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7.32 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone): I intend to address the House on the question of constitutional issues. Taking up the point made by the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), I should make it clear that I believe that the most important matter facing the country and Parliament is the restoration of faith in politics.

The constitution is the framework within which we are governed. Given that that framework is becoming increasingly eroded, how does it match up to the requirement that it must permit the British people to make decisions based on true democracy and accountability? That is the key question. For example, I believe that we should reverse the procedural changes that have been introduced to the guillotine procedure. A motion on that subject will be debated tomorrow. The changes will have a major effect on the debates on the Nice treaty.

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We must restore the independence of Back-Bench Members. As I have said in two speeches in the past six months, that will require a reduction in the power of the Whips. In my judgment, such a reduction would have to be achieved by amending the Standing Orders. Anyone who cares to look at the two speeches to which I have referred will see that I made mention of what happened in 1886. I shall not go into that now, but that was when the Speaker's rules were transferred to the Executive. From that moment on, Back-Bench Members ceased to have the degree of control that they had enjoyed for centuries.

I believe that there should be more independence for Select Committees. I am glad to have signed the motion circulating among hon. Members with regard to the report from the Select Committee on Liaison. That is a very important indicator of the direction in which the House has to move.

We should examine, and probably remove, the rule that prevents civil servants from being cross-examined by Select Committees about the advice that they have given to Ministers. That is a difficult and delicate area, but the present rule precludes proper discussion about what is really going on.

That problem is deeply related to another important matter--freedom of information. If we want a radical and proper examination of the interaction between voters and our constitution, we are bound to consider such matters and to arrive at conclusions in the very near future.

We should enhance the power of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The selection of the Chairman and members of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges should be taken away from the Executive. By definition, all scrutiny Committees should be chaired by Opposition Members. It is outrageous, for example, that the appointment of the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny should be in the hands of the Government. The Committee was established in 1972, but only since the beginning of the previous Parliament has that power of appointment resided with the Executive.

We must also reform the House of Lords by making it a far more elected Chamber, although I do not think that its entire membership needs to be elected. Of course, to prevent competition between the two Houses, the House of Lords' electoral cycle would have to be different from this House's, as would the areas represented. The necessary reform of the House and its procedures must be exciting and relevant, because we must bring them up to date. However, we must also maintain the House's essential democracy and accountability.

My next point concerns matters outside the House. I consider it inconceivable that any leader of the Conservative party--the greatest of parties, which has had the honour to serve this country for the best part of two and a half centuries--should not be clear about who governs this country. Anything else is impossible to imagine, but it is clear, from remarks that have been made outside the Chamber, that some people do not understand what is a very simple matter. The question is not whether one is anti-European, but whether one is pro-democracy and pro-accountability.

The problem is clear. After the Irish referendum, Mr. Romano Prodi went to Ireland to lecture people and tell them that they must hold another referendum because the earlier result had been undemocratic. I defy anyone--

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in this House or in the country--to advocate allowing ourselves to be governed by such people. However, the truth is that we are already so governed, which is why the European treaties must be renegotiated. That is the only way to get the balance right. I am pro-democracy, and it is pro-European to be pro-democracy. It is anti-European to be anti-democracy. That message must be brought home to the electorate as a whole.

People must be informed properly. The BBC rules on impartiality and on matters of major controversy, and the broadcasting legislation itself, must be examined. We must be sure that the relevant measures are interpreted and used in a way that benefits the people of this country as a whole. We must ensure, in the public interest, that people have a proper and impartial opportunity to acquire the information that they need. It is also important that the right questions be asked, which means that the necessary research processes in the relevant institutions must be enhanced.

I will defend to the death free speech in newspapers or on radio and television. However, that freedom of speech must be based on the requirement that people be given proper and fair information on all matters.

Furthermore, remarks made outside the House in the past 24 hours suggest that the Nice treaty should be allowed to go ahead. I want all the treaty elements covering the European Union looked at properly, because the EU impinges on the rights and privileges of Members of this House, and on the rights of those who vote for us. As I have said before, Parliament is not ours: it belongs to the British people, and hon. Members have no right to hand it over to anyone else.

The natural consequence of the movement towards Europe that might take place under certain permutations of the policies held by those who want to lead the Conservative party is that Britain would not merely be subject to further integration, but would be absorbed into a European constitution. That constitution is in the offing, and I have predicted it for many years.

In this regard, one has to ask certain constitutional questions about the Conservative party. First, let me quote Churchill on the truth. He said that one should tell the truth to the British people, and continued:

I believe that that is extremely relevant to what is going on in the Conservative party.

The second point concerns what a political party is. In the words of Edmund Burke, a political party is a body of men--and, of course, women--

It is impossible to reconcile the differences on this European issue and prevent the tensions and conflicts that are bound to follow from it if we try to create a false and impossible coalition. It will not work. To that extent, I agree with what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said in his statement yesterday. The issue needs to be brought out into the open. It is essential that we have a proper debate about the principle that Burke identified.

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Disraeli said that the Tory party is a national party or it is nothing. That was the statement of one of our greatest Prime Ministers. It was not nationalistic--he meant the democratic nation state. That is the point. It is to do with the democracy and accountability that this constitutional arena--this House of Commons--represents. It needs improvement and reform, but that has to be measured and balanced. Only then will respect and faith in the British constitution and in this House of Commons be justified and be demonstrated--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

7.42 pm

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall): It is interesting to speak after a Eurosceptic and anti-European fanatic. I do not share the views of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) on the European issue.

First, I offer my congratulations to the Secretary of State for the Home Department on his new role, although he is not in his seat. I hope that he will be as successful in the Home Office as he was in the former Department for Education and Employment.

There is much detail to be filled in, but I broadly welcome the proposals in the Queen's Speech. However, I wish to concentrate on crime, as it is a subject that my constituents frequently raised with me during the election campaign.

I hope that under my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my constituency will continue to benefit from the improvements that took place under his predecessor, because improvements there certainly were. It goes without saying that prevention is better than cure, and in our first four years in office, we took great strides in tackling the causes of crime. In my constituency, the number of people on unemployment benefit has fallen by about 40 per cent. since 1997, and long-term youth unemployment had fallen by about 80 per cent. by February this year. I do not think that I am suggesting anything controversial when I say that providing people with jobs plays a fundamental part in reducing crime.

My constituency has also benefited from the largest ever investment by the Home Office in CCTV security systems. The Ealing community safety and crime strategy group received money for schemes in Southall town centre--part of my constituency--and for a multi-storey car park. The total investment was more than £350,000; that money was provided over the past four years, and now we have to look forward. I believe that the Queen's Speech gives us much to look forward to. Certainly, there is still much to be done, but the agenda outlined in the Queen's Speech gives us an opportunity to continue what we started and to address the key concern of the electorate--improving public services.

Reform of public services is at the heart of the Queen's Speech, and it is vital to keep the word "reform" clearly in mind. Let me however return to the issue of crime and how it affects my constituency. Although we have seen a 10 per cent. overall fall in crime since 1997, there are still many areas of concern for my constituents. For example, in spite of the fact that legislation has been passed banning handguns, some violent crimes are still rising.

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Perhaps the greatest challenge facing those who live in my constituency is drugs. I have been greatly concerned about this and have held meetings with the local police and community members. Recent reports have highlighted the fact that drug abuse, particularly heroin abuse, is on the increase among young Asians, especially in Southall. In view of that, the Southall community drug education project has been conducting valuable research in conjunction with the university of Central Lancashire's ethnicity and health unit. The principle behind the research is that local people know their own needs best, which is why the Department of Health offered between £5,000 and £25,000 for local black and minority ethnic communities to undertake their own needs assessments.

This local focus is part of the Government's 10-year strategy to tackle drug misuse, which has set tough targets, including halving the numbers of young people using illegal drugs and halving the availability of drugs on our streets. There have been a number of achievements in the past year, including the establishment of the drugs prevention advisory service and information from Ofsted indicating that 93 per cent. of secondary and 75 per cent. of primary schools now have a drugs education policy. I have checked with some of the high schools in my constituency that they are implementing the drugs education policy. Another achievement has been the launch of the positive futures programme, which uses money seized from drug traffickers to support sports and recreational projects and to build up young peoples' confidence so as to encourage them away from drugs and into healthier life styles.

More needs to be done, however, to address this issue and the terrible consequences that it can have for communities. Findings from the Southall project suggest that the specific needs of many ethnic groups are not being addressed properly and that some minority groups, such as Somalis, are being left out of the loop of increasing awareness. I hope that time will be found in this Parliament to take this up further and to address the needs of individual communities.

Tackling drug problems is not easy, as it is not possible to create a "one size fits all" solution. The Asian community, for example, encompasses a wide range of languages, cultures and religious faiths, as well as four generations who have lived in this country and have very different experiences. Thus what is good for one group may not be appropriate for another.

The proposal in the manifesto for a drugs register to keep track of drugs traffickers is a start, and the continued emphasis on class A drugs makes sense. We must pick our fights carefully on this complicated issue.

We must address demand as well as supply. Investment in the treatment of offenders is an intelligent approach and money well spent. Reduced demand will come about only through educating people in ways that address their local circumstances, and I hope that the Government will continue to invest in that goal.

I would also like to take this opportunity to ask the Government to take further steps to deal with asylum seekers. My constituency has suffered from an influx of asylum seekers, which is putting a strain on community relations and public services in the area. An unacceptable extra burden is being placed on the already limited resources available and no extra money is being invested to improve the quality of life in my constituency.

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During the election campaign, people raised a number of concerns with me, including the lack of amenities and sports facilities for the young, traffic congestion, and parking difficulties for the business community and others. There has also been a general deterioration in living standards in my constituency for many people, owing to the council's inability to invest in the areas of greatest need. If the area is supporting more people than it can cope with, it has every reason to demand that central Government provide more money to the local authority to redress the imbalance. The area of which I speak is predominantly an ethnic minority area; if neglected, it would reflect badly on the Government's record on race relations.

I have every sympathy for those who are genuinely fleeing persecution, but it is essential that we improve the system of dealing with applications that have already been refused. There is no point in improving the speed of processing applications if people end up staying regardless of the decision of the Home Office. That only makes it harder for genuine applicants, who are then more likely to be resented by the community, which sees services overwhelmed by those who should have been removed. We need to be fairer and firmer in immigration and asylum policy.

That said, I am sure that the Government will tackle those concerns, just as I am sure that they will continue to address the concerns of the electorate throughout the country. The people of Britain sent a clear signal during the election that our public services are the issue that is of most importance to them. People want--

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