Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) rose--

Mr. Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman knows me. I do not want to detain the House, and I do not want to overstretch him, so he should take his seat.

Turning from education to health--

Mr. Skinner rose--

Mr. Kennedy: I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Skinner: The right hon. Gentleman failed to answer the question. It is simple. He talks about fees up front, but the Liberal party policy is for students to pay £2,000 at the back. He had better make his mind up. Which is more--£2,000 for every pupil at the back or £1,400 at the front for some?

Mr. Kennedy: A good and honourable left winger such as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)--

Mr. Skinner: I voted against tuition fees.

Mr. Kennedy: Well, there you are. You can rat, but you can't re-rat, as the man once said. The point is that the

20 Jun 2001 : Column 59

hon. Gentleman should surely endorse what the Liberal Democrats have helped to implement in Scotland. Poorer students are now enjoying an endowment access that was never available under the principles that have been implemented. Such access is a socially egalitarian measure, which should commend itself wholeheartedly to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Another way of looking at it is that, under the Government's scheme for student financing, half of all students pay no fees at all. Those students would pay the £2,000 end-weighted fee under the system that the right hon. Gentleman's party supports in Scotland.

Mr. Kennedy: I respect the hon. Gentleman very much, as he knows, but the Labour party doth protest too much on this issue. Labour Members need only listen to what the students are saying and look at the figures. Why is it that applications from Scottish students for Scottish universities are increasing and from English and Welsh students to English and Welsh universities are falling? That cannot be divorced from the debt that is being imposed on students.

The Prime Minister also said that he wanted a mandate for investment in the health service. He spent the past four years blaming his predecessors in office for the problems in the health service. It is fair to say--we joined in the criticism in opposition in those days--that many faults were attributable to the previous Administration. However, sticking for three of the past four years to the Tory spending plans, which even the occasional Member for Vietnam, as he is this week, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), has acknowledged that he would never have stuck to had he been in office, resulted in a failure to invest in the staff, beds and equipment that the health service needed.

So what do the Government propose in their reform Bill? The Bill will do nothing to improve public health, health promotion and preventive care. It will do nothing either to improve staff morale, which, as anyone knows, is very low in our health service, or the disastrously poor performance of the health service in some areas of the country.

When the Queen's Speech states that the Government propose to give patients greater influence, do the Government actually mean that they intend to abolish the community health councils? They do not speak in that language explicitly in the Queen's Speech. When they claim to decentralise power, in many respects, they will do exactly the opposite.

The speech seems to suggest that Wales will be able to do differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. It is ironic, is it not, that while the Government are centralising health services in the rest of the UK, they are allowing decentralisation in Wales. Wales will be able to retain community health councils, but that will not happen in England. That, surely, is rather an inconsistent approach.

20 Jun 2001 : Column 60

There is no mention of mental health reform--surely a huge issue for Parliament to tackle. But most revealing of all, there is no commitment to free long-term care for the elderly. That issue will come back to haunt the Government.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I applaud his tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

Given the welcome advances in medical science and the fact that whenever a new cure is devised a new queue is necessarily created, what lessons does the right hon. Gentleman think that we can learn from our continental partners about the use of private resources to complement the contribution of the state sector in the provision of health care in Britain?

Mr. Kennedy: Principally, and in direct response to the hon. Gentleman, we need to learn two lessons. The first is that, in our liberal democratic society, if people have the income--the purchasing power--to choose to go private, whether for education, health or anything else, they should not be restricted by the dead hand of the state in doing so. But what the state must make it its business to get right is to ensure that the majority, who are not in that fortunate income category, have the right to aspire to and, indeed, to demand from the state decency and quality of public services at the point of need. What the state must not do is to provide--as the hon. Gentleman's Government did in days gone by--a tax incentive for the former at the expense of the latter. That is one principle that we need to learn from our continental competitors.

The other principle that the hon. Gentleman's party needs to learn from the experience of the past few weeks is that there is an inescapable contradiction between supposing that there can be a European level of quality of service alongside a North American tax policy. That does not work. The public gave a resounding reply to that argument when it was put by two of three parties during the election.

Mr. Redwood: Given that only 12 per cent. of the electorate voted for the right hon. Gentleman's amazing statement that a penny on income tax would transform all our public services, has he not learned that they did not believe him then and they will not believe him in the future, or does he say that the other 80 per cent. of the electorate were wrong?

Bob Russell: That is a leadership bid!

Mr. Kennedy: I hope that it is not for our party--that really would frighten the children in the liberal democracy ranks. I shall not rehearse in detail the arguments of the election. The penny on income tax and the money it raises are specifically for education. The one thing that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) shares with the Prime Minister is that that has been persistently misrepresented by them both over a number of years--and well they both know it.

On civil liberties, there are obviously several issues--not least in respect of the draft criminal courts reform Bill--that will have to be examined with considerable care, both in this place and especially in the House of

20 Jun 2001 : Column 61

Lords, where the rights of the individual citizen and the operation of the judicial process are concerned. The review of the criminal courts under Lord Justice Auld is obviously welcome. However, in our view it would be unacceptable to rush through legislation before his report has been published and properly considered. That report has not yet been published. However, we will strongly and resolutely oppose--as we did in the previous Parliament--any re-introduced moves by the Government that would further restrict the right of the individual citizen to trial by jury in this country. For us, that is a fundamental principle, which we will defend completely. I believe that we have made common cause with the Conservatives in the other place and I suspect that we shall continue to do so on that matter.

We must be extremely cautious of giving juries greater access to information on defendants' previous convictions, because that could increase the likelihood of miscarriages of justice. It is better to legislate with some consideration than to do so in haste and live to regret it in terms of citizens' rights.

May I raise a specific point about the politics of the euro, the single European currency, which does not feature in today's Queen's Speech? A couple of years ago, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, myself, the former Deputy Prime Minister--now Lord Heseltine--and the former Chancellor all sat together in the Prime Minister's study the day before we launched the Britain in Europe campaign, and a very good, positive discussion we had, too. But, as is so often the way in party politics and cross-party politics, nothing has happened since the launch. We have had a mixture of mood music from the Cabinet, not least the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. We have had good cop one day, bad cop another.

On that issue, which will be a paramount issue in the politics of this Parliament, we must not repeat that mistake. The Prime Minister will have to follow on from the rather courageous speech that he made during the election campaign, setting out a constructive and rational case for Europe in general and the single currency in principle. That case will have to be made on an all-party basis to turn round public opinion in this country. Although the issue does not feature in today's Queen's Speech, it is an issue of principle and priority for this Parliament and, I hope, for this Government.

Finally, on the environment, the Government have committed themselves in the Queen's Speech to tackle climate change and fulfil this country's international obligations arising from the Kyoto protocol. That is very welcome. However, we must do everything that we can as a country to ensure that America shows a similar degree of respect and commitment. President Bush was wrong to abandon the Kyoto protocol; he should think again. This is one issue where our country must be prepared to be a candid friend where the United States is concerned. The US policy is short-sighted, and self- defeating for humanity. We must give the matter priority.

There are other items that I might discuss but, given the number of Members who want to speak, I do not want to overstay my welcome in the House. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I knew that that particular remark would get a very positive response.

Where constitutional issues are concerned, I particularly welcome the commitment that the Government have entered into to make or enable legislation that will facilitate

20 Jun 2001 : Column 62

the promotion of women in all political parties. We very much subscribe to that aim, but please let us not see such progress in isolation from the reform of voting systems, because experience in this country and elsewhere shows that the fairer and more representative the voting system, the greater the likelihood that more women will be elected. The Scottish Parliament provides a classic illustration of that, so I hope that we shall initiate such reform.

Secondly on matters constitutional, Northern Ireland has been mentioned, and I pledge the Liberal Democrats again to a constructive and non-partisan approach. It is not an issue for point scoring or for playing fast and loose. Let us hope that further progress can be made.

My final comments are very much directed not only to the Prime Minister, but to the new Leader of the House. We need to reform Parliament. We need to consider the reconnection of politics. We need a Committee of both Houses that can take evidence from the public and find out not just what we think about one another, but what they think about all of us and the way in which we go about our business. We might well be rather taken aback by some of the comments that we would hear, but if we listened we might learn a lot.

We might do something else that would benefit the House: continue the cause of regionalism. We have devolved power to Wales and Scotland, and we hope that the Northern Ireland peace process will succeed, but let us deal with the democratic deficit as it exists in England. We need more regional devolution in England, and we are very much committed to that.

During the new Parliament, we shall examine new Departments, such as the rural affairs department, which does not have a single Bill in the Queen's Speech. That is extraordinary, given the problems that have afflicted rural communities lately. There has been no commitment to hold a properly independent public inquiry into foot and mouth disease, which must surely be a priority. There is no legislation to tackle homelessness in what is now the world's fourth largest economy. There is no legislation to repeal the offensive and unacceptable section 28.

The Labour Government have been re-elected for a second term with a remarkably huge majority--undeniably, a great achievement for the Prime Minister and his colleagues--but there is still a poverty of ambition at the centre of the Government that, for many of us in the reformist tradition of politics, remains equally and deeply disappointing.

Next Section

IndexHome Page