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I intend to refer now to the urban regeneration agency which we shall put in place. The case for the creation of the agency is crystal clear. There are about 150,000 acres of vacant land in English urban areas, about half in public ownership. Not all of this is usable, but about 65,000 acres have previously been developed--an area five times the annual change from agricultural to urban use in England.
Dereliction, fragmented ownership, lack of information to owners and poor site conditions and access often mean that that land is difficult to market. But it presents great opportunities, once the potential has been unlocked. The time has now come to unlock this potential and seize these opportunities. I have no doubt that the agency will have the capacity to improve enormously the environment of the people living in many parts of our inner cities. It will bring new housing, new jobs and new hope to the people who live there. The agency will bring together existing programmes for the development of land and enable them to be much more effectively focused. It will work in partnership with local authorities and the private sector to provide them with a single contact point. It will be able to give grants to them to bridge the gap between development costs and resale value. It will also be able to develop land itself.
Column 511I want the agency to work closely with local authorities. I hope that they will regard it as a source of expertise and capacity to help them realise the potential of their inner cities. The people who live in our inner cities are their most important resource. I want those local people to feel that the agency is working to create new opportunities for them.
Mr. Howard : I have given way far too often and I must press on. That is why the agency will work closely with the training and enterprise councils to ensure that as many local people as possible obtain jobs in the construction phase and during the later commercial use of the land.
Mr. Blunkett rose --
Mr. Blunkett : This is the first opportunity that the House has had to question the Secretary of State and his Ministers on the urban regeneration agency and it is the first opportunity that we have had to ask questions about things such as where the grants to which the Secretary of State referred will come from. From which existing heading are the grants to be diverted? Are the development corporations, the enterprise zones and the plethora of other measures to be subsumed under the urban regeneration agency?
Mr. Howard : The hon. Gentleman will have many opportunities, commencing tomorrow, to ask detailed questions about the agency. The existing urban development corporations will not be brought within the ambit of the agency. However, the agency will be able to focus much more precisely, effectively and in a targeted way many of the funds that we presently use in our efforts to regenerate the inner cities.
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : As my right hon. and learned Friend will know, I have been campaigning for about 15 years-- [Interruption.] --or longer for the release of vacant public land and I welcome the agency. It is one of the best things that I have heard about for a long time. Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain to the House whether the agency will confiscate public land or market it? Will it be able to give value to the public authorities for the land that it takes? Will its operations apply to private land, because a great deal of private land is vacant, dormant and derelict?
Mr. Howard : The agency will have marketing powers, it will be able to give value for the value for the land that it acquires and it will have powers of compulsory acquisition. I hope that I have answered all the pertinent points put by my hon. Friend, whose long interest in this matter- -I shall not become involved in the precise period over which it has extended--I recognise and have welcomed.
Column 512contaminated. Is there any plan to bring forward the contaminated land register, which is hanging like a sword of Damocles over a great deal of land?
The Bill will also provide new rights and opportunities to both council and private tenants. As the right to buy has so convincingly demonstrated, one important consequence of giving people more say over their own lives is an improvement in the most local environment of all--the property in which people live and its immediate surroundings. That in turn raises the morale of everyone living there.
We have been convinced for some time that a large number of council tenants would like to have the benefit of home ownership but cannot afford the financial commitment. That is why we set up pilot rent-to-mortgage schemes in Scotland, Wales, Basildon and Milton Keynes. The response has been encouraging. In our manifesto, we promised to extend this opportunity to the whole country. Council tenants will be given a new right to buy a stake in their homes for no more than they currently pay in rent. They will be able to increase their stake whenever they wish, moving gradually to full ownership.
I very much hope that the Labour party will not repeat the mistake that it made in 1980 in opposing the right to buy. It will be up to individual tenants to decide whether they wish to take up this new opportunity, and what possible objection can there be to giving them the chance to say yes or no, unless of course Labour Members still have a wish, rooted in political dogma, to see them remaining council tenants for ever.
We want to extend to long leaseholders the opportunity of full ownership and independence from landlords. I pay tribute to the powerful advocacy of my hon. Friends the Members for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) and for Kensington (Mr. Fishburn), who deserve much credit for championing the cause of so many of their constituents.
The Bill will give most long leaseholders of flats the collective right to buy the freehold of their block at market price. Those not eligible will instead be able to buy a renewed long lease, again at market price. We considered the existing rateable value restrictions on the enfranchisement of leasehold houses and concluded that there was no logical reason for retaining them. They will therefore be abolished.
The Bill does not neglect those who wish to remain as council tenants. The existing right-to-repair scheme, introduced in 1980, has proved too cumbersome and complicated. The Bill gives tenants a straightforward right to get repairs done privately and send councils the bill where councils fail to carry them out within a reasonable time. I hope that that will be widely welcomed on both sides of the House.
I hope, too, that it will be widely accepted that when we change the rights of tenants in the ways that I have described, and the rights of parents in the ways that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will describe later in the debate, we are not attacking local
Column 513government. It should be the servant of its citizens, not the promoter of its own interests. It has, and will continue to have, a vital role in spending about £40 billion a year. But that role should be an enabling role. There are many ways in which the local services that people need can be delivered. Local management of schools is one example. Competitive tendering ensures a choice of providers. Free from the responsibility of running a large work force, local authorities can concentrate on ensuring that local people get a high quality service. [Interruption.] Exactly. Effective monitoring of standards is essential. That task is made easier for local authorities if they are not providing the service themselves. I understand the revolution in attitudes that is required of local authorities to fulfil such a role, but the importance of local government does not, and should not, flow from the extent to which it provides services direct to the public. There is no reason why a local council should not take great pride in a job well done, whether or not its work force carried it out--indeed, even if its work force did not do so.
If that enabling role is to be discharged effectively, it is essential that local government should be responsive, that it should not be remote from those whom it seeks to serve and that there should be clarity about its responsibilities. That is why we are reviewing its structure. The objective of the review will be to find the structure that is the best for each part of the country--the structure that most closely reflects the views and needs of the people for whose benefit local government exists.
It is right that cost-effectiveness should be an important consideration. In that light, I expect to see a move towards more unitary authorities, but I have no blueprint. I see no reason why there should not be, and every reason why there should be, diversity. Local government should see the review as a challenge rather than a threat. It is up to individual local authorities to make the case to their communities for a particular form of structure. The best way in which they can do so is by demonstrating efficiency and quality of service. I hope that local government acts in that spirit. I hope, more generally, that we shall see a new partnership between central and local government. In the past, that relationship has not always been one of total harmony. I dare say that it will not be possible to avoid controversy altogether in the future, but I hope that we can keep it to a minimum.
The very first people I asked to see were the leaders of the local authority associations. I have suggested--and they have agreed--that we should meet informally on a regular basis. I hope that we shall be able to work together in the interests of the people whom we have been elected to serve.
My Department has responsibilities which touch on the quality of our environment at all levels--local, national, regional and global. I have set out how the proposals in the Gracious Speech will help to improve the quality of our environment at the most local level of all--people's homes and their immediate neighbourhood--but we need to address those issues at all levels and we need to make sure that we do so in the right context. Any serious attempt to improve environmental standards needs investment. If we are to invest we must earn, and if we are to earn--as a nation and as a planet--we must be successful economic managers.
The economy and the environment are not on opposite ends of a see-saw, with one able to rise only at the expense
Column 514of the other. They are interdependent. We can create a high quality environment only if we build a high quality economy. The key is sustainable growth and that is what we must achieve.
This is a Government whose words are a prelude to action, not a substitute for action. Barely a single month has passed since we were re-elected, yet in that short time we have already announced new commitments of our own on climate change, helped to persuade the Americans to make comparable commitments, played a central role in the final round of the negotiations on the climate change convention in New York and committed $1 million to the international effort to support the non-governmental side of the earth summit.
The earth summit, which will take place in Rio de Janeiro next month, is a unique opportunity and it must not be squandered. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was the first national leader to make a firm commitment to attend. That is why we have now made clear our own intention to return our emissions of carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by the year 2000. That is why we have made it clear that, provided others play their part, we are prepared to commit new and additional resources to replenish the global environment facility.
We believe that the earth summit marks the opening of a new phase in the environment and development debates.
No conference, whatever its success, solves problems ; it simply charts the course. It is what happens afterwards that really matters. In taking on the presidency of the European Community immediately after the earth summit, we will have a unique opportunity to get the follow-up to Rio off to a good start. We have clear and ambitious goals and we shall continue our policies to improve the quality of our national environment.
Britain's first ever White Paper on environmental policy, "This Common Inheritance", puts us among only four or five nations in the world which have produced a comprehensive policy on the environment. One of its central accomplishments was to set up a rigorous system for monitoring and reviewing on an annual basis the development of our environmental strategy. We have already published one report on the implementation of that strategy. In October, we shall publish a second report and we shall continue to publish reports every year. In addition, we shall be publishing in the autumn a statistical report on the environment, enabling everyone to monitor for himself or herself any improvements--or deterioration--that may take place. We are examining the results of our consultation process on the shape of the environment agency and will shortly announce our preferred option. Drafting of the Bill will then proceed so that we can take immediate advantage of the earliest legislative opportunity. Meanwhile, the National Rivers Authority and Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, which the Government established, will continue their excellent work of preventing pollution of the environment.
Protecting the environment and fostering sustainable development are not tasks only for Government. Many others have a part to play--business men, local authorities, scientists and the voluntary sector--and that is
Column 515why we have sought to involve them more closely in the development of our environmental policy through the Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment and similar groups and by involving them in our delegations to international meetings. However, it is the ordinary citizen and consumer who have perhaps the most important part to play, for, ultimately, the fate of our environment--locally and for the planet as a whole--rests on the individual choices that we all make. It is the duty of Government to provide a clear and comprehensive framework of law within which those choices can be made and to build powerful institutions to insist on the implementation of those laws.
No Government could possibly claim to have done all that was needed to protect or improve the environment, but I am confident that we have put the United Kingdom on a trajectory of constant effort and achievement in improving environmental standards. Care for the environment will be in the forefront of all our policies. I pay tribute to the work of my predecessors. I take up the torch with enthusiasm.
Ms. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) : I congratulate you most warmly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment. I wish first to refer to Sir Robert Rhodes James, who was my immediate predecessor as Member for Cambridge. He was well known for his enlightened views on higher education and for his excellence as a political historian and biographer. He championed the cause of students and was unafraid to oppose the policies of his Government when his conscience dictated. He was a courteous man who helped many people in difficulties, and he will be remembered as a man of integrity.
I suppose that many right hon. and hon. Members believe that they know the constituency of Cambridge. Many will recall hazy memories of their student lives in Cambridge : rolling lawns, high tables, political games in the union debating chamber, garden parties, punting to Grantchester,
"And is there honey still for tea?"
Judging by the condition of many hon. Members, there still is--and much more besides.
There is another side to Cambridge, however, about which hon. Members will know little from their student days. For many of my constituents, the harsh reality of Cambridge is a city with rising unemployment, chronic housing shortages, and poverty just below the surface. Increasing numbers of young people sleep rough and many old people live in fear of being unable to pay their bills. Students are being driven out of further and higher education by inadequate financial support. Single parents are denied grants for basic necessities. Nearly 17,000 households in Cambridge are in receipt of income support, including 5,400 pensioners and 2,500 single-parent families. One in four households in Cambridge is in receipt of some kind of means-tested benefit.
Cambridge has a low wage economy with at least one in 10 of the work force covered by the wages councils, on minimum hourly rates of between £2.66 and £3.06. Many of the people who make the beds, clean the rooms and serve the meals of future Cabinet Ministers are paid pitiful
Column 516wages--how well they serve those people in their youth, and how quickly they are forgotten once university life is left behind. The Queen's Speech acknowledges the existence of poverty in foreign parts, but, judging from their record, the Government will do precious little about that--and their programme for this Session of Parliament fails even to recognise the existence of poverty in this country. Are the Government so ashamed of the poverty that their policies have created that they dare not admit that there is poverty in our land? Do they intend to do nothing about the social fund even though they are aware that the resources allocated to the fund are totally inadequate?
In Cambridge, 70 per cent. of high priority applications to the social fund are turned down because of the meagre cash limit on the fund. Families with children, as well as pensioners and homeless people, continue to have claims for essential items such as sleeping bags and winter coats turned down by the Cambridge benefits office. Last year, the local district manager of the social fund had an application for an increase in funds turned down without any proper reason. This year, the local manager--whose area includes the Prime Minister's constituency--is again pessimistic, believing that his pleas for more funds will fall on deaf ears.
The Government are imposing severe financial hardship on increasing numbers of students. Bit by bit, the Government have eaten away at student financial support. By failing to increase grants in line with inflation throughout the 1980s, and by introducing top-up loans, the Government have made students into a new group of debtors. Through loss of entitlement to housing benefit and income support, the Government have made survival virtually impossible for many students. Then they abolished the vacation hardship allowance, causing poverty among students on an unprecedented scale. Their measures hit students in areas such as Cambridge--which has high rents--particularly hard, and there is worse to come.
The Government's failure to increase funding for institutions of higher education in Cambridge in line with inflation has meant that many colleges are making up the shortfall by swingeing rent increases which students have no new resources to pay. A number of colleges in Cambridge are already planning to increase room rents by 25 per cent. in real terms in the next two to three years.
The result of all those measures has been an increasing drop-out rate from institutions of higher education, owing to financial hardship. The introduction of the so-called access fund has been totally inadequate to counteract the devastating effects of the Government's other policies on higher education. However, it is not only the drop-out rate which gives cause for concern, but also the welfare of students, who are desperately trying to continue their studies against all odds.
In December 1991, a student from Homerton college in Cambridge was hospitalised owing to an infection of the liver, kidneys and intestines. In probing the source of the infection, the general practitioner was appalled at the conditions in which the student was living. There was no central heating, there were damp walls and the student had clearly not been eating adequately. The senior tutor at Homerton college has written that the situation uncovered by the GP was fairly typical of many of his students-- what an indictment of Government policy that is.
Column 517What do the Government intend to do about poverty wages? Far from eliminating them, it is suggested that the Government will make the situation even worse by abolishing the wages councils, which at least prevented the inadequate rates of pay in many industries from falling even lower. The Low Pay Unit has estimated that the floor for pay after the abolition of the wages councils could be as low as £2 per hour. Is that really an acceptable level of reward for work in a civilised society?
The Government's low wages policy has created a poverty trap for so many families. Last year I took up the case of a father of five with a mortgage to pay who had lost his job. He found a new post, which paid £2.66 per hour--a net £95 per week. After paying mortgage interest and receiving child benefit and family credit, he would have been left with £42 to feed, clothe and support his family. Understandably, the man did not take the job because with income support and child benefit he previously received £138.50 per week and the Department of Social Security paid his mortgage interest. However, because he refused the job, his unemployment benefit was stopped for 20 weeks. What kind of encouragement to seek employment is that? The poverty trap does not exist only for the unemployed. Many pensioners who are just above the income support level find it hard to survive. They have been especially hard hit by the poll tax and by the effects of privatising the water industry. Water rates in Cambridge have raced ahead of inflation. Since the abolition of water rate rebates in 1988, average bills in Cambridge have increased by 72 per cent. to £208. That particularly affects single pensioners living alone. The secretary of the Office of Water Services, Ofwat, eastern customer services committee has recently expressed concern that pensioners are going without food so that they can pay their bills. The Government have no plans to tackle the problems of poverty in our country. Government Ministers use the language of equality, a classless society, a nation at ease with itself, to hide the fact that their policies are creating an ever more divided and unequal society. Their words are new-speak designed to enable the Government to avoid facing up to the truth.
I come to the House from a constituency where the Labour party was established 80 years ago, founded on the principles of social justice and equality. And how greatly our society needs those guiding principles today. I am the third Labour Member of Parliament for Cambridge, and the first woman Member. I follow in the footsteps of two men of high principle, Leslie Symonds, who was elected in 1945, and Robert Davies, who was elected in 1966 and whose political career was tragically cut short by his death in 1968. At his funeral Mr. Stan Newens, then Member for Epping, said :
"Robert Davies saw the Labour movement as a crusade for a new and better society, and he devoted himself to it without counting the cost--which was eventually his life. Any community owes a great debt to men like Robert, and his humanity, tolerance, self-sacrifice and devotion to others was a vital contribution to the Labour movement, Cambridge affairs and British politics."
No Labour Member of Parliament could wish for a finer epitaph. I shall serve all the people of Cambridge and my country to the best of my ability, but I make no apology for bias towards the underprivileged. Cambridge elected a Labour Member of Parliament because we recognised the
Column 518other side of the city of Cambridge, which the Government chose to ignore. We sought to understand the problems of the underprivileged and to reach out to them through our campaigning on the doorstep and by working on their behalf.
I feel enormously proud to have been entrusted to represent the people of Cambridge. I am equally dismayed that we should have a Government who care so little about social justice, but Labour has never underestimated the scale of the task necessary to build a fairer society. Although we are disappointed at the result of the general election, we do not give up-- there are too many people in our society whose future welfare depends on us even to contemplate such a course of action. Not least among those are many of my constituents. After 24 years without effective representation, at last they have a voice.
Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing) : First, I congratulate Madam Speaker on her election to her high office and wish her every success in the many difficult decisions which she will have to make while presiding over our affairs. Secondly, may I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and wish you well in the Chair.
Thirdly, it is a great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Ms. Campbell) on her maiden speech. She paid a generous tribute to her predecessor, Mr. Robert Rhodes James, whom many of us in the House held in the highest regard. She referred to his integrity and his distinction as an historian. Indeed, he made an important contribution to the work of the House and her kind remarks in that respect are greatly appreciated. The convention that maiden speeches should be uncontroversial is perhaps more honoured in the breach than in the observance nowadays, but I think that the House will recognise the hon. Lady's strength of feeling on the social issues to which she referred, and we shall look forward to hearing her on many future occasions.
Perhaps it is appropriate on the first Queen's Speech of a new Parliament to take stock. The status of the House has not changed greatly during the past quarter of a century, but clearly considerable changes may come into prospect since on the one hand the House is subject to claims for devolution of power to various parts of the United Kingdom, while on the other it faces the danger of a transfer of powers to European institutions. That combination may mean that the nature of the House may change in future years, perhaps in the not-too-distant future.
Therefore, I was much reassured by the speech on the Loyal Address by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when he made clear his position on devolution and on Europe. It is reassuring that the outcome of the Maastricht negotiations was so successful from Britain's point of view. The fact that we obtained an opt-out clause which met this country's requirements was satisfactory, not least with regard to control over fiscal policy. Indeed, it would seem that many other European countries and Heads of State elsewhere are rather sorry that they did not follow our advice. However, the fact that we wrote our own opt-out clause gave us some discretion which we would not have had if there had been a general opt-out clause. In all events, that is important. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will recognise, the principle of subsidiarity is extremely important for
Column 519environmental matters. On the one hand there is often a case for a European approach to protecting the environment, but on the other some environmental issues should be decided in the United Kingdom and not in Brussels or elsewhere in Europe.
There has been some debate in the press today about the diversity of parliamentary systems. I hope that as we come to assume the Presidency of the European Community we shall seek to extend to European affairs some of the undoubted advantages of this House of Commons, with regard not only to budgetary discipline, but to the control of public expenditure. The fact that we have a Public Accounts Committee and a Comptroller and Auditor General that do that should be emulated in a European context. Each year we debate the report of the Court of Auditors, yet absolutely nothing is done about the criticisms that it makes of European expenditure. I hope that during our Presidency we shall take up that point strongly. I welcome the statements in the Gracious Speech about the open government initiative. An increase in openness and a reduction in secrecy are important and are closely linked to accountability. Over the past decade or so we have made a considerable improvement in the level of accountability of the Government to this House through the introduction of the departmental Select Committees. As the hon. Member for Cambridge and other new Members will soon discover, it is difficult at Question Time to pin down a Minister because the subject changes from moment to moment. The moment one thinks that one has pinned down a Minister, the subject changes. Similarly, it is difficult to pin down a Minister when he or she replies to a debate because of the confrontational situation. The departmental Select Committee system is of tremendous importance because it is quite a different matter for a Minister to appear for two hours in front of an all-party Committee. Therefore, it is very important that those Committees should be set up with the least possible delay. At the end of the previous Parliament the last action of the Liaison Committee, which I had the privilege of chairing, was to instruct me to write to the leaders of all political parties in the House to remind them of the Committee's resolution which read : "That the Committee of Selection in the next Parliament should take full account of the view expressed by the Procedure Committee of Session 1989-90 that the process of nominating members of select committees should be completed within 30 sitting days after the meeting of a new Parliament, should proceed as a matter of urgency to place before the House its nominations for the membership of select committees and in particular should not feel bound to wait until the appointment of the last junior Opposition spokesman before submitting names to the House."
It is important that we should proceed with the nomination of Select Committees at the earliest possible moment.
In 1983 there was a delay from 15 June to 14 December and in 1987 from 11 June to 2 December before the Select Committees were set up. In the first case there were 66 to 69 sitting days and in the second 49 to 55 sitting days before they were all set up. It would be wrong if we did not set them up before the summer recess. If the Committees do not meet before then, the Clerks and advisers cannot get to work on the programme, and it would be nearly six
Column 520months before the Committees were established and working following the resumption of the House in this new Parliament. That is why speed is important.
As I was Chairman of the Liaison Committee on the two previous occasions, I do not underestimate the difficulties of the negotiations that will arise. The resolution referred to the Opposition Front Bench. It should be possible to reach agreement on that because the number of individuals concerned must be small, which will prevent any unnecessary delay.
There are further difficult issues--for example, the participation of the minority parties and the chairmanship of the Committees. If the system is to have credibility, it is extremely important that there should be a number of Chairmen from both sides of the House. That is an essential part of the system. Problems are caused by the tradition, now firmly established, that the Committees should mirror the construction of the Departments. There has been no significant change to the Department of the Environment, but there have been changes in the structure of other Departments, not least with regard to the citizens charter and to sport and other related matters. We need to ensure that the Committee structure reflects those changes if the Committees are to monitor effectively the issues to be debated. I hope that we can make significant progress in that respect. There are further considerations to be taken into account with regard to the European Committees. Those established in the previous Parliament did not work effectively. They were too few and did not have the expertise necessary to scrutinise effectively what has been going on in Europe and to report back to the Floor of the House. I hope that we can reconsider my earlier suggestion that we should have a sub-committee of the existing departmental Committees which have expertise and co-opt on to it other Members from the Floor of the House who have a particular interest in European affairs. It is difficult to man all the Committees in terms of pure numbers, so if we operate as I have described the House will be better at holding the Government and European Community organisations to account. Those are important issues for Back Benchers from a parliamentary point of view. It is up to Back Benchers to bring pressure to bear so that they fulfil their responsibilities in this matter without delay. Otherwise, a large part of this Parliament will go by when the Government are not called to account in detail on individual matters.
Finally, there has been a great deal of talk about the nature of the present Government and the policy of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I see him within the tradition of the late Iain Macleod, under whom I served my apprenticeship : extremely tough and rigorous on economic affairs but with a strong social concern for the everyday problems of individuals. The policies set out in the Gracious Speech reflect that. He comes to office at a time when it is tremendously important that Britain should be able to give a lead not only in European but in world affairs. Leaders across the world, from President Mitterrand in France to Mr. Kohl in Germany, Mr. Bush in the United States and the premier of Japan, are not in a happy position. I believe that we, as a British Government and a British Parliament, led by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, have an opportunity to play the role on the world stage which the House has traditionally regarded as a high priority.
Column 521I congratulate the Government on the content of the Queen's Speech, and I look forward to seeing the legislation come before the House. 4.59 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) : I am grateful for this opportunity to speak in the House for the first time, but I am equally grateful to the electors of Bath for giving me the opportunity to do so. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members do not think me disingenuous if I begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Chris Patten, for whom I have considerable regard. I wish him and his family well when he takes up his new post as Governor of Hong Kong. He will bring to that task his considerable political and intellectual skills.
Chris Patten represented Bath for 13 years, and recent letters to the local evening paper, the Bath and West Evening Chronicle, clearly demonstrate that the electors of Bath held him in high regard. Even those who strongly disagreed with the policies that he supported acknowledge that he was a hard-working constituency Member of Parliament. In that regard, I recognise that it will be a tall order to follow him. Talking of tall orders, I understand that Chris Patten is likely to follow the precedent set by Madam Speaker, who has declined to wear the traditional wig. I understand that Mr. Patten is seriously considering rejecting the tall funny hat with the feathers on top when he takes up his new position.
The recent election was a busy period in Bath for visits from those on the Government Front Bench. We even saw the Prime Minister in Bath, but, on that occasion, he was without his soap box. On the other hand, my supporters were mainly from another place. I will long remember one of them who came with me on a bus trip through the centre of the city, who spoke through a loudspeaker urging the people of Bath to "Vote Don Foster. Vote Christian Democrat." No doubt that was an advance warning of how Liberal Democrat Members are likely to vote in the debate on the Maastricht agreement.
My constituency is a beautiful city. It is the only World Heritage site in Britain which is a complete parliamentary constituency, an honour which it shares with only Florence and Rome. Bath has the finest rugby union side in Britain, the finest musical festival, glorious architecture and wonderful people.
In June 1979, in his maiden speech, Chris Patten said : "Bath is not a museum piece. It is an extremely busy city, although not quite as busy as we would like following the rise in unemployment in the last few years. It depends a great deal for its prosperity on a number of fine engineering firms."--[ Official Report, 14 June 1979 ; Vol. 968, c. 720.]
Sadly, 13 years later, Bath is still not quite as busy as we would like following further recent rises in unemployment and many of the fine engineering firms to which Chris Patten referred are no more. Like many shops and other small businesses, they closed during the recession, often because of the twin attacks from the uniform business rate and high rents. I urge the Government to review rapidly the way that they support small businesses in particular. Right hon. and hon. Members should be aware that beneath the facade of Georgian elegance Bath has the same problems as those associated with all cities in this country. We too have rising levels of homelessness,
Column 522increasing unemployment, congested streets with significant traffic problems and ever-rising rates of crime, but the police are deprived of the resources that they need to tackle the problems.
Many people in Bath have suffered badly because of the collapse of those firms that formed part of the empire of the late Robert Maxwell. Maxwell pensioners have seen the promised rewards of a lifetime's work vanish in a cloud of deception, theft and financial jiggery-pokery. I, and my constituents, urge the Government to take quick and decisive action to relieve the misery and distress caused to Maxwell pensioners and to end the uncertainty that they face. Education is another issue that is of considerable concern to my constituents. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment as Secretary of State for Education. As I speak, school governing bodies in my constituency are having to face up to how they will cope with cuts in their education budgets. Those cuts have been imposed because of Avon county council's need to reduce its education budget as a means of trying to avoid poll tax capping. In some cases those cuts will result in cuts in the numbers of teachers and, certainly, a reduction in the quality of education provided to pupils. That is in marked contrast to the Government's pledge in the Gracious Speech to
"continue to work to raise standards at all levels of education". Such a pledge can be met only if it is supported by the necessary targeted increases in investment in education and training. Whatever the merits of the Government's claim to have increased expenditure on education, it is clear to Liberal Democrat Members at least that the current level of investment is inadequate to meet current need let alone any planned changes.
That view is clearly supported by many people in this country, and it was during the general election when the poll showed that three-quarters of the electorate approved of Liberal Democrat proposals to increase investment in education and training by £2 billion, even if that meant a 1p increase in taxation.
A nation lives and dies by its human resources. Properly educated and trained, Britain's citizens are our greatest asset. Britain spends less as a proportion of gross domestic product on education than many of our industrial competitors, including France, America, Ireland and even Malaysia. If we are to catch up with our competitors and partners, we must become what we are capable of becoming--one of the most highly educated and highly skilled societies in the world. Education is about more than economic prosperity. Education liberates while ignorance enslaves. Education widens horizons and enlarges choice. Education enables everyone, regardless of age, sex, background or ability, to realise their unique potential. Wise expenditure on education represents a nation's investment in its own future. Funding for education and training must be further increased and I and my constituents will welcome any Government moves in this direction.
In the Gracious Speech the Government offer a Bill to extend choice and diversity in education. But what choice is currently on offer? Schools must choose between sacking teachers and doing without books, colleges must choose between decent accommodation and up-to-date equipment and universities between overcrowded lecture
Column 523theatres and empty bank accounts. Eighteen- year-olds must choose between forgoing higher education and starting their careers under the burden of debt.
The Government, rightly in our view, recognised that education and training needed reform, but the speed, complexity and the number of changes have left teachers and lecturers suffering from innovation fatigue. Meanwhile, parents are increasingly bewildered by the apparent emergence of a two-tier system of education. The time has come for the Government to stop and listen to the people of Bath and to people throughout the country. If they are serious about giving real choice to parents and students, they must recognise the problems that their legislation has created. It is vital that the new Secretary of State for Education restores the democratic process of engaging in wide and genuine consultation before any further changes are introduced.
Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking) : I wish at the outset to congratulate the new occupants of the Chair. I hope that we shall not cause them too much trouble in the coming Session. It is not only a duty but a pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on an eloquent speech, delivered with great poise. We look forward to hearing from him in the future, even if we shall not necessarily agree with what he says on those occasions, let alone on this one. Hon. Members will have agreed with the hon. Gentleman in at least two respects, the first being the tribute he paid to Bath Rugby Union club, which many of us have watched with great pleasure. The second and more important was his tribute to his predecessor, and he rightly couched his remarks in generous terms. I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that when we ask who were the real heroes of the last general election, we shall agree that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Chris Patten share the honours--if not equally, then Chris Patten must still take a large share of the credit for the result of the election. He goes to Hong Kong to take up a challenging new job with the good wishes of all on these Benches, and I have no doubt that he will succeed well in the difficult task that he is about to undertake.
The difficult task that hon. Members face today involves trying to cram a quart into a pint pot, in view of the shortage of time, so I hope that I shall be forgiven for making only one point about education, the subject being taken with the environment. I welcome what the Gracious Speech says about education, in particular about extending choice and diversity. The motion standing in the names of Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen is churlish when it says that no measures exist "to improve educational standards and opportunities". That shows how out of touch they are. If they do not believe, as I do, that grant-maintained schools have vastly increased standards and opportunities in education, they should spend more time talking to parents at schools.
In my constituency--the same must be true throughout the country--the grant -maintained system is proving an enormous success, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his speech on the Loyal Address. I have a word of caution for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, whom I welcome to his new
Column 524responsibilities. I hope we may have his assurance that there will be no asset stripping by local education authorities in such a way that it will become more difficult for independent managements in schools to maximise the opportunities that lie ahead. I extend that beyond schools, to sixth form colleges, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will find time when he replies to the debate to deal with that aspect.
The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten) : It may be convenient if I answer my right hon. Friend's question now with a resounding yes. We shall do everything we can to prevent local authorities from asset stripping before schools go grant-maintained and to prevent them from getting in the way of the democratic right of parents voting in favour of grant-maintained status.
Mr. Onslow : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. I assure the House that I had not given him prior notice of the question, which makes the response even more welcome. Time permits me to raise only two matters concerning the environment. The first may seem parochial but it is a problem that my constituents share with many other people in Britain--the vexed question of gipsy sites. Many hon. Members will agree that the present situation is fundamentally unsatisfactory. It brings local government into discredit when difficult problems are handled in such a way as to undermine confidence in the equity of the system under which local authorities operate.
It is generally conceded that the Caravan Sites Act 1968 needs fundamental review and revision. It is clear that what has happened in the parish of Ash, at one end of my constituency, and in the ward of Knaphill, at the other, has not matched the aspirations of my constituents. They are entitled to have their rights fully recognised, to have the opportunity to put their points of view and to have those views debated in public and at length.
There is scope for the Minister who is responsible for the citizens charter to look urgently at the way that the system is working. The present position is unsatisfactory. There seems to be a race to get approval under the Act for registration so that the problem can be unloaded on to the next -door authority. That leads to many relevant factors, including the social impact of gipsy sites and the devaluation aspect, not receiving consideration.
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that further problems are created when unauthorised gipsy encampments move into boroughs and it takes a long time before they can be moved on? That issue must be considered in the review of the legislation to which he referred.