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4.21 pm

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): First, let me associate my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself entirely with the proper and dignified tributes that have been paid to hon. Members who passed on during the previous Session. They will all be sadly missed, especially--in my case and many others--the late and very great Donald Dewar.

Let me also associate all of us with the tributes paid to the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address. The lengthy and distinguished tenure of the proposer, the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Sir J. Morris), began in 1959, the year in which I was born. Even if we are the only two Members to agree on this across the Chamber--the majority might not--we can definitely agree that, in the words of the song, it was "a very good year".

I equally pay tribute to the eloquent, amusing and touching speech made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg). According to her biography, she is fond of saying that in life she always sees the glass as half full--a notion to which I thoroughly subscribe. Only this week, the Prime Minister, talking at No. 10 Downing street about the national health service, said that the glass was "very much half full". The hon. Lady is clearly having a rhetorical influence on the man at No. 10.

I enjoyed the extracts quoted by the leader of the Conservative party. I did not know that my predecessor had employed him to advertise his memoirs to quite that extent. Always available, always available--and he has got further through the book than I have. [Laughter.] That was off the record.

I was encouraged by the fact that the right hon. Gentleman's first line of attack was directed at the Liberal Democrats. That tells us a lot of what we need to know about the context of the general election, just as the

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Queen's Speech tells us that it is not very far away. It tells us that the Conservatives will have to take us on in many seats--and I promise that we will give them a good fight back, but by God we will take them on in a lot more seats.

The thing about the right hon. Gentleman is that--whether he is talking about asylum seekers, the fact that there are too many Asian doctors in the NHS who do not speak English well enough or some other issue--he picks his populist cause. Yet the opinion polls show that he remains the world's first unpopular populist--and long may that continue.

It was interesting that the only intervention in the Prime Minister's contribution came from my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). There was no constructive, or destructive, criticism to be heard from the supposed aspirant party of government. That told us a lot.

On the Prime Minister's slip of the tongue, Members in at least two parties in the House--and, I suspect, in large sections of another party--would hate to think that inside the Prime Minister there is a Widdecombe struggling to get out. Will he take it from us that one is more than enough?

It is not a Queen's Speech; it is half a Queen's Speech. Today's events do little more than clear the decks for the general election that we see swimming into view. The Government make no pretence that it is a legislative programme for a full year.

The country will judge the Queen's Speech by what hope it offers schools, hospitals, transport, pensioners and on crime. On that measure, it is a failure. Secondary schools have the highest class sizes since 1979. Hospitals are overcrowded and understaffed. There is chaos on the railways and gridlock on the roads. Pensioners are falling behind as prosperity grows. Crime is rising and police numbers are falling. The Labour Government began the Parliament pursuing Tory spending. As we get to the end of the Parliament, they are beginning to introduce Tory policies.

Nowhere is that more clear than in the centrepiece of the Queen's Speech: the proposed measures on law and order. The proposed Bill on police and criminal justice contains a series of knee-jerk measures, which will not enhance the prevention and detection of crime but will introduce blanket policies that will have serious civil liberty implications. Therefore, we will give them great critical scrutiny.

The Government have adopted a "two strikes and you are out" approach on social security fraud. The policy for benefit fraudsters is unacceptable. The Government said that they would eradicate child poverty by 2020, so how can they introduce that proposal, under which it is the children who will suffer? It is fraudsters, not their families, who should pay the price for their crimes before the courts.

On the mode of trial Bill, will the Government never learn? They have, thank goodness, been thwarted on that measure more than once. We have opposed it vigorously in the House and, pivotally, in the other place. When the Bill comes back, by God, on civil libertarian and traditional natural justice grounds, the Liberal Democrats will be at the forefront of the opposition again. It should not happen.

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On the health service, there is no mention of community health councils, about which there continues to be great concern throughout the country, but there is mention of the royal commission on long-term care for the elderly and the legislation that will flow from the NHS plan of earlier this year. Among other things, it will introduce free NHS nursing care in all nursing homes.

Let us be clear. That is a welcome development. However, as the Prime Minister and the House know, the royal commission argued that there must not be an artificial distinction between nursing care and personal care. The commission highlighted the inequity in the Government's proposals, in which the Government have refused to fund free personal care.

What is the consequence of that inequity in daily domestic and human terms? Someone who is suffering from cancer and receiving treatment in hospital will be eligible for such care, whereas someone who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease and being cared for at home will not be eligible, subject to the application of the means test. That cannot possibly be equitable, fair or socially just, and it is a major deficiency in the Government's proposals.

On education, the Government promised that "education, education, education" was their number one priority. Just a few weeks ago, however, the Prime Minister was candid enough to admit that, since the Government took office, the ratio between pupils and teachers in secondary schools had worsened; that secondary class sizes are now the largest since 1979; and that teachers are bogged down with daily and weekly increasing, morale-sapping bureaucracy. Although the Government came to power promising "education, education, education", the cumulative effect of their policies is that they are giving us bureaucracy, centralisation and ever-more control. It is not the right way forward. However, the special educational needs and disability Bill is very welcome. Let us hope that it will be enacted in the coming Session.

Not only is transport one of the prime talking points in the United Kingdom, it is a source of personal and professional frustration for many thousands of people. To date, the Government's record on transport has been woeful. The railways are in chaos and there is gridlock on the roads. What are the Government doing about it? Despite clear public opposition and a considerable parliamentary revolt among Labour Members, Ministers are pressing ahead with the part-privatisation of air traffic services. The United Kingdom genuinely needs an integrated transport system, but the Government have completely failed to deliver one.

Much of the responsibility for that failure must surely rest with the Deputy Prime Minister. As I have said, one would think that joined-up government was about a Department encompassing the environment, transport and the regions. In fact, in all those policy spheres, we have increasingly disjointed government. The politician presiding over that must carry the can, and the Department must be reformed. It is amazing that, in a Queen's Speech, the word "environment" does not appear even once.

There is nothing about rural affairs and agriculture in the Government's programme. Hon. Members will recall that, a few years ago, we had a Tory White Paper that promised little. Now, we have a Labour White Paper that--in relation to the Queen's Speech--will deliver

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nothing. Yet, the clear evidence from across the country and throughout this Parliament has been that the rural economy generally and agriculture particularly are in genuine crisis.

One would have thought that after seeing all the mounting difficulties in farming, in rural transport--or the absence of it--and in other rural facilities, such as the steady disintegration of the sub-post office network, any Government listening to what is being said in the countryside and rural Britain would take the opportunity of a Queen's Speech to signal to those parts of the country that the Government will do something. We have had only silence. Nevertheless, silence speaks volumes.

We also have a regulatory reform Bill, although we have not yet seen its detail. One thing that we will not be seeing, although it was promised to the country, is a consumer protection Bill. The part of the Queen's Speech dealing with Department of Trade and Industry matters said nothing about a consumer protection Bill, and that is a major breach of faith by the Government.

On housing--

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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