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6.42 pm

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley): I promise to be brief and to the point and not to spend as much time as Opposition Members bemoaning the Maastricht treaty that was signed by the previous Conservative Government, not the Labour Government.

In this place, there are many ups and downs. I have just experienced the quickest up and down of my political career, when the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) talked about creeping socialism under the Labour Government. My heart rose and I was getting very excited until I remembered that the hon. Gentleman was a member of a Conservative Government who, in a decade, drove the whole of our economy and our manufacturing base into the buffers of bankruptcy. If he still cannot understand that Tory policies do not work, he cannot understand our policies either, so I went down when I heard him, rather than someone who understood the subject, talking about socialism.

I welcome the contents of the Loyal Address. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), I am probably making my last speech on

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a Loyal Address as I shall be retiring at the next general election--with no regret, although there have been good times and bad times. However, since the previous general election, conditions in my constituency have improved considerably, as they have done throughout the United Kingdom.

The economy is much stronger. There are more jobs--many of which replaced those lost because of the disastrous policies pursued by the Conservative Government over a decade. There are many jobs and training opportunities, to which Conservative Members have referred. How on earth can they bemoan the lack of skills and training after what they did? It is unbelievable. I would not have been able to sleep at night--but I am not a Tory, so I suppose that is all right.

Tremendous progress has been made, although I have criticisms of my Government, as is well known. People can already see the fruits of what has happened since 1997. In Sheffield, we have nearly completed a new women's hospital, which will serve the whole region. We have been pressing for that for at least 20 years. It could not be built sooner because public-private finance could not be raised; the project was failing for ages. Thank goodness a brand new women's hospital in Sheffield will be built using public funds. I am extremely proud of that. Even if nothing else had happened in Sheffield, that would be enough, but of course there have been many other measures.

The Loyal Address is not a complete package. We could do more on certain matters. However, there are opportunities for growth and I hope that the economy will grow even stronger. The so-called north-south divide is a little confusing. Obviously, there are pockets of poverty in most areas; parts of London and Kent are as poor as parts of Yorkshire and Scotland. Even though I come from the north, I think it is misleading to keep beating the drum of the north-south divide. We need a planned strategy to overcome that problem; I believe that we shall achieve that in the long term--unlike the hon. Member for West Worcestershire, who does not believe in any interference whatever and hopes that things will work out by pure luck.

We must remember that the Labour party was born of the need to change the economic system and to bring about social change with fairness and equal opportunities for all. Our movement started with the trade union movement. That is how we formed the Labour party and the first Labour Government, who were elected to achieve precisely those aims. I hope that we shall continue on our present path, although we can always do more.

We must not lose touch with the people whom we represent; we must keep listening. Although I do not think that we shall lose touch, the problem remains. The Conservative Government lost touch and they finished up in the wilderness. The Queen's Speech will help to ensure that the Labour Government do not do so. However, there are some difficulties that we shall need to look at in the future.

I welcome the fact that the Queen's Speech includes proposals on long-term care. As I have reached the age of 65, I had better declare an interest in the future funding of long-term care. Our family have experienced the trauma and problems when old people become ill--

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through no fault of their own. Most of us are living longer and that is a strain, especially on families who are bringing up children and caring for elderly people. So I am absolutely chuffed--if I can use that word in Parliament--that we are addressing that matter.

I attended the first parliamentary Labour party meeting after the 1997 general election--a historic meeting. I asked, "When will there be a Bill banning hunting with dogs?" The Bill is in the Loyal Address; the measure has arrived and we are proud of it. I am sure that the vast majority of people in this country will thank us and will welcome it.

On the global economy, as someone who--like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development--has been active in the Jubilee 2000 movement, I have been campaigning for a better deal for people in poor countries. Proposals in the Address offer a step forward. We all talk about having peace, but we shall never achieve world peace while there are massive differences in opportunity, wealth, care and so on. There will never be world peace until we get rid of global poverty and those differences.

Our Government should be congratulated on what they have done and on what they intend to do in future. We should also congratulate Jubilee 2000, Oxfam and all the other organisations which, in collaboration with the Government, have tried to set up a system that would help. No one claims that the system is perfect, but it is a massive step forward compared to what existed in the past.

We have all heard the horror stories about the dreadful actions of private security firms--wheel clamping and things of that nature. Strangely, The Star in Sheffield yesterday carried a story headed, "Clampers demand gold tooth payment". It reads:

Can you believe it? It is a true story and the motorist was not very chuffed. She had her three-year-old daughter with her and the clampers then said, "Okay, we'll hold your daughter while you get the 60 quid from the bank." Thank goodness the Government are now doing something so that we can prevent such shocking behaviour.

There is a lot of spare land, which is privately owned, near the old maternity hospital in Sheffield--the Jessop hospital for women. Unscrupulous clampers would hang around there waiting for people to park on the ground. Usually, it was an emergency--the wife was having a baby almost on the spot. The husband would park in the first space and go to the hospital. He would be clamped and have to pay £50 to get the clamp off. That sort of activity is disgraceful and should be stopped.

I said that no Government should get out of touch and I hope that this Government will not do so. I do not believe that they will, mainly because our feet are more firmly placed on the ground than those of the previous Administration. Only two aspects of the Administrations are similar. When the Opposition were in government they had 40 or 50 rebels who caused all sorts of problems, but they had channel tunnel vision and focused on Europe and right-wing, narrow European issues, which finally destroyed that Government. We have 40 or 50 rebels who rebel on a variety of matters and

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contribute to the rich tapestry of political life. That is what it is all about. Those rebellions are not narrow and right-wing. Those rebels are reminding the Government--

Mr. Purchase: My hon. Friend should address his remarks to the Whip.

Mr. Michie: I am sure that the Whip knows--he has lost some hair since I stood up.

I am merely reminding the Government that we have to keep in touch with our electorate and with reality. Labour, with all the rebels, will win the next election--first, because of our manifesto commitments, many of which have been carried out; secondly, because we are still progressive and are helping people in need; and, thirdly, because when we rebel, it is for good causes and good reasons. That will not only save this Government, it will save the Labour party as well.

6.52 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie). I do not know him terribly well, but I understand that he has shown much independence, at which he hinted. I am sure that he is a good chap; I think that my Whip is assuring me that that is the case. I show some independence from time to time. It was a pleasure to see an old-style socialist from south Yorkshire and I wish the hon. Gentleman well in whatever he ends up doing in retirement. I hope that he will not be in the care home to which he referred in the too-near future.

My speech will be brief because the Queen's Speech is extraordinarily thin--indeed, it is transparent. It is a pre-election Queen's Speech. There are a few eye- catching measures, which the Government hope will be populist, as well as some tidying-up measures, but there is not too much to rock the boat. We know what we have to look forward to in the near future--non-stop electioneering from the Government and, almost certainly, an election in May. They may be sorely disabused of their confidence in how well they will do in that election.

There is a lesson for us all, and for the electorate in particular, in the Government's promises. The £200 winter fuel payment has been mentioned. We all know about it and the pensioners all know about it. However, when the payment is delivered, I wish that the Government would attach a copy of a letter that I received from the Secretary of State for Social Security, dated 9 November, entitled, "Pension Credit". It says:

Clearly, that is an electoral bribe. Sadly, not enough people have cottoned on to it yet.

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