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6.47 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury): The hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) is right to draw the attention of the House to the lack of competitiveness in Britain compared with other EC countries, and to concerns about productivity, but that will not be improved simply by introducing further legislation to strengthen the Office of Fair Trading. If he talks to manufacturers in the west midlands he will discover that their concerns are not about some cartels working against their interests, but about over-regulation, an economy with far too much red tape and a Government who, whenever they see an issue, have been far too inclined to introduce further regulations, legislation and red tape.

Whatever fine words the hon. and learned Gentleman, as a former Solicitor-General, may use about the criminal justice system, I find it extraordinary that it should be a Labour Government and the Labour party who look as though they will abandon wholesale the right of English citizens to a trial by jury. I hope that at some stage, lawyers who are inclined to support the Labour party will explain to Ministers what damage that will do--for ever--to the Labour party's supposed reputation for supporting civil liberties and human rights.

Today there is a lot of pageantry, pomp, ceremony and backslapping, but all of us would do well to have a fair sense of humility, including the hon. Member for

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Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). We all need a fair degree of humility, because none of us came out of the general election especially well. I say to Ministers that Labour has the lowest share of the eligible electorate of any Government for more than a century. The Labour party received fewer votes than any winning party since universal suffrage was introduced in 1928. Indeed, even when Neil Kinnock lost in 1992, he secured more votes than the Labour party has now gained in winning, so any talk of a landslide or of a great mandate is very wide of the mark. As has also been pointed out, the Liberal Democrats received fewer votes than at any election since 1983. As for the Conservative Benches, I think the facts speak for themselves. None of us comes out of the election especially well.

It is of particular concern to me that in my constituency, 40 per cent. of the electorate did not consider it worth voting at all. Like every other colleague in the House, I knocked on a good few doors during the election campaign. By and large, I was always greeted well and courteously. Most people recognised me and were pleased to see me on their doorstep, and there was no antagonism or hostility. There were rare occasions when I wanted to leave "Sorry you were in" cards, rather than "Sorry you were out" cards, but I was most concerned by the lack of interest in the whole process.

I do not think that it behoves us to blame our constituents for that lack of interest. We must consider what it is about this place that causes large numbers of people, especially the young, to be turned off completely by the process. I cannot believe that I am alone in having that feeling. I suspect that many hon. Members from all parties find that active party workers tend to be older, and that the help of younger people is increasingly difficult to gain. When I visit schools in my constituency, I find that younger people consider Members of Parliament, the parliamentary process and Parliament as an institution to be increasingly remote.

Part of the problem is that people are turned off not only by spin, but by the knockabout, yah-boo politics that often represents this place. For example, Prime Minister's Question Time is jolly good theatre, and might help Sky Television's ratings in the United States, but it does not help to inform public policy or to tell the electorate what we are doing. All of us need to pay some attention to working out not only how best we can disagree, but how we can acknowledge that we agree with one another on some occasions.

I do not suppose that any of us pretend we have all the answers on many public policy issues nowadays. Indeed, I suspect that we may agree on more such issues than we disagree on. The right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, made an interesting speech about the politics of Northern Ireland, and I suspect that, by and large, very few hon. Members disagreed with his remarks. [Interruption.] I said that very few hon. Members would have disagreed; obviously, there are exceptions. My point is that we must give some thought to how we conduct ourselves in Parliament, especially as Back Benchers.

I very much agreed with the comments of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who, like me, entered the House in 1983. I think that hon. Members increasingly appear to be nearing their last

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chance to assert any sort of realistic control over the Executive. When Select Committees were introduced, there were reasonably high hopes that they would provide an effective control. By and large, they have been useful. In the previous Parliament, I served on the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, and I found the experience fascinating and interesting. However, I believe that in terms of controlling the Executive, the Select Committee is of pretty limited value, especially if its members, whether from the Government party or Opposition parties, are present only because of the patronage of their party Whips.

I agree that Labour Back Benchers will have most control, simply because they form the greatest number of people who can influence the Executive. I encourage people not to dissent or rebel, but to promote constructive engagement with policy and to seek to ensure that this House and all hon. Members can have some effective influence on policy and on government. Otherwise, come the next general election, fewer people will vote and we will find even less interest on the doorstep and even greater disenchantment.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Same result.

Tony Baldry: It is not the result that matters. I know that the hon. Gentleman has Parliament's interests at heart, so he will recognise that it is not a question of who is sitting on the Government and the Opposition Front Benches. It cannot be in the interests of any hon. Member for Parliament to be seen as an increasingly marginal institution, and for its state opening to be perceived to be akin to trooping the colour and as relevant as that event. I hope that during the current Parliament, we can try to work out how to re-engage with the nation as a whole. It is not the fault of the public that they are not voting; it is our fault that we are not giving them reasons to feel that they should support Parliament as an institution. Members of Parliament--especially Back Benchers--must work out how to exercise more effective control over the Executive.

Andrew Mackinlay: Does the hon. Gentleman share my frustration and look to current Front Benchers in the context of the Pauline conversion that he seems to have undergone? I do not doubt for one moment the sincerity of his remarks, with which I agree, but he makes them having taken the Major shilling. There are also people who have taken the Blair shilling. That is the problem. Why do not some Front Benchers stand up now and say what they mean and mean what they say, rather than waiting until they are removed to the Back Benches?

Tony Baldry: Of course it is right and proper for Ministers to abide by collective responsibility, irrespective of the Government to whom they belong. That must be the case, because no Government could work without collective responsibility. When I was privileged enough to be a Minister and to stand at the Dispatch Box, the people who often caused me the greatest difficulty and who made the greatest mark on Government policy were not necessarily Opposition Members, but the awkward squad, such as the late lamented Nick Budgen and others of that ilk. They were good parliamentarians because they sought to hold us to account. I had one eye over my shoulder to see what was happening on the Benches

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behind me more often than I was concerned with the then Opposition. There has been no conversion; we all have a part to play in this place, but as Back Benchers, in this Parliament especially, we must seek to assert our rights over the Executive more if this place is not to be genuinely marginalised.

Irrespective of the Queen's Speech, two themes will dominate the current Parliament. One of them is obvious and the other is not so obvious. The obvious theme is the delivery of public services. I must say again that I do not think that that is a question merely of legislation. One cannot legislate to provide a better health service. In my constituency, there are significant concerns about the ability to deliver in the Horton hospital and the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. Waiting lists are growing longer, as we were shown in April by the most recently published figures. There is also a considerable shortage of nurses. The Horton has nurse vacancies of 10 per cent., and some 10 per cent. of our nurses have travelled around the world from Australia. They are jolly welcome, but they are here today and gone tomorrow. All the legislation in the world will not help unless we can recruit and retain nurses by paying them decently--and likewise general practitioners, doctors and teachers.

We have to discover ways to improve the quality of public services without for ever hiking up taxes. That will require careful and cogent thought. The private finance initiative has been helpful in providing capital structures such as new hospitals, but those have no value, in Dudley or anywhere else, if they lack nurses and doctors. I am sure that when canvassing in the general election campaign, every hon. Member knocked on the doors of constituents who explained how long they had waited for a hip replacement or other operation. On the eve of poll, I met a lady who had to wait until next February simply to see a consultant to work out when she might have an operation to replace her hip. In the 21st century, that is appalling.

I do not believe that the Government can finesse matters simply by introducing several Bills. They will not be able to finesse to the satisfaction of people who live on housing estates and are worried about crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour. It is no good introducing more and more legislation. Those residents want police officers on the estates who can arrest people and bring them before the magistrates. That is simple and straightforward. The provision of public services will be at the forefront of everyone's concerns throughout the Parliament.

A less obvious concern, which will nevertheless preoccupy us during the Parliament, is our relationship with Europe. The Queen's Speech contained a short passage about that. In the context of Pauline conversions, I am glad that almost all those who have thrown their hats in the ring for the leadership of the Conservative party acknowledge that the European Union is not such an article of faith that one should be burnt at the stake for taking different views about it. Hallelujah! The Conservative party can revert to being the broad church that it was under Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Ted Heath--and, I am bound to say, even Baroness Thatcher. When I started out in politics, I worked in her private office on the Britain in Europe campaign. Indeed, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and I worked together, because I was the link between Baroness Thatcher and the campaign. I have speeches in her

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handwriting that urge people to vote yes to Europe. I hope that we can all get away from the preoccupation with the euro.

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