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6.25 pm

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale): I congratulate you on your re-election to Parliament, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is nice to see you in your usual place.

I welcome all the new Members on both sides of the Chamber to the House of Commons. I am sure that they will enjoy their stay and the work that they do on behalf of their constituents. The first speech in this debate from a Back Bencher--made two hours after the debate began--was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who told the House that it had been 22 years and a Queen's Speech since he had made his maiden speech. He was followed by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who said that he had made his maiden speech 18 years ago.

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I shall follow their lead and say that it is 14 years and a Queen's Speech since I made my maiden speech. The three of us have in common our sympathy with and admiration for all Members who come here to make their maiden speech.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on his maiden speech. I am sure that his family and constituents will be proud of him. He will enjoy his time in the House of Commons and he will make some alliances across the political divide. I am sure that he will be surprised by some of his experiences here, but they will not impair his enjoyment.

Focusing on constitutional issues, I want to comment on the turnout in the recent general election. None of us can be comfortable with such a drop in turnout. Only a few months prior to the election, I introduced in the House a modest ten-minute Bill called the Rewarding Democracy Commission Bill. I argued in favour of granting incentives to increase public participation in the democratic process. However, the Tory party issued a three-line Whip in respect of my ten-minute Bill--a move unheard of in my time here--and voted it down. All I did was propose establishing a commission to consider how to reward people for participating in democracy. We must think of ways in which to improve our people's participation in their own democracy, but let me put down a marker tonight: whatever the solution to the problem of turnout, the status quo is not an option.

My next topic is devolution. The Scottish Parliament is about to celebrate its second year in existence. Like all new democracies, it had its teething troubles while it settled down, but I was confident that Parliament and the Government were doing the right thing when we passed the legislation to give Scotland its own Parliament, and I remain as confident today. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Gainsborough is not present to hear my comments on the West Lothian question. I have never had any problems with that question, just as he and his colleagues never had any problems when voting to impose the poll tax on Scotland, or voting on Scottish legislation.

The real answer to the West Lothian question is to embrace the new democracy that devolution offers the United Kingdom. We must think about how we can decentralise government to the regions--a process for which I suspect that there will be cross-party support. I hope that the Government continue to develop their ideas on constitutional reform and ways in which we can improve our democracy. I assure those in the English regions who argue for their own assemblies that they will find a sympathetic ear and support on my part.

I am delighted that there will be a Bill to ratify the Nice treaty. I was in this place in 1992 when we debated the Maastricht treaty. It will be amusing for us to observe the Conservative party ripping itself apart yet again. It was a wonderful sight to behold. The Tories were then in government, and I remember the night when we beat them on a vote. The then Prime Minister had to whip all his Eurosceptic right hon. and hon. Friends into line from the Dispatch Box; he threatened them with a general election. The next day, they all said dutifully that Europe was a good idea if it stopped them from getting the sack. A few of those Members are no longer in this place. I suspect that unless there is some rethinking in the Opposition on how we embrace the European Union and involve ourselves in it, Conservative numbers in the House will continue to decrease.

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I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is no longer in his place. However, I am sure that he will receive a report of my contribution to the debate on the need for scrutiny. I was fortunate to be the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny in the previous Parliament and of the Select Committee on European Legislation in the Parliament before that.

I say to Ministers and to the Government--I hope that we are beginning to be listened to--that scrutiny is extremely important. Those of us who scrutinise European legislation and all those who are members of departmental Select Committees are serving Parliament. They do not take on that role as enemies of Ministers. If the process is used properly, good scrutiny aids government. I hope that the quality of the scrutiny of European legislation enables us to tell Ministers what is happening in their Departments, because all too often they are unaware of that. That is the value of scrutiny. I hope that we shall consider further reforms of that process. It is not a matter of giving power to Select Committees with which to bind the Government. Power should be given to Parliament to scrutinise how we deliver to the people in the communities that we represent. That is not only in Parliament's interests or those of communities, it is in the interests of the Government of the day as well. The collective need should be recognised.

There were some significant reforms in the scrutiny of European legislation in the previous Parliament. The Scrutiny Committee has considerably more powers than previously. I can remember arguing the case for five such Committees. Those who were Members during the previous Parliament will remember the argument and will be aware that we ended up with three Committees instead of two. The case for five was the right one, and I do not say that as a means of saying, "I told you so." I hope that the new Leader of the House and this Parliament will consider how we engage Parliament in scrutinising European Union issues.

We should have five Committees so that more Members are involved in the scrutiny process. On that basis, we would be serving Parliament--we are honoured to be Members of it--our communities and democracy.

I, too, am more than comfortable with the Gracious Speech. However, there will be areas of policy where we shall have to examine matters carefully, scrutinise, discuss and investigate if we are to arrive at best practice--if that is not to use buzzwords--in terms of how we deliver services and democracy inside and outside the House. I am delighted to support the Gracious Speech. I hope that my small contribution on scrutiny will be considered when we come to talk about improving procedures.

6.34 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): First, I shall comment on the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh). As all Members do when making a maiden speech, he talked about his constituency and his predecessors in the first part of his speech. It is right and proper to do so. I was interested particularly in the second part of the hon. Gentleman's speech, which touched on what I think should be the main issue for debate today. He referred to the phrase in the Opposition amendment about the

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and considered whether that sentiment is compatible with the privatisation of public services. The second part of the hon. Gentleman's speech was hugely impressive. It augurs well for his future contributions in this place. I do not know whether I shall do him a service or a disservice when I say that I will apply his approach to my brief remarks.

There is an interesting part of the Tory amendment about participation rates in national elections. Participation rates seem not to be extending to the Tory Benches.

In the election campaign, I think that the Prime Minister had one tremendous stroke of luck. On the day when he was berated by a distressed lady outside a hospital in Edgbaston, the Deputy Prime Minister decided to pursue his dialogue with the public in an altogether more vigorous fashion. That was an amazing stroke of luck because it pushed the hospital confrontation from the top of the news in every bulletin to item three, four or five.

Although the action of the Deputy Prime Minister was top of the news, I can report from my constituency that, rightly or wrongly--although I do not believe that he is constitutionally entitled to punch members of the public--there was sympathy for the quality of his left jab, whereas there was no sympathy for the Prime Minister's handling of a clearly upset lady whose partner was in a cancer ward.

It was a stroke of luck. I do not think that even new Labour could have planned the synchronisation of the two events. The episode involving the Prime Minister would have been intensely damaging to the Government's position if it had received the prominence that would have been given to it if it were not for the activities of the Deputy Prime Minister.

The issue of whether it is possible to have accountable public services touches at the heart of what is going on in the House. We had almost a pantomime today. It was almost a surreal experience. The Prime Minister accused the Leader of the Opposition of planning the privatisation of the health service. We all know that the Prime Minister is planning to privatise key areas of it. [Interruption.] Of course he is. Did not Labour Members read the coded language of the Prime Minister's speeches during the election campaign? Did not they notice in the Gracious Speech that we shall have school sponsorship? What sort of school sponsorship will we have? Will we have McDonald's grammar schools to teach pupils about healthy eating? Will we have Coca-Cola grammar schools to teach pupils about healthy drinking? If one of the leadership candidates in the Conservative party is successful, perhaps he will support the Government in having Imperial Tobacco sponsoring schools throughout the country.

If the private sector takes on responsibility for not merely the provision of private finance, a policy which was started by the Conservatives and continued by new Labour for a substantial period, but the running of key parts of public services, where lies the accountability that is spoken about in the Opposition's amendment in terms of the public sector and public servants?

The irony of the amendment is to say that the Gracious Speech puts forward no proposals to increase public accountability, when the Conservatives were the forerunners of the very policy that the Prime Minister seems to want enthusiastically to pursue. I used to earn a

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bare crust as the economist to the Royal Bank of Scotland. I have therefore worked in the private sector, unlike the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who--unless being a barrister or television pundit counts--have never done so. I can report that my former colleagues in the Royal Bank of Scotland and, indeed, in every other financial institution are enthusiastic about the private finance initiative because it has made them a great deal of money. We should not complain about that, because the role of private companies is to make profits and create jobs. The fault does not lie with the banks, financial institutions and contractors, but with those who are meant to defend and protect the public interest, but do not have the common sense and judgment to appreciate that we are not getting value for money from the pursuit of private finance in our great public services.

If I had time, I could go through the excellent work done by Allyson Pollock, for example, and the analysis of a range of PFI projects, such as the Edinburgh Royal infirmary, which give the clearest indication yet that they represent much worse value for money for the public sector than alternative means of raising finance. They make clear the implications for jobs, pay, and services within the health service and, increasingly, within the education service of taking on PFI commitments. As someone who has worked in the private sector--and I yield to no one in my admiration for entrepreneurship and people creating jobs--surely, in relation to public accountability, we can see a clear demarcation between what should happen in the competitive economy and what should happen in public services.

I read closely the article in The Observer on Sunday by the former deputy leader of the Labour party who, during his active political career, was regarded as being well on the right of the party. He expressed anguish that, as a social democrat--an honourable political philosophy to pursue--he now found himself on the extreme left of new Labour on a range of public policy issues. The article may have been motivated by a range of things, but it was correct in one aspect: its argument that the Prime Minister seemed to be ideologically adrift, with no reference points about what should, or should not be done as far as the public sector and public accountability are concerned.

Having listened to an exchange earlier today--and Labour Members had better cotton on to this--I believe that the Prime Minister is mesmerised by what he thinks is the efficacy of private management and private finance in our great public services. However, the people have a different judgment. The Prime Minister is back with a tremendous majority, not because of that policy, but because of the lack of a serious alternative from the Opposition to what he was hinting at in the election campaign and what he wants to pursue in public policy, as outlined in the Gracious Speech.

I remember the interview that the Prime Minister gave on "Breakfast with Frost" in which he said that it would be a good idea if funding of the health service moved up to the European standard. If we are going to meet that standard, we will have to increase funding to 9.1 per cent. of gross domestic product. However, the gap between us and European provision is not about private finance; throughout the UK, private health service provision is about 1 per cent., as it is across the continent. The gap is about the lack of public provision.

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On Monday night, I participated in a debate with the Mayor of London. A GP from London pointed out that the bed occupancy rate in the London health service is 99 per cent. In such a situation, there is no slack or room for manoeuvre; there is no ability to do anything to respond, not just to emergencies or winter crises, but any situation. Would it not be a really useful idea to invest in our public services without serving the god or at the altar of privatisation? Would it not be a good idea if we tried to see what we can do with public services and public accountability if we provide funds? Would that not increase the public's faith in politics and increase their participation in our democracy?

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