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Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): I am delighted to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). I understand his nervousness, but he should not worry about it because we are all nervous when we make maiden speeches, and some of us
My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) also made his maiden speech, which was excellent. As a history teacher, I have taken pupils to that part of the country, for example, to visit Tolpuddle. I am sure that his contributions to our proceedings will be warmly welcomed in future.
I appreciated the comments of the hon. Member for Chesterfield on national missile defence. A system that cannot be fully operational, even if it is a good idea, should go back to the drawing board. I hope that, when he has the opportunity, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will express that view to President Bush.
I shall speak briefly about international affairs, but I want to concentrate on local issues. I hope that hon. Members will indulge me, given that the debate on the Queen's Speech covers all the subjects in it. I welcome the measures to improve the delivery of public services. The emphasis on health, education and crime underlines the Labour party's commitment to improving quality of life for all.
The Queen's Speech is historic because it heralds the legislation for a full second term of a Labour Government. Like many of my colleagues, I welcome that. I especially welcome the prospect of a measure to tackle crime and the proceeds from it. I hope that the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill will be reintroduced for some offences. I listened with interest to the comments of the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the opening debate, when he talked about the rights of individuals and civil liberties.
I shall not repeat my comments made in previous debates on mode of trial about the myth of trial by jury being a God-given right, which has existed in this country from time immemorial. While we treasure the rights and freedoms that a democratic society enjoys, we can hold them sacred only if they are accompanied by responsibility. As legislators, we have a responsibility to the victims of crime. Ensuring that perpetrators are tried fairly and given sentences that reflect their crimes will deter others and, most important, give victims faith in the justice system. In the past, they have often felt that it did not reflect their needs.
I want to mention two specific aspects that I hope will be developed through the laws that will be passed in this Session and beyond. I shall comment first on international issues. I can tell my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench that I was delighted to hear the Foreign Secretary say this morning that we were European. I think that that is the first time I have heard a Foreign Secretary--or, indeed, any Member of this House--say specifically that we in this country were Europeans. We are not on the edge of Europe. We are not people who occasionally have little forays into Europe, as though it were some other place beyond our understanding. Our place is in the heart of Europe.
I hope that we shall make strong and clear representations, in the House and outside it, about our role in Europe and that we shall engage the people of this country so that they, too, will believe that we are at the heart of Europe. I also hope that when we debate the single currency, we shall do so in a positive and strong fashion. I look forward to that debate.
Of course, we rightly feel that we have a strong, close relationship with the United States, but let us not overstate that relationship. The ignorance of our parliamentary system shown by commentators in the United States often appals me. It could be that people in America spend a great deal of time discussing internal matters and rarely engage with news from Britain or the rest of Europe. A commentator in the Washington Post said of this general election:
Another commentator reflecting on our re-election two weeks ago--unsurprisingly, one who was a speech writer for the first President Bush--said that we, the Labour Government, were rejecting the leadership of the United States. I cannot think of anything more patronising. No one could say that anyone other than the Labour Prime Minister of this country led when we were dealing with the conflict in south-east Europe. No one could say that anyone other than the Labour Deputy Prime Minister helped to ensure that the negotiations on climate change at Kyoto took place. Furthermore, it is the Labour Secretary of State for International Development who has led the world in trying to increase funding to eradicate world poverty.
When President Bush talks about high levels of receptivity among the leaders of Europe--I must learn this common language that we are supposed to share with our American colleagues--perhaps he might reflect that he could take a lead from some of the actions that we have taken in the past. I hope that my Government will continue their strong support for the European Union, and that they will continue to lead in the European Union and in our efforts to eradicate world poverty and to develop measures on climate change and the environment.
More parochially, I want to talk about getting people in my constituency and elsewhere off benefit and into work. I know, with some sadness, that my constituency has had the slowest fall in youth unemployment in the country. Someone has to come at the end of the list, but I am particularly concerned about that because we also have one of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the country. We need to do more to ensure that the young people in my constituency and elsewhere are given the jobs that they need and deserve.
My colleagues from outside London often think that life in London is very cushy and that we have a fairly high quality of life. I have to tell them that I represent a constituency whose level of unemployment is still much higher than in the country at large. That is despite the excellent work done under the new deal in the previous Parliament. One of the main reasons for that is that the deprivation and poor skills levels in my constituency are holding people back.
That is why I believe that we must put more effort into our regeneration initiatives to ensure that those skills levels are increased. We need to go further, not just, and not necessarily, even, in increasing the budgets for those initiatives, welcome though that would be, but in ensuring that the money that we spend is earmarked and well used. That skills deficit remains, and while the ideas are fine, their execution will be the guide as to whether we succeed.
I hope that the execution of those ideas will not be stymied by inaction caused by lack of skills and that the Government make it a priority that partnerships in regeneration deliver, even if that means taking tough decisions and putting aside old prejudices as well as investing and improving the skills of local people.
In Lewisham, we have received handsome sums to help with regeneration, both in the deprived Downham area in my constituency and for the single regeneration budget in Lewisham town centre. The coming of the docklands light railway to Lewisham has been a major factor in generating the potential for new jobs and the SRB for the town centre is both creative and ambitious, but it must be deliverable. That means that those involved must set aside personal aggrandisement and blinkered approaches. They must work together to ensure the success of that regeneration bid, because this is not the time for sitting in happy contemplation of what might be--it is a time for action and obvious delivery on the ground.
The Queen's Speech says that we are to legislate on land registry, so I shall hang on that hook the comments that I want to make about planning laws. It is time that the Government took up the issue and changed the planning laws radically. In my experience in Lewisham, East, planning law is often developed piecemeal, inconsistently and without thorough consultation with the local community. Where consultation does take place, often only lip service is paid to it and there is no engagement with what the local community wants.
In saying that, I am not for a moment advocating nimbyism, which is an abhorrent concept. Indeed, I often admire the fact that the French, for example, can be very creative in their developments and can put modern buildings alongside more historic ones, doing so boldly and courageously. I would have no problem at all with that happening in this country, and I wish that we were a great deal more courageous about the way we develop the land in which we live, so long as developments are not grotesque concrete jungles masquerading as homes, such as those that we built in the 1960s.
I am particularly concerned about speculative planning applications by developers with little or no interest in the local community. I give two examples. First, backfill and infill development is now a regular occurrence in London and we are in desperate need of more housing, but success can be achieved only if a development remains in keeping with the local community, so overdevelopment in a purely residential area will not work. It will not work because of the effects on transport, health and education in the local area, which will be detrimental not only to those who already live in the community, but to those who intend to come into it.
On the other hand, high-density development around a transport hub, with the consequential industrial and other-work uses, is an excellent idea that I hope the Government will encourage. That is why it is wrong to
Secondly, residents feel insecure when a developer can come back again and again with a planning application that has been rejected. There is a specific example in Blackheath in my constituency, where a freeholder has tried time after time to build on a six-storey building. Surely we should be able to find some way to prevent that year-on-year worry for residents. After all, we have a system for dealing with vexatious litigants in the courts. Could we not also devise ways of dealing with vexatious developers in our local communities?
One of the problems is that planning officers whose advice councillors rely on are far too timid in front of developers. So scared are they of a case being taken to appeal that they capitulate before the matter is even discussed. Thus developers get their way, whether immediately in the planning committee or under threat of an appeal. I return to the theme about rights having to be conjoined with responsibility. It is time that developers faced up to their responsibility to the local communities in which they wish to invest.
Equally worrying is the way in which the urban development programme can be ignored when it suits. What is the point of a lengthy process of consultation and decision making and of a draft development plan when its contents can be so easily ignored? I hope that the new Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions will look speedily at our planning laws, not to set them in some neolithic formula but to ensure that they allow for the dynamism of the 21st century and that the views of the local community are not just listened to but acted on.
I should also like us to have a statutory advocate on behalf of local residents where major planning applications are made. I urge local authority legal departments to be just a little more imaginative before advising members that they should agree an application, otherwise the developer will go to appeal. With clear structures in our planning laws, there would be no need for such conflict. Developers would know where they stood and local communities could help to enhance the developments in their patch in a way that was in keeping with the area. That is a form of devolution that the Government might like to consider, given how keen we are on devolution throughout the country.
I make a final plea. Those hon. Members who voted consistently for a ban on foxhunting are determined to see that ban in the course of this Parliament. I sat on the Standing Committee that considered the foxhunting Bill in the previous Session. There is no need for us to go through a lengthy and bureaucratic process to find another Bill. We already have one with its amendments, and I hope that it will be presented in this Session. I know that it will receive a speedy passage through the House. If necessary, let us use the Parliament Act to ensure that it becomes law. My constituents and those of most of my hon. Friends would welcome it.
I welcome much of what is in the Queen's Speech, but I want to see delivery on the ground. I want to see our commitment to diversity, dynamism and creativity in our communities. By giving more power to local communities, we can surely expect to see more successful outcomes for them.