the public good."
I hope that that is also how this coalition Government are remembered, so I am honoured on behalf of Bath to support them and to commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab): I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute, as I know the Prime Minister will do shortly, to those members of our armed forces who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since the House last met: from 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh, Fusilier Jonathan Burgess; from 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment, Corporal Harvey Holmes; from 21 Engineer Regiment, Sapper Daryn Roy; from 21 Engineer Regiment, Lance Corporal Barry Buxton; from 40 Commando Royal Marines, Corporal Christopher Harrison; and from 40 Commando Royal Marines, Corporal Stephen Walker. We salute their bravery, we honour their sacrifice and we remain steadfast in support of our troops. There are some things on which the country expects us to work together, whoever is in government and whoever is in opposition. We will genuinely work with the Government in support of our troops, their wives and families and in support of peace in Northern Ireland, as we did when we were in opposition before.
We also remember today David Taylor and Ashok Kumar, the two Members of this House who died towards the end of the last Parliament. We pay tribute to the contribution that they made.
I want to congratulate warmly the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address; they made two fine speeches. To assist new Members, I should remind them that, as the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) said, the seconder is by tradition a rising star and someone who is on their way up, while the mover is someone of great distinction whose career is not ahead of them, but behind them. But having heard a typically spry speech from the right hon. Gentleman, I want to agree with him that it is time that we challenged that notion. I invite him to join my campaign "You're not past it when you're past 60".
I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman will always be best known for his musical interventions in Tory party conferences-his trademark Gilbert and Sullivan routine. I thank him for not inflicting a song on us today and I hope that his little list will not be the blueprint for the new Government. However, I do pay tribute to his work on international development, which contributed to this Government's promising today to keep development aid a high priority. I think there will be support across the House for that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) on seconding the Loyal Address. He was first elected in 1992, when he snatched his seat from Chris Patten, then chair of the Tory party. No one then would have predicted that the hon. Gentleman would stand before us to speak in support of a Tory Prime Minister's Queen's Speech, but he performed the task well.
This is not known to many people, but the hon. Gentleman is also a musical performer. At last year's Lib Dem conference, and with eerie foresight, he played the Johnny Cash classic "Walk the Line". I suggest that this time he goes to the Tory conference to play another Cash classic-"Ring of Fire". The hon. Gentleman has also had a long-standing interest in science. Again, with a self-knowledge that we can only envy, he wrote a noted scientific publication "Science with Gas". [ Interruption.] You couldn't make it up.
I congratulate the new Prime Minister and his Government. On the steps of Downing street, he acknowledged that we had left Britain more open at home and more compassionate abroad, and I thank him for the generosity of his words. Those are achievements of the last Government that I hope Members from both sides of the House can recognise, and which I hope the new Prime Minister will protect. From the first ever national minimum wage to the creation of civil partnerships, from the Sure Start children's centres in every community, to the shortest waiting times in the NHS since records began-those are achievements of which Labour Members are rightly proud. In particular, I want to pay tribute to the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown).
We will be an effective Opposition. We will not oppose for the sake of it-that is not what the public want-but we will not pull our punches. Though we are in opposition, we will be powerful in the public interest. We will be determined to prevent unfairness. We will speak up for the public services that matter. We will be vigilant in protecting jobs and businesses. As the Government today acknowledge, their most important domestic task is the economy. The new Government take over an economy in which recovery is already under way and where Government action has blunted the impact of
the recession. Economic growth has returned. There are too many people out of work, but unemployment is still half the level seen in the 1990s recession, and repossessions have been at half the rate that people suffered then. But the recovery cannot be taken for granted. The challenge now for the Government is to embed and secure the economic recovery with new manufacturing and an even greater role for the low-carbon sector.
Where the Government take steps to do that, we will back them. But taking support away from businesses risks slower growth for the future. As the new Business Secretary consistently argued before taking up his new post, now is not the time to leave firms to sink or swim. We all agree with cutting waste, but cancelling 10,000 university places is not cutting waste-it is cutting our capacity for future economic growth. Cancelling 40,000 jobs for young people under the future jobs fund is not cutting waste-it is blighting their prospects. The country faces a very serious challenge to reduce our deficit. What the country needs to know is that the Government will do so in a fair way, without damaging front-line services and without putting future growth at risk. People will want to see that they are not left bearing the cost of holding the coalition together.
Before the election, the leader of the Tory party, now the Prime Minister, was telling us all that the Lib Dem promises were simply unaffordable. At the very same time, the Lib Dem leader, who is now his deputy, warned that the Tories' tax and spending promises could be paid for only by increasing VAT or cutting front-line services. It is the combination of the two that worries me. While the happy couple are enjoying the thrill of the rose garden, the in-laws are saying that they are just not right for each other. We keep telling them that they cannot pay couples to stay together, and it is clear that it will take more than a three-quid-a-week tax break to keep this marriage together.
Tough decisions will be needed, and the British public will need to see that those decisions are taken fairly and transparently. Despite what we have heard about accountability in the new politics, the Government's decision to announce £6 billion-worth of cuts in a press conference rather than to this House was a poor start. When I was at Highshore school in my constituency on Friday, people were asking me whether they will be able to go ahead with their new rebuild. They, and people all around the country, want answers, not press conferences.
On education, today in the Queen's Speech the Government pledged to help the education of children in poor families with a pupil premium, but they must not cut the programme that provides laptops for children in poor families. We will look at the detail of the Bill to ensure that it will help, not hinder, the development of strong schools in all areas that benefit the whole community.
It is in this country's interest that we have strong relations with Europe. It appears that Europhobe Tories and Europhile Lib Dems have cancelled each other out. The Prime Minister, though, must be relieved that his coalition partners have given him cover to renege on the pledge that he made to repatriate powers over social policy, employment and justice from the EU by the end of this Parliament. However, having promised that following ratification of the Lisbon treaty he would "not let matters rest" there, will he confirm that that is now precisely what he intends to do?
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