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Column 10I believe that new and improved cannot beat tried and true. I commend the Queen's Speech to the House.
Mr. Robertson: It is an honour for me to second the motion moved so wittily and eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn). However, the honour belongs not to me but to my constituents in Aberdeen, South. My constituency is a diverse one, of many contrasts. It has captured the old, and blended it uniquely with the new. It can boast of a magnificent past and look forward with real anticipation to a bright and formidable future.
When I arrived in the House in 1992, I knew well that most new hon. Members are haunted by ghosts of their predecessors, wary of tales of fine speeches made and great battles won. Unlike others, however, I arrived not just to be haunted by ghosts of Members of Parliament from Aberdeen, South past, but to be plagued by their reincarnations.
Those range from the loquacious number cruncher who leads for the Opposition on social security, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), to my smooth, urbane, cricket-loving hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Sproat) and, finally, to my modest, self-effacing--that is what he told me to say--hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone), about whom I should not be too rude, as it has often been said to me that greater love hath no man than this--that he loses his seat so that his friend can win it back. I am delighted, however, to inform the House that membership of that unique band is closed, as I intend to remain its newest recruit for a long time.
Earlier this year, when on by-election duty in Monklands, East, my Lanarkshire past caught up with me in a rather vivid way. When canvassing a particular door, I was delighted to recognise a name from my school days-- that of a former schoolteacher of mine. When he answered, he looked surprisingly delighted to see me for someone from Airdrie, as the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) will agree.
Before I could tell him what a splendid candidate we had, he said, "Ah, Raymond, I was just thinking of you." My chest puffed with pride. "I have just retired," he went on," and I was counting up the number of ex-pupils of mine who have made it on to the front page of the newspaper." My chest puffed up even more. I thought I must be in some select band. "Do you know that it comes to 12?" he said. "Really," I said, a bit taken aback. "Yes," he said. "Two ministers of the Church of Scotland, one Member of Parliament and nine murderers." I am glad to tell the House, however, that the murder rate has been decreasing recently, and that it is down 15 per cent. in Scotland alone.
When I was asked last week by my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip to second the motion, I readily agreed, and then stopped and wondered why. Was it because, as the hon. Member for the most northerly Conservative seat in the country, who probably has the furthest to travel
Column 11from his constituency to the House, he thought to make my journey today a bit more worth while by asking me to do something useful while I was down? Or was it because, as a Scottish Member attached to the Northern Ireland Office who works four days a week in England and who regularly attends Welsh Questions, I am somehow seen as the very embodiment of this United Kingdom Parliament?
Or could it possibly be that, halfway through the life of this Parliament, it is a timely reminder that, halfway through the previous Parliament, no one gave very much for the Conservative party's chances in the election that was to come? Certainly no one thought that we would increase our representation in Scotland and win seats from Labour. In Aberdeen, South, however, we did just that. Let me assure the House that what we did in Aberdeen, South last time will be repeated throughout the country next time.
My constituency covers the southern half of the great granite city, stretching from the West End communities of Holburn, Hazelhead and Rubieslaw, through Rosemount and Ferryhill and the buoyant international harbour, over the River Dee to Torry and Nigg, and beyond that to the North sea. It also takes in the beach and Pittodrie stadium, the home of Aberdeen football club. I can safely assure my hon. Friends that that club is the only team that plays in red that I support. My hon. Friends will not be surprised to learn, however, that, like other teams of that particular hue, they are dangerously close to the relegation zone and have had a run of bad defeats.
In Aberdeen, there is much talk of changing the manager. When asked, my advice to the director of the club was to watch out. History shows that, when red teams in trouble change manager, it definitely helps and all seems well--for a month or two. Then the inherent problems resurface, the same ones that proved fatal to old regime. Own goals start to be scored again. The left wing resumes its domination when instructions shouted from the manager's dugout are ignored. The midfield collapses under the strain. Added to that, it now seems that someone, somewhere, is always prepared to throw the game. I believe, however, that Aberdeen football club will recover and avoid relegation. Who knows--it might even go on to win the cup. But I cannot say the same for Opposition Members who wear the red jerseys.
My constituents welcome the Gracious Speech, particularly the commitment to deregulate this country's gas market. Although, sadly, Aberdeen has seen the demise of some of its traditional industries such as shipbuilding, and a decline of others such as deep sea fishing, it has at the same time not been frightened to reach out and embrace new challenges, the most notable being oil, gas and their service industries.
Aberdeen's current wealth and prosperity is based very much on the oil and gas industry, a prosperity which goes beyond the city boundaries, as a regional unemployment rate of only 5 per cent.--and falling--graphically illustrates. The rapid expansion of that sector has brought tremendous benefits to the city and its people. Deregulation of the gas market will help the rest of the United Kingdom to enjoy further the benefits of our oil and gas industry. The United Kingdom has become one of the world's biggest producers and leaders in such technology. One major oil company based in my constituency estimated that that measure alone will reduce
Column 12gas bills to industry and to the individual household consumer by between 2 per cent. and 8 per cent. That is another example of the benefits to the whole country from the successful exploitation of our precious natural resource, the North sea, which we in Aberdeen have been pioneering for some 25 years.
My constituents also welcome the measure outlined for a Criminal Justice Bill for Scotland. Although--almost uniquely in Europe--crime figures have been falling in Scotland, and now in England, too, there is no room for complacency, and more needs to be done to support our eight Scottish police forces. The Bill will provide that vital support.
As my constituency has a large retired population, it will come as no surprise to the House that the measure intended to safeguard occupational pensions is greatly welcomed in Aberdeen, South, given the many experiences there of Maxwell pensioners. We must ensure that never again can pension funds be stolen and abused for personal profit by another Robert Maxwell seeking to plunder a lifetime's investment and to destroy what for many is their security for retirement.
Although it was not directly mentioned in the Gracious Speech, I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland intends to introduce a Children Bill. My constituents will welcome that, as I do. They will join me in hoping that the new parliamentary procedures agreed in the past Session will be put to use to put that important measure on to the statute book. The use of those procedures will show that Parliament can be truly sensitive to the differing needs, and flexible to the differing priorities, of the constituent parts of the kingdom. But while there remains one sovereign Parliament, there is more than one way in which to pass legislation. It also shows that Conservative Members are not frightened of constitutional change. But to any such proposed change, we will always supply one fundamental, non-negotiable criterion--does it strengthen or does it weaken the union between Scotland and the rest of the kingdom? Any proposed change that strengthens the union will have our total support. But if any change weakens the union, we will oppose it absolutely, and fight it to the end.
That is why we oppose the constitutional plans of Labour, the Liberals and the nationalists, who in their own way seek first to weaken then destroy the historic union, which in the first decade of the next century will celebrate its 300th anniversary.
My constituents sent me here in 1992, above all else as a vote of confidence in that union; to support that union and to fight for it. That is why they join me in supporting the Gracious Speech, delivered to this the sovereign Parliament of Scotland, of Northern Ireland, of Wales and of England. I have no hesitation in commending it to the House.
Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield): As Members may know, my right hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip was taken ill this morning, and before beginning my speech I am pleased to tell the House that his condition is described by the hospital as stable, and not a cause for alarm. I know that we all wish him and Anne well, and we also wish him a speedy return.
Column 13It is the custom of the House that the Leader of the Opposition has the pleasant duty of congratulating the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address, and I am delighted to do so. The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) gave a somewhat unusually combative proposal of the Loyal Address, and at some points I was not entirely sure whether he was moving the Loyal Address or giving an after-dinner speech to his local Conservative association.
Nevertheless, I hope that I shall not do the hon. Gentleman irrevocable damage if I disclose to the House that, as he will know, I have personal reasons for being extremely grateful to him. When he was an Education Minister, although he may have done many things wrong, he did one thing right: he reversed the planned closure of a vital special needs school in my constituency of Sedgefield, despite the fact that the education experts wanted it closed.
At the time, I thought that that was merely a one-off act of compassion on the hon. Gentleman's part, but last year in the House he threw greater light on his decision, when he said that the last thing any Minister should sensibly do is to listen to the educational world for advice. The only advice he could give was to listen to what they say and "then do the opposite". Given such an attitude, the only surprise is that the hon. Gentleman never made it to the Cabinet. However, I wish him well most sincerely.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) seconded the motion with great flair, humour and wit, and said that he had the dubious pleasure of being in a House containing no fewer than three other Members who at one time had represented his constituency but had then lost it, only to win again somewhere else. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will understand if I say that, given the size of his majority, I hope that at the next election he will be able to satisfy at least half the requirements of that elite club. Both speeches, the proposing and the seconding of the Loyal Address, were able. I congratulate both hon. Gentlemen.
It is also the custom at this time to review one or two personal events for the House over the past year, and I hope that I shall be forgiven for saying that the past year has been marked by deep sorrow for my party. Twelve months ago, John Smith gave the kind of spirited, witty and principled speech that earned him respect across the Chamber and throughout the nation. I believe that we united across party lines then, and that we still do so now, in his memory. I pay particular tribute to the life and work of Jo Richardson, who, despite immense physical pain, never wavered in her tireless work for her constituents and for the cause of women everywhere. To those two names must be added the sad loss of colleagues on both sides of the House--James Boyce, Stephen Milligan, Ron Leighton, Bob Cryer and John Blackburn, all of whom served their constituents and their country with dedication, and will be sorely missed.
Parts of the Queen's Speech we welcome. Thanks to the efforts of the British and Irish Governments and the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, there is room for cautious optimism about the future of the Province--more room than at any time, certainly in my generation. The Opposition will continue to support the peace process and to play our part in building a future of conciliation and prosperity. Her Majesty's Opposition exist not only to oppose Her Majesty's Government, and we shall be
Column 14pleased to continue to support the Government in the peace process. Indeed, we shall take an active part in next month's conference on the economy of Northern Ireland.
We also rejoice at the defeat of apartheid and the return of South Africa to the Commonwealth. The Opposition, at least, are proud of the part that we played in the battle against the evil of the old regime. I play particular tribute to the steadfast work of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), who has made such an outstanding contribution over the years.
We also welcome plans to expand the European Union, and look forward to the entry of new members from northern and eastern Europe, and we shall continue to make constructive suggestions for the reform and improvement of that Union and to press for the Government to regain our influence within Europe.
On the detail of the Address, we have long urged legislation on the regulation of pensions, the establishment of an environmental protection agency, a new criminal cases review authority, and rights for disabled people. We shall, however, carefully scrutinise the detail of all those Bills.
The pensions regulations must be comprehensive and clear. We all know of the scandal of people cheated of their savings by unscrupulous advisers who abused poor regulation. Our people will not be satisfied unless there is proper protection for the hard-working majority who save for their retirement and who should have the absolute right to see the benefits in old age.
On the environment, we wish the new agency to be able to take action to protect our environment and to have proper powers of enforcement. I welcome the fact that, as I understand it, there will be legislation on the criminal cases review authority. The new system for investigating miscarriages of justice is long overdue. I very much hope that the method of investigation is independent and fair, and can be seen to be fair.
Disabled people across Britain were greatly angered by the Government's conduct during the passage of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. We welcome new legislation in the Queen's Speech, and we look forward to it being implemented properly.
Millions of people are desperate for changes in the Child Support Agency. Currently, the agency is a complete shambles, which is causing misery to tens of thousands of families. I very much hope that a radical reform of the agency is on the agenda in the coming year.
Taken as a whole, the Queen's Speech expresses the central quandary facing the Conservative party today: whether to praise Thatcherism or to bury it. Four years after the right hon. Lady's departure, the Conservatives still cannot decide. The result is the hallmark of this Government: dogma tempered only by dithering.
Column 15Nothing could make the point better than the debacle over Post Office privatisation. There are two extraordinary features of it. The first is not that 10 Tory rebels opposed it, but that 340 Tory Members, including the Prime Minister, supported it. One message at least is clear: "If you don't want the Post Office privatised, don't vote Tory at the next election."
The second extraordinary feature is the manner of decision-making; that is what is most extraordinary. One faction demands privatisation, so the deed is done; it is then the centrepiece of the Queen's Speech. Then another faction rebels, so the proposal is removed. Then the first faction mounts another rebellion, and Ministers fall over themselves to proclaim their sorrow and anguish at this omission from the Queen's Speech. Finally, the Government cast around for any hapless part of the public sector to privatise. Air traffic control is floated as a possibility, until even the genius of this Government's public relations understands that the notion of Group 4 being in charge of air traffic control is not an immediate vote- winner.
Ultimately, what do the Government privatise? They privatise the Atomic Energy Authority commercial services department. It is alighted on as a victim to be sold off. What does that tell us about this Government? It tells us that they are so riven by faction and buffeted from one day's headlines to the next that they cannot address the interests of the country, and that they are woefully out of touch with public opinion. The combination of those factors makes them incapable of delivering good government.
There should be a Bill about the Post Office in the Queen's Speech--not to privatise it, but to liberate it within the public sector. Such a Bill would pass with virtually unanimous support. Why is it not in the Queen's Speech? The reason is that, although the Government do not have the courage to privatise the Post Office, their dogma prevents them from adopting the only sensible alternative. The result is bad government.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): In reviewing my party's attitude to various issues, would the right hon. Gentleman also review his own party's attitude to clause 4, and whether his party really--[ Interruption. ] Does his party really intend to abolish it, or is it just the rhetoric that he opposes?
Mr. Blair: I did not hear the last part of the question, but I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Gentleman is so interested in clause 4. He will no doubt want to participate in the discussions on the matter in the months ahead.
Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton): On the issue of factions, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he agrees with the 61 members of his own party who signed an early-day motion calling on a future Labour Government to scrap Trident? Does he agree with that--yes or no?
Column 16praising or trying to bury Thatcherism, does he regret voting for the changes in trade union reform which the Government have taken through the House over the past 15 years? If he does, which of the trade union reforms that the Government brought in, despite opposition from the Labour party, would he seek to reverse as a Labour Prime Minister?
Mr. Blair: I have set out many times our position on trade union legislation, and I have said exactly what parts we will change and what parts we will not change. Since the hon. Gentleman intervened in my speech, perhaps he would answer this question. How did he stand at the previous election on the specific promise that he would not raise tax in this country, since he joined the Government in raising it straight after his election to the House?
Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak): In reference to the right hon. Gentleman's comments on the public sector, does he think it right that inefficiencies in public services should be tolerated at the taxpayers' expense if they lead to greater employment? Does he agree on that comment with his deputy leader? Will he tell the House if he disagrees?
Mr. Blair: I am surprised that, after a week in which it has been revealed that a private health institution in Scotland received £30 million of public money, the hon. Gentleman should ask us about the efficiency of public services.
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) rose --
Dr. Spink: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with his right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) that the minimum wage would cost tens of thousands of jobs in the country? Will he support the job seeker's allowance, which will help this Government to get the long-term unemployed back into work?
Mr. Blair: The hon. Gentleman should be aware of recent evidence, published in the United States, of precisely the opposite effect. Indeed, it is the case that setting a proper floor for wages is a sensible way in which to operate the labour market. Secondly, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that I think that many people in this country see this Government failing to take action in relation to those privatised utilities and the pay increases awarded to their chairmen and directors, and find it quite obnoxious that the Government oppose a decent living and wage for people at the bottom end of the income scale, but do nothing about the abuses at the top.
I was talking about the conduct of government. We see the same conduct not only in relation to the Post Office but in respect of the quite extraordinary furore which has been whipped up among the Tory party over Europe, with briefings and counter-briefings rolling around the press rooms of Britain today. So desperate are the Government to get their rebels into line that the chairman of the 1922 Committee has been dispatched to tell us that, if the Government are defeated on the Bill about own resources, or "even if there is any amendment to it", a general
Column 17election will immediately ensue. [Interruption.] There is at least some support for that proposition from the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), but that may simply be because he is retiring.
It has surely come to something when a Government can secure the passage of their own legislative programme only by threatening their own demise. The Government might threaten a general election. I think we can be sure that they do not dare call one. However, what a way to run a party and a Government. That underlines the degree to which all those questions become a matter not of the nation's interest, but simply a ball played from one part of the Conservative party over to the other and back again.
I can tell Conservative Members that the country sees the gap between what the Conservative party today represents and what it wants a Government to do, and the country is appalled at how that gap ever widens. That shows that the politics of the 1980s has run its course. The concerns and needs of the British people have changed, and it is the Labour party that speaks for them.
The British people want an end to the laissez-faire economics and the boom and bust of the past 15 years. They want a new economic approach, based on partnership between the public and private sectors and between management and employees to invest in industry to make our performance more dynamic and to give business and families the stability to plan for the future.
The British people want strong public services, decent schools and well-run local hospitals, where pupils and patients, not bureaucrats, receive the resources. They do not want them to be sold off or broken up. They want poverty, inequality and mass unemployment to be attacked, not treated as of no consequence. They want safe communities liberated from violence, drugs and gangs of hooligans, where, in place of piecemeal initiatives, there is a comprehensive strategy-- [Interruption.]
Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. Blair: The vast majority of people in this country want safe communities, and they do not believe that the Government are delivering them. Above all else, perhaps, they want to feel that their voice is heard and that political institutions work for them and not for the people in charge. They want real democracy, with power devolved downwards, not an ever-increasing centralised state. The vast majority of people want to feel that they can trust their Government. The truth is that today no one believes a word that the Conservative party says--and no wonder. Let us consider tax, and the promises made at the last election. In March 1992, the Prime Minister said:
"I have made it clear, we have no plans and no need to extend the scope of VAT."
The former Chancellor of the Exchequer said:
"We will not have to increase taxes. I cannot see any circumstances in which that will be necessary."
That was said weeks before the general election. They now say that they did not know how bad the economic situation was.
Column 18One might get away with that if one had been in power for 13 days. However, by the last election, the Government had been in power for 13 years. They knew the truth. Look at how many taxes the Conservatives have introduced. Let us consider the new Tory taxes and what they will mean for the average family: home insurance tax, car insurance tax, airport tax, petrol tax, VAT on fuel and cuts in the married couple's allowance and cuts in mortgage tax relief. In total this year, they mean £360 on top of the £500 a year that families are already paying extra in tax since the election; 7p on the standard rate of income tax; £860 for the average family. In the light of the gap between what they have promised and what they have done, is it any wonder to them the cynicism and disgust with which their record is viewed by the majority of British people?
Mr. Norman Lamont (Kingston upon Thames): As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Government found it necessary to put up taxes in order to reduce borrowing, which was greater than anticipated. The right hon. Gentleman's party fought the election on putting up taxes not in order to produce sound finances, not in order to reduce borrowing, but in order to spend more money. That was why the right hon. Gentleman wanted to put up taxes. The right hon. Gentleman now tells us that he has changed his party's policy. Will he tell this House now that the policies of tax on which his party fought the election are wrong?
Mr. Blair: I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what the difference is. We told the truth at the previous election. [Interruption.] I suppose that the Prime Minister will be relieved that, at least for once, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) has come in on the Government's side.
Mr. Blair: We will judge that Bill in the light of the principles that we have set out. We have supported the settlement at the Edinburgh summit, but the hon. Gentleman knows that of course we have our differences with the Government over the social chapter. I can tell him, although I was going to deal with it later in my speech, that, in the light of the allegations about fraud and waste in the common agricultural policy, and in the light of the discrepancy between the position set out by the Chancellor last week and the figures given in some newspapers this morning, we will of course press the Government on all those issues.
Now let me ask the hon. Gentleman, or perhaps the Prime Minister, a question: is it the case that the chairman of the 1922 Committee was speaking on behalf of the Conservative party when he said that the own resources Bill would be treated not as an ordinary piece of legislation but as a motion of confidence in the Government? I have to tell them that, if that is how it is to be treated, life becomes much more difficult, not less difficult, for the Government. The hon. Gentleman will understand that.
I was about to deal with the Chancellor of the Exchequer's interview in today's edition of The Daily Telegraph , which, as ever, is interesting to read. The right hon. and learned Gentleman described himself as "fairly
Column 19panic-proof", which is a reassurance to us since he is in charge of the nation's finances. He went on to say that his policies "have so far delivered very little to Mr. and Mrs. Smith up and down the country."
So far--they have been in power for 15 years; how much longer do they want before their policies deliver something? What they have delivered is an election programme secured on one basis, then broken with a series of record-breaking tax rises straight after the election.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Kenneth Clarke): The right hon. Gentleman keeps giving way to interventions, then failing to answer them and returning to his speech. He was asked a moment ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston (Mr. Lamont) how he now reacted to his election promises of the last election to raise taxation in order to raise public spending. If he now criticises what we are doing, which of the tax increases that he has attacked would he reduce and which spending would he cut--in contrast to the tax increase promises on which he fought the last election?
Mr. Blair: Last week, we published a comprehensive set of tax reforms to close the tax abuses that the Government have allowed to go on. What is more, we set out the huge windfall profits that have been made by utility companies, and will be made on the sale of the national grid. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to get spending down, there is one good way of doing it: get unemployment down, and let the unemployed get back to work.
The tax failure of the Government is in the end the product of their economic failure. The mismanagement of this country's economy over 15 years is a story of incompetence on an epic scale: the two worst recessions in living memory; bankruptcy and insecurity for millions of people; the decimation of large parts of the industrial base. With the boom-bust economics comes the inability to plan or invest for the future.
It is not even as if the living standards in our country had soared above those in other countries. The opposite is the case. According to the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures for average income compared with that in other countries, Britain is just above Finland --lower than Germany, France and Italy, to be sure, but lower now than Belgium, Iceland and many others.
Of course, now the economy has reached a different point in the economic cycle. There is recovery and growth, and inflation is low. We welcome that. However, the question is not whether we are at a different point in the economic cycle. The question is whether this burst of growth will be different from the others that have preceded it. This time, the Government say, the long term
Column 20will come first, which is precisely what they --noticeably the Prime Minister himself--said at the beginning of the 1980s and at the end of the 1980s.
What is the Government's over-arching priority now? What is the clamour throughout the Tory party for next year's Budget? It is for tax cuts, and the bigger the better. Whether they will be given or not will depend not on the state of the economy but on the state of the Tory party.
Mr. Blair: The lesson of the past 15 years is that, unless we put the long term first, unless we have an economic policy that is stable and geared to the needs of the real economy, unless we strengthen our industrial base and make the investment in industry and people that we need, the reality is lower prosperity for all of us. Look even now: when we are barely out of recession, interest rates are raised. The chairman of the Conservative party promises that it will be the last such rise in interest rates. There are capacity constraints on output already. There are skill shortages--with 3 million unemployed--in parts of our economy.
Most galling of all, the Conservative Government uniquely had the one-off, God-given bonus of North sea oil, and squandered it. They had hundreds of billions of pounds' worth of North sea oil. On top of that, they had the privatisation proceeds. They were used not for investment but merely on current spending. What other country with all those resources would have had such a record of failure as the Conservative party has presided over?
If reports are true, there are new oil finds in the west of Shetland field. For heaven's sake, let us not squander that natural advantage as earlier natural advantages were squandered. Let for once the short-term interests of the Conservative party take second place to the long-term interests of the country.
The same prejudice has led the Government to ignore the danger signs of the tearing of the social fabric of our country. We are as a nation more divided and less equal than at any time this century. Millions of people live on benefit, in poverty and without hope for the future. Of course there is a social and moral case for tackling that inequality, but there is an economic case, too. In parts of our inner cities, a generation of young people grows up in a culture of low employment prospects, poor education opportunities, family instability, drug abuse and crime. With no stake in society, it is hardly surprising when they show little responsibility towards it.