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Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Ashton is a recent and very welcome new Member; one of the rather "dazzling class", as I would describe it, of '99. She has already made her mark in the Chamber with authoritative speeches such as the one we have just heard. As Minister for Women, I especially admire my noble friend as someone who very successfully achieves that elusive goal of balancing her professional life with deep commitment to her family life. Like my noble friend Lord Graham, my noble friend Lady Ashton is active "behind the scenes" in your Lordships' House and in another place and has already established a wide network of friends and colleagues who share her goals of better schools, better healthcare and better support for everyone trying to raise families in today's complicated society. I thank my noble friend for seconding the Motion today and look forward to her further important contributions to the work of this House.

Last year, there was some concern, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, about the structure of the debate on the gracious Speech. I agree with him that perhaps we have not yet reached the most perfect solution to the issue. But I hope the House will agree that the slight rearrangement that has been agreed this year will enable coherent deliberations on the main themes of the Government's policy and the Bills to be introduced.

I welcome in particular the decision of the Procedure Committee that the gracious Speech should not be repeated verbatim this afternoon because it means that we can begin the substantive debate immediately. However, in those circumstances, and particularly in response to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, it is probably especially important that I outline at least some of the Bills which will start in your Lordships' House.

In the near future, I expect your Lordships to be considering the following Bills. First, a Bill to ensure that children with special educational needs are properly catered for in our education system and to extend the Disability Discrimination Act to education providers and authorities. Secondly, a Bill to regulate the private security industry to ensure that it really does provide security and not a backdoor route for further crime or harassment. Thirdly, a Bill to extend the deregulation powers we already have, so that we can reach a balance between regulation and enterprise.

Looking slightly further ahead, I expect your Lordships to be the first to deal with a number of other Bills, including a Bill to take forward the fight against benefit fraud by improving information flows and increasing penalties for those convicted of this crime which hurts the honest claimant; a Bill making the

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United Kingdom a party to the International Criminal Court, with the improvements to international law enforcement that that will bring; and a Bill to make important changes to a number of our cultural, heritage, sporting and tourism bodies.

It may also help your Lordships to know the order of our debate on the gracious Speech. Tomorrow, we will focus on social and economic affairs and on industry; and on Monday, the themes will be education, the environment and agriculture. Tuesday's debate will cover foreign affairs, international development and defence; and on the last day, Wednesday, we shall be concentrating on health and home affairs.

Your Lordships will already have noted that fewer Bills appear in today's gracious Speech than in last year's--but not an unusually small number. Before there are deep sighs of relief about easy times ahead, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that the graciouus Speech focuses on the Government's flagship Bills; others will be introduced during the course of the Session.

Now, of course, we know how this programme will be judged, especially in the more excitable parts of the media, which these days seem to be the entire media. Every aspect of this programme and the gracious Speech itself will be microscopically analysed, every entrail examined and every tea-leaf read for any signs about a general election. "How long is the speech? Ah, that means a general election in--whenever." "How many Bills are mentioned in the gracious Speech? Ah, well, that must mean a general election in--whenever." "Which Bills we expected to be included are not mentioned in the Speech? Ah, well, that must mean a general election in--whenever."

I must tell your Lordships, who I know are not excitable, that, frankly, this is not a worthwhile exercise. What we have before us is a full programme of legislation; a vital programme of legislation; and a programme of legislation aimed at offering help to people in the areas which matter most to them. Therefore, I want to begin the debate today by drawing your Lordships' attention to the principal concerns that underlie the Government's proposals.

At the centre of the gracious Speech is an emphasis on fighting crime together and on improving the National Health Service. Why do we put these at the heart of our programme, alongside our continuing priorities of education and a stable, opportunity economy? All the evidence we have, and I am sure that it is shared by your Lordships, shows that the insecurity people feel about their lives often centres on fear of crime and fear of ill health and the treatment they will receive. "Will the police come quickly if I am burgled?" "Will a hospital bed be available if my child is suddenly sick?"

The Government are not apologetic about our record in these areas. We have begun to make real differences, to make people's lives more secure. That is as true in the falling burglary numbers and the shorter hospital waiting lists as it is in the higher literacy scores of our children and the lowest inflation rates for 30 years.

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However, it would be stupid to pretend that everything has improved out of all recognition. Ten days ago, less than five miles from Parliament, where we debate all these issues, a 10 year-old child was murdered on a housing estate that has certainly not been reached by change. Of course, that murder was not the first of its kind; nor, sadly, may it be the last. It has caused great shock and sadness because it symbolises the waste of lives, often young lives, that crime brings in its wake. That is why our programme this Session will put in place further measures to help us tackle crime and, very importantly, to improve police performance. There will be legislation to help the police deal with disorderly conduct, to crack down on what is rightly known as the yob culture and to improve law enforcement in general. There will be special measures to combat vehicle crime, because that is a particular problem of modern living.

We want every police force to reach the standards of the best in preventing and detecting crime. By fighting crime together, we can make Britain a safe and decent place; the kind of country that everybody wants. We ask that people should take responsibility for that society in return for the economic opportunities and security that the Government can provide.

That is equally true of our attention to healthcare and people's experience of the NHS, and also, importantly, the security that they should have in knowing what long-term care will eventually be provided for them. The NHS national plan, which was published in the summer, and the extra investment announced at that time, have for the first time given the health service the financial stability to plan a long-term strategy. The legislation to be introduced will enact some important parts of that strategy and will lead to a radical reshaping of the health services.

The NHS is already making progress. A huge amount of work is being done, but, as the Prime Minister acknowledged this week, winter is bound to bring extra pressures. However, the NHS is in far better shape to meet those pressures than it was this time last year. We should recognise the positive changes. There are 6,000 more nurses and 445 additional critical care beds. NHS Direct is available nationwide to give advice to people 24 hours a day and a deal has been made with the private sector that should provide thousands more operations. There is much to do as the 10-year strategy unfolds, but the glass is half full, not half empty.

As well as the key priorities of health and crime, there will be legislation on the other central concerns that affect people in their everyday life. Welfare fraud, which has scarred our benefit system for decades, will be tackled. We all know that buying a house is most people's ambition. This programme includes measures that will make easier the often difficult and over-complicated process of purchasing a home. In short, we are looking to increase speed and reduce gazumping.

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We shall also renew and update the legislation governing the Armed Forces and we shall bring forward a Bill setting out options on hunting with dogs. As promised, there will be a free vote on the Bill.

Overall, the legislative programme complements the wide-ranging economic programme set out by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Pre-Budget Report last month. Much has been done since the Government have been in office, but we know that there is a great deal more to do. We are renewing action to tackle crime and improve public services, taking new steps to help people with finding a home and helping business to succeed. All those measures are to do with security and safety and enabling people to plan their lives. That is what today's gracious Speech and the Government's overall programme are about.

Sadly, having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I suspect that that is not what the Opposition will be about. They do not seem to have much, if anything, to say on those key issues facing Britain now. Today we have seen the usual lot of bandwagons parked round Parliament Square waiting to be leapt on as the latest headline develops. The core of the Opposition's position is either a policy vacuum or a policy conflict. Yesterday we saw unveiled the third--or perhaps the fourth--tax guarantee, which seemed to suggest yet again that billions of pounds of cuts in services would be necessary. This week we have also heard again the conflicting strong views of senior Conservatives speaking about Europe: on one side, distinguished Members of your Lordships' House such as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, and the noble Lord, Lord Brittan; on the other side, the present Conservative leadership in another place. No wonder Mr Hague has tried to clarify matters by saying, "Not all the policies that we pursue in the future will be exactly the same as the ones we had before".

In contrast, this Government came to office with a clear strategy and direction, which we have put into place. We know that people want even more change and improvement. The programme presented to Parliament today takes us further along that path. It is an unfolding programme of reform that shows a government for the long term acting for the whole country.

One reform that continues to unfold and on which we are determined to act is long-term reform of your Lordships' House. We have now seen one Session of the so-called transitional House. At times, it seemed that this would become a House of opposition rather than a revising Chamber, but in the end, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, the Government got their programme. That is as it should be. However, we should remember that the greater legitimacy of the transitional House still does not make us equal to the elected Chamber. The Government have made it clear many times that we firmly believe that the second Chamber should be just that--subordinate to the elected Chamber, the result of whose general election

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determines which party forms the government. That is one of the most important principles that will underlie our programme of further reform.

Your Lordships will know that the Government are in discussion with the other political parties in both Houses about a joint committee on the parliamentary aspects of further reform. I hope that those discussions will soon lead to the establishment of that joint committee to take the issues forward. We are anxious to press on. The Government are examining the detailed recommendations of the Royal Commission. We plan to bring forward proposals for further legislation in time for the next election, whenever that may be.

I return finally to the gracious Speech and its underlying policies. It may be viewed wholly in the light that commentators prefer--that it tells them when the next general election might be and what it might be fought over. That is a matter for them. However, in one respect the fixation on election timing is right, because the measures set out in the gracious Speech underline the big choices that face Britain now: the choice between our approach and that pursued by the Opposition. Those choices can be simply expressed: a choice between economic stability and boom and bust; between investment in our public services and billions of pounds of cuts; between a modern health service and a privatised one; between rising police resources and rising crime; between leadership in foreign policy and isolation in the world; and between a government with a long-term strategy and a party that seems to be based solely on exploiting every opportunity. Those are the choices that lie behind the programme of legislation in today's gracious Speech. I commend the programme to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly until tomorrow.

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