Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Pond: Will the hon. Gentleman join me, and other Labour Members from Kent, in making direct representations to Railtrack and Connex about the need to improve the service quickly?

Mr. Horam: I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support, as something needs to be put in place rapidly. It

8 Dec 2000 : Column 309

seems as if we are at the back of the queue when it comes to returning to normality. The situation is unacceptable, especially as it involves something that is important to the whole country and causes enormous disruption to the lives of large numbers of ordinary people. Every day, about 200,000 people come from Kent to central London, and they have to suffer misery. I am not making a political point, but a simple humanitarian one, as the situation needs to be sorted out. Despite the fatuous comments of Lord Macdonald, which I shall ignore, the situation must be treated with greater urgency. After all, we have a new Strategic Rail Authority, and it is chaired by Alastair Morton, who is experienced and effective.

I understand from the newspapers that Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions meet Railtrack every day to discuss such matters. They used to meet once a week, but those meetings now happen once a day, so worrying is the situation. I am therefore earnest in begging the Government to look into the matter urgently, so that daily life in south-east England can get back to normal. I am afraid that the Queen's Speech will make no difference whatever to that daily problem. I am concerned that all the things in the speech--some good, some bad--are simply irrelevant to the ordinary day-to-day life of most of our citizens, and that is greatly to be deplored.

1.44 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am delighted to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, thus transforming my role from Opposition Whip to Back Bencher. On behalf of my constituents, I should like to make a few brief points about the serious problems in rural areas. They have arisen largely as a result of some of the measures introduced by the Government, who are dominated by urban concerns and are--not maliciously, but unwittingly--putting rural areas at a disadvantage.

Before making those specific points, I shall comment on the Gracious Speech more generally. As the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Education and Employment have both been present to hear the debate, I hope that they will use the deregulation Bill to clamp down on excessive bureaucracy. Much mention has been made of the bureaucracy that affects teachers and head teachers, but I remind the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that it also affects the recruitment of governors in schools in my constituency. The amount of paper that governors now face is unbelievable; after all, they give their services voluntarily. I hope that the Government will pay attention to that, but I suspect that they are not completely deregulation minded. The Queen's Speech states:

That says to me that if they have time, they will regulate further.

I should like briefly to point out one or two ways in which things are beginning to go badly wrong in my constituency, which is very rural. In our health service, 90 beds are blocked--a quarter of all our non-acute beds. That is a scandalous waste of public money, especially as, while those 90 beds are blocked, 50 new beds are being provided. If the Government sorted out funding for social services and ensured that people who had finished their medical treatment were offered a proper home-help package, more patients could be discharged to their own homes or into residential care. However, that is the next problem: residential care homes in my constituency are

8 Dec 2000 : Column 310

closing at an alarming rate because of the Care Standards Act 2000, which imposes higher standards but does not provide the proper funding that is necessary to achieve them.

We have problems in the health service, but we also have problems in education. Gloucestershire shares a 35-mile boundary with Oxfordshire, but it does not benefit from its area cost adjustment. In many respects, Gloucestershire has higher costs than Oxfordshire. For example, our housing costs are higher. It is a scandal that our children are disadvantaged to the tune of £200 each merely because they happen to live in Gloucestershire, not Oxfordshire. That is a common problem throughout Gloucestershire, as our standard spending assessments and health spending assessments are lower than they should be. For example, in respect of health, the Secretary of State for Health recently announced that the south-east weighting is to be extended to Bristol and Swindon. However, Gloucestershire, which has higher housing costs that cause difficulties in the recruitment of nurses and doctors, will not receive that south-east weighting. We are significantly disadvantaged in those respects.

In rural areas, agriculture is in utter crisis. Bankruptcy has risen by 18 per cent. since the election, but what does the Queen's Speech contain to help our farmers? Absolutely nothing. What is in the rural White Paper to help our farmers? Eleven out of 235 pages, and they are a load of waffle. Our farming industry is in crisis. It needs help now, but the Government are not providing it.

Let me deal briefly with law and order. Crime is a problem in Gloucestershire, where it is rising. It increased by more than 4 per cent. last year, in contrast to the national average of 2.2 per cent. That means that 1,900 more offences were committed than in the previous year, and that there were 1,900 more people whose person or property had been violated in some way. We cannot continue with that increase in crime, but at the same time, the Government are cutting the number of police officers. There are 35 fewer officers now than in the previous year--a 3.3 per cent. cut. That trend of rising crime and cutting police numbers is beginning to worry my constituents considerably.

My police authority is about to make a decision on Monday to cut yet another two rural police stations. It recently closed one police station at Chipping Campden, and it is now preparing to close those at Northleach and Bibury. That comes on top of closing the magistrates court at Stow-on-the-Wold.

My constituents who live in rural areas are council tax payers, along with everyone else, and they are entitled to a proper police service. It is not good enough if the Gloucestershire constabulary merely retreats into the big cities of Cheltenham and Gloucester. My constituents in the rural areas are entitled to a proper police service. If they do not receive it, they will feel alienated from their police force.

I shall send a copy of my speech to the chairman of the police authority, ready for his decision on Monday, and I urge him in the strongest possible way to reverse the decision.

1.50 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): This afternoon, we are discussing the thinnest and most gimmicky Queen's Speech that I have ever debated. It does almost nothing about the serious problems that this country faces. Conservative Members, and my hon. Friend the Member

8 Dec 2000 : Column 311

for Orpington (Mr. Horam) in particular, have today discussed those problems. My hon. Friend identified several deep-rooted and serious problems, especially those involving policing, which go almost unaddressed in the Queen's Speech.

Instead, the Queen's Speech contains several measures, which are plainly advanced under an electioneering guise, that deal with the periphery of many problems. For example, the Department of Trade and Industry has no Bills for this Session, not even those that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who will reply to this debate, promised to outside interests. That may be further evidence that his Department is being sidelined in Whitehall.

Judy Mallaber: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not. I am replying to this debate, which included points that she made. I may give way later, if there is time.

The Department of Trade and Industry has undoubtedly got bigger during the past few years. According to its departmental report, it has taken on an extra 1,000 civil servants, if one includes the regulatory agencies, and it is spending about 25 per cent. more than in 1997. Despite that, it has become weaker as a Department and is losing out in Whitehall all the time to the Treasury. The DTI presided over an increase of £5 billion a year in business taxation, which was imposed by the Treasury, but DTI Ministers lecture businesses and commerce on competitiveness and on the need to be more productive.

Last week, the CBI's patience finally broke. It pointed out that, despite all the warm words and the pro-business rhetoric of the Secretary of State and the Government, the total burden on business--all the taxes and regulations--during this Parliament totals more than £32 billion. It is not surprising that it complained that the Government urge competitiveness on the one hand but undermine it on the other. They are damaging competitiveness in the world markets, where daily we fight a pitiless battle for jobs and revenue.

Of course, the problem is not over yet. The new energy tax--the so-called climate change levy--has not yet been introduced. It is due on 1 April next year and all firms, of whatever size, will pay it. It is an unnecessary tax--there are plenty of other ways to reduce CO 2 emissions--and it is extremely complicated and very regulatory. It will also particularly damage manufacturing competitiveness, which was discussed by Labour Members. I notice that the Trades Union Congress recently pointed out that there had been a decline in manufacturing jobs. The rate of unemployment in manufacturing has accelerated, with 20,000 job losses in manufacturing in September alone. That is not surprising given that we have a Government who tax and regulate the very sectors, such as manufacturing, that are exposed to so much international competition.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), with great force and much knowledge, raised the issue of the regulatory burden. He emphasised the damage that could be caused if nothing is done to ease that burden. Over the past three and a half years, layer upon layer of extra regulations have been imposed. Many international comparisons and many

8 Dec 2000 : Column 312

estimates of the total cost have been made. The Institute of Directors estimates the extra regulatory burden on British industry at £5 billion a year. The Institute of Chartered Accountants--my own institute--has recently shown that the burden on small and very small businesses has doubled in the past year. Legislation introduced at the start of this Parliament is now having an effect.

That breaks a Labour party manifesto pledge, but we are used to that. In its business manifesto, Labour pledged

It broke that pledge within weeks of the general election, so it is now faced with a colossal and rising burden. A deregulation Bill is signalled in the Queen's Speech, but that is fake repentance. It is far too late, in the months before a general election, to do any serious work to turn back the tide of over-regulation.

It is noticeable that the Department of Trade and Industry is not to be trusted with that Bill: the Cabinet Office will deal with it. The DTI imposes the red tape and another Department comes along with a new Bill in the closing months of the Parliament to try to clear up the mess.

It is also striking that the Government are not using existing legislation. My right hon. and hon. Friends will remember the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, which was designed to enable Governments to make deregulating orders. The number of those orders has dwindled in past years--there were 12 in 1997, but only four last year. Rather than using the weapons at their disposal, the Government are dreaming up another Bill.

The Government were criticised by the better regulation taskforce. Their own taskforce said that the flow of orders under the 1994 Act had

That has not happened, so the Government are defying the criticism expressed by their own task force.

A new Bill has been promised, and the Government said that it would deal with school crossing patrols, which I am sure are very important, and fire safety regulations. Where have the fire safety regulations come from? The British Chambers of Commerce, which has calculated the extra burden of regulations as £10 billion over this Parliament, has cited fire precaution regulations. When were they introduced? December 1999. Thus the Government are proposing regulations to clear up the regulations that they introduced only a year or two ago.

There are other examples, such as employment tribunals. The Government have suddenly twigged that the number of frivolous and vexatious cases taken to employment tribunals has escalated enormously, and they are proposing fundamental changes to deal with that. But who introduced those rules? Who changed the law and brought in the Employment Relations Act 1999? The Government did. Yet again, they are belatedly starting to clear up their own mess.

The Queen's Speech is highly regulatory. The Government have still not lost the habit of trying to ban things--that is their first instinct. Trial by jury and tobacco advertising will be banned. Hunting will be banned if most Labour Members get their way. That Bill is in the Queen's Speech. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) pointed out, such a ban will do nothing to solve rural problems. People in rural Britain are amazed that, in the last Queen's Speech before

8 Dec 2000 : Column 313

an election, all the Government can produce is something about hunting. They have just published a rural White Paper, but they have done nothing about it in the Queen's Speech, apart from producing an entirely irrelevant proposal about hunting. That shows how hollow their promises have become.

There are deep-seated issues in rural Britain, which have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold and others: for instance, escalating fuel prices and post office closures. In an important speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) analysed exactly what is happening--or not happening--to post offices. The truth is that the Government are in an enormous muddle. The only certainty is that sub-post offices are now shutting at a rate of nearly two a day--mostly in rural areas, but they have now started to shut in urban areas. Why? Because--this is the only definite figure in the whole business--from 2003 they will lose their income from the encashment of benefit and pension cheques. That will remove, at a stroke, 40 per cent.--in some cases, more--of the income of those threatened post offices.

In anticipation of that development, post offices are shutting. They are unsaleable. What business can survive, given that in three years' time there will be a definite reduction of such magnitude in their income? We know why this is being done: it represents another Treasury-driven saving, in this case of potentially £400 million. I say "potentially" because I have seen no costings to verify the figure. Again, the Treasury has set the policy.

Next Section

IndexHome Page