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Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, while I fully endorse what the Minister says about action against dumping, is it not clear that steel is an internationally traded commodity? The British Steel Corporation has announced the intention to move some parts of its steel production from the United Kingdom into other parts of the world in order to achieve cheaper basic production costs.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, there is a clear difference between dumping and taking a decision to move production to an area where the cost structure will be more favourable. Those are quite separate issues.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, will the Minister make clear that the British steel industry is internationally

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competitive? My noble friend also commented on fair trading in Europe and on being vigilant. Is he aware that the former government in periods of difficulty promised to be vigilant but did nothing in the face of clear evidence of unfair trading? If the vigilance results in observance of unfairness, will very firm action be taken?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I can assure the House that we shall be vigilant and will take action if there are any cases of illegal state aid.

As regards unfair trading, it is a matter for the industries concerned to take action. The European representative body for the steel industry lodged a complaint with the Commission on 23rd November on hot rolled coil imports from India, Iran, Taiwan, Bulgaria, South Africa and Yugoslavia.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, as the steel industry is notoriously subject to cyclical movements, does the noble Lord feel that the industry in the UK at present may have over-reacted to what may be a temporary market difficulty? To what extent would that impair its ability to react when the market improves?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I should not wish to second-guess the decisions of the industry. I should point out that one of the principal changes in Wales has been the opening of a new continuous annealing process line at the British Steel plant at Port Talbot. That cost £120 million and is the company's single largest investment since privatisation. That is a massive vote of confidence in the future of the Welsh steel industry.

Scottish Fee Support Review Committee

3 p.m.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been made with the formation of the commission to look into the effects of the decision that English, Welsh and Northern Irish students should pay £1,000 more for attending a four-year degree course in Scotland than Scottish and other European Union students.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Employment, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are today announcing the membership of the Scottish Fee Support Review Committee. The chairman will be Sir George Quigley, as already announced. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, Professor Michael Hamlin and Sir Philip Jones have also agreed to serve as members. Terms of reference for the committee have been placed in the Library.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he say definitely whether or

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not a future Scottish parliament could reverse the original decision in order to place students attending the same courses in Scottish universities on the same footing?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that issue will come under the competence of the Scottish parliament. It is hoped that the committee that is being set up will publish its report by the summer of 1999. It will then be reported to both the Westminster Parliament and the Scottish parliament.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, if the future Scottish parliament reverses that decision, does the Minister believe that it will want to pick up the bill and pay it because it is usually foisted on to us?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is clear that that funding, both in terms of the original concession and then in terms of the arguments of those who have said that the concession should be extended to the rest of the UK, will represent a significant financial figure which will need to be taken into account.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, has the Minister noted the results of the European by-election in the north-east of Scotland in which his party was forced into a humiliating third place? Does he believe that the collapse of the Labour vote in the university towns of Aberdeen and Dundee might just be related to what is seen in those university towns as the total unfairness of that system, not only for the students involved but also for the Scottish universities?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, no. The fact is that according to the figures which the department holds, there has been no adverse impact on admissions to Scottish universities this year.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, the result of the European by-elections in the university towns of Aberdeen and Dundee was, quite frankly, a disastrous result. No one should hide from that. However, analysis has shown that the electors in Aberdeen and Dundee did not bother to vote. The turn-out in both Aberdeen and Dundee was well under 10 per cent. and there was more interest in the rectorial election at Aberdeen university than there was in a European parliamentary by-election.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that information. I am sure that when it comes to the election of a Scottish parliament, the turn-out will be much higher. However, I doubt whether the party opposite will draw much comfort from the results.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, will the Minister please tell the House why it is that a student from Carlisle should pay more to attend a Scottish university than a student from Paris?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we are covering old ground. Of course, the whole purpose of setting up the independent review committee is to look

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into those matters and to take evidence. The noble Baroness will know that the issue in relation to people coming from EU states other than the UK is covered by treaty requirements. She will know also that we are talking about a very small number of people--350 in the fourth year.

Lord Addington: My Lords, is the Minister prepared to give a guarantee that there will be no pressure to introduce an A-level or higher plus style examination which will affect the four-year degree course and drive it more towards the English model, which does not have the advantage of allowing people to study their best subject at university?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am not aware of any pressure and I acknowledge the strength of the Scottish education system.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his replies on this thorny issue. Does he accept that it is a matter of principle and an issue of fairness rather than of numbers? Is it not the case that in future, the Scottish parliament will wish to consider such issues just as much as this Parliament?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sure that the Scottish parliament will wish to consider that. I agree that it is a matter of principle. I believe that the Government have taken a principled decision; it has been the subject of much debate; and we should now allow the matter to be considered by the independent review body.

Statutory Instruments: Joint Committee

3.5 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, pursuant to Standing Order 70A and the resolution of the House of 16th December 1997, That as proposed by the Committee of Selection the following Lords be appointed to join with a Committee of the Commons as the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments:

V. Addison, V. Exmouth, L. Hardy of Wath, L. Meston, L. Skelmersdale, L. Vivian, L. Walker of Doncaster;

and that the Committee do meet with any Committee appointed by the Commons this day at a quarter past four o'clock.--(The Chairman of Committees.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and a message was sent to the Commons to acquaint them therewith.

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Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

3.6 p.m.

Debate resumed on the Motion moved on Tuesday last by Lord Clinton-Davis--namely, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:

    "Most Gracious Sovereign--We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, our debate today will focus on industrial, economic and social affairs. We are making excellent progress on all those fronts. The Government's legislative programme includes a range of measures aimed at further modernisation of the economy, strengthening our industrial base, promoting long-term, stable growth and increased productivity and competitiveness.

I am delighted to open this debate which may be one of the longer debates on the Queen's Speech. I shall focus on the contribution our continuing modernisation programme for the welfare system is making to our goal of long-term economic stability. My noble friend Lord Simon of Highbury will have much more to say about the Government's programme for industry and the economy when he closes the debate.

In particular, I look forward to the maiden speeches of my noble friends Lord Evans of Watford, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, Lord Brookman and Lord Christopher and the noble Lord, Lord Craigmyle. Their industrial and trade union backgrounds--rich, varied and deeply expert--will give a dimension to the debate on industry and the economy in particular, which is the more welcome because that voice has not always been heard in its fullness in this House.

There are three essential features for this country's long-term economic strength and success: first, a consistent long-term framework for both monetary and fiscal policy; secondly, tackling our long-term productivity gap by working with business, investing in education and innovation and encouraging enterprise and competition; and, finally, welfare reform based on work and security.

I turn to the first of those; namely, sound economic policy. We need to put an end to the stop-go, boom-bust of the past 20 years. We need to allow individuals, families and businesses to plan ahead with confidence. For the first time, Britain has a consistent framework in both monetary and fiscal policy which will build for us sturdy and sustainable growth. Prudent fiscal planning means that even allowing for slower world economic growth, the Government will deliver their commitment--£40 billion of extra money for health and education--without risk to public finances.

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The second challenge the Government face is that of productivity because our long-term prosperity depends on the productivity of UK business and its employees. Our policy is therefore geared to getting the best out of all people and making sure that everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential. For too long this country's productivity has lagged behind its competitors. At present--and these are startling statistics--the UK has a productivity gap of around 40 per cent. with the United States and 20 per cent. with France and Germany, even though both their wage bills and non-labour wage costs are much higher than this country.

In most sectors of the economy, Britain is far short of the best in the world. We need to invest in plant and in research and development; we need to invest in people. We need a well-educated, well-trained, high-productivity labour force, hence our investment in education--£19 billion more. Also, we need to invest in a minimum wage because we know that the lowest paying employers have the lowest productivity in our economy.

I repeat that my noble friend Lord Simon will be enlarging on those points in winding up. But, just as we need to ensure a sound and stable economy and just as we need to build for long-term productive growth, so, too, we need a social security system that underpins our investment in people and does not subvert it. In other words, we need to rebuild an effective welfare state.

In the past 50 years the structure of the economy has changed; industrial patterns and working conditions are very different. Our spending on social security has moved upwards; it is now 1p in every 3p of government spending compared with 1p in every 5p in 1979. Yet the system is failing. Inequality has grown; poverty has grown; more and more has been spent; less and less has been achieved.

We must have a fundamental shift of emphasis. We must use the welfare state to create opportunities and incentives for people. Earlier this year our welfare reform Green Paper set out our principles for reform and they were overwhelmingly endorsed by those who responded to that Green Paper. We are now putting those principles into practice. We have already done a lot through earlier announcements this year. But with the proposals in the Queen's Speech for a welfare reform Bill, we will be setting out measures to modernise the system and deliver on our central welfare reform objective--work for those who can; security for those who cannot.

The welfare state for too long has been a passive distributor of benefits doing little or nothing to help people move from welfare to work. Almost one in five working-age households have no breadwinner compared to less than one in 10 in 1979. Nearly 3 million children are growing up in workless households. I remember the story told by my right honourable friend in another place, Mr. Frank Field, that he visited a Birkenhead school and asked a 10 year-old what he was going to do when he grew up. He expected the answer "train driver", "airline pilot" or whatever; but the child said, "When I grow up I am going to draw my Giro".

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For those who can, work is the best route out of poverty. It facilitates social inclusion; it gives status. It strengthens independence. It is the gateway to economic advancement, the foundation of a secure future and a role model that we in turn can hand on to our children. We cannot afford to have a society of three-generation workless families. But the system fails to provide enough help to get people into work, consigning too many people to the twilight of the margins of our society and to an inadequate and unfulfilling life on benefit. We fail together to ensure that work pays. Too often we reduce the choice for people to one of subsistence benefits and, to our shame, subsistence wages. And too often there are barriers to getting people into work, even in the benefit rules themselves which focus on and reward people for what they cannot do rather than encourage them to risk-take and see what they can do.

We have been attacking worklessness consistently and I hope effectively since coming to office. We have a threefold strategy to tackle each of those failings. We want to refocus welfare on helping people develop their potential and move from welfare to work through the New Deal. We want to make work pay through the minimum wage and the working families tax credit system. We want to remove barriers to work.

First, the New Deal is the biggest ever investment by government in jobs and training. It represents partnership between government and business; a joint investment in Britain. The New Deal for young people and the long-term unemployed is already producing encouraging results--170,000 people have already joined; nearly 40,000 have already found work and two-thirds of those are in unsubsidised jobs. By next April we expect 300,000 people to have benefited. And the New Deal is now being extended to all lone parents and disabled people so that they, too, have the opportunities they say they wish to have.

An uncertain economic outlook makes it even more difficult to invest in helping people into work rather than leaving them on welfare. The stable course for growth set out in the pre-Budget Report provides the platform for the New Deal to succeed. Employment has risen by 400,000 since the election. The economy is still expanding and creating new jobs. Around 2 million people either move into employment or change jobs each quarter and 250,000 leave the claimant count each month. Over 200,000 new vacancies are being notified to Jobcentres every month. That is in response to those who ask: if we are training people through the New Deal, are the jobs there? The evidence and the statistics exist to support it.

We are also refocusing the new system on work right from the outset with the Single Gateway. That will redesign the way in which working-age people claiming benefit enter the benefit system. All those who can work will be helped to do so and everyone will be given a more professional, more personalised and flexible service. To coin a cliche, it is a "something-for-something" deal. It is only reasonable to ask people who are claiming benefit to participate in an interview to hear about the opportunities open to them before they start on benefit. Young people will not have the option to remain on benefit; but for

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lone parents and disabled people we want the interview to ensure that they have the empowerment of the information so that they can make the appropriate decision, balancing their domestic responsibilities and the like with what seems to them to be their best choices. That measure will be included in the welfare reform Bill.

The welfare reform Bill will also include reform of the "All Work Test" for benefits for people with long-term illness or disability. The present test focuses exclusively on what people cannot do--for example, they cannot carry a bag of potatoes; they cannot put a hat on their head--rather than finding out whether they can, with training, operate a word processor. We have proposed a new test which provides information about what people are capable of as well as about their incapacity and physical or mental health frailties. The aim will be to help those with long-term illness or disability to understand how they can match their skills and abilities with a range of support which is available to help them into suitable work. It is what disabled people tell us they want and society cannot afford to continue to neglect their very real talent.

Incapacity benefit was never intended to top-up the incomes of those who retire early. We are proposing to take some account of occupational and personal pensions above £50 per week when paying incapacity benefit. That will achieve a fairer balance between private and state provision. Our proposals for IB will also modernise the contributory principle, strengthening the link between recent work and earning entitlement to benefits; restoring the benefit's original purpose as a source of income for those who have recently paid national insurance contributions--not paid them some 20 or 30 years ago--and who have had to give up their work through illness or disability.

We are making work pay by introducing tax and benefit reform as well as the minimum wage, help with childcare and promoting family-friendly employment practice. From April all employees will receive a tax cut of £66 a year as a result of cutting the entry fee to national insurance; employers will not pay NI on earnings below £83 per week. The Chancellor will bring in a 10 pence starting rate of income tax when economic conditions are appropriate. The minimum wage from April will benefit 1.9 million employees and, in turn, encourage employers to invest in them and in their training. That will now be worth their while.

This Session, the tax credits Bill will bring in the working families tax credit and disabled person's tax credit. Working families will be guaranteed an income of £190 a week. A single disabled person will be guaranteed at least £150 a week in work, and a working disabled person and a couple with one child, £220 a week. Both tax credits will include help with childcare costs, which we know are one of the biggest hurdles particularly for single parents. We are also investing directly in quality childcare provision through the national childcare strategy. The Government's consultation paper on the family is seeking views from employees and employers about the best ways to

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introduce family friendly employment policies to help both parents, husband and wife, to balance work and family life as both of them surely want to do.

We will reduce burdens on employers, particularly those with small businesses, in the Bill already introduced into your Lordships' House which we shall start to debate soon. It merges the Inland Revenue with the Contributions Agency, allowing small businesses to sort out their taxes and contributions through a single organisation.

We are removing barriers to work. We have already acted to change the rules to allow people on incapacity benefit to take a job without losing benefit if they fall ill again within 12 months. In other words, we can encourage people to take a risk, knowing that if they need to return to benefit, either because their health falters or the job folds, they will not have lost higher levels of benefit.

We have also changed the benefit rules so that disabled people can do as much voluntary work as they wish without fearing any loss of benefit. As many of your Lordships will know from first-hand experience, voluntary work is not only valuable in itself but is often a good first step in returning to the labour market. We are acting to remove the barriers of prejudice by introducing legislation this Session to assist disabled people, through a disability rights commission, to secure comprehensive civil rights, as well as helping employers to meet their obligations. That is a reform rightly highlighted by my noble friends Lord Ashley and Lord Morris.

As well as reforming the welfare state so that we help people into work and remove the barriers to work, we also need to modernise our system. On another occasion I adapted George Eliot to claim that the happiest nations have no history. We are not in that happy state. Social security has a past. The welfare state we have inherited was shaped largely in the 1940s. Indeed, two-thirds of our legislation is still shaped by the Beveridge rules, yet in Beveridge's day, the matters were very different.

Women's work was predominantly in the home while men--their husbands--earned a wage. Today, two women in three of working age have a job while, on the other hand, few men have the prospect of a 40-hour, 40-year job, as in Beveridge's day. Equally, because so many women are now in waged work, we have an increasing need for caring to be done by the fewer and fewer people available in the unwaged labour market.

In Beveridge's day, people insured against the risk of old age. The average mortality age was 66. Today people save, not insure, in the certainty of, on average, at least 10 years of retirement. Welfare has changed. The state no longer has a monopoly on welfare. For example, occupational pensions have played a huge part in enriching the older generation. Equally, family structures have changed. In Beveridge's day, there were fewer single parents and they were mostly widows. Now there are nearly 2 million lone parents bringing up their children.

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For all those reasons--the changes in women's work, men's work, caring responsibilities, old age and family structure--we need to bring the welfare state up to date to deal not only with the challenges of today's world but those we face over the next half century. In the past, the welfare state has struggled to reflect the needs of a changing economy, changing work practices and changing industry. We need to ensure that we can meet those needs in future.

The New Deal is a good example of how we are rebuilding the system to make it responsive to the needs of the labour market. We are also proposing measures to be included in the welfare reform Bill to bring contributory benefits up to date; for instance, our proposals for support for people in bereavement.

Those reforms will provide new widows--and for the first time widowers--who satisfy the qualifying conditions with a lump sum payment of £2,000 paid at the time of bereavement when help is most needed. At present, the sum is £1,000. That will be followed by a weekly bereavement benefit payable for six months where there are no dependent children, but continuing for widowed parents--men and women alike--until their youngest child ceases to be dependent, perhaps until the age of 16 or 18.

Equally important as work for those who can is security for those who cannot work. However, the system here fails too many people. We need to channel help to those most in need. That is what we are doing, helping families, disabled people and pensioners.

We are increasing child benefit by the largest ever amount from April 1999. That will go up £2.95 per week to £14.40 per week for the first child. Extra increases are already in place from this November for children in families on income-related benefits. We have announced plans for disability income guarantee for those aged under 60 on income support with the highest care needs, which will give single disabled people a guaranteed income of at least £128 a week and couples £169 per week. There will be a similar guarantee for severely disabled children in families on income support so that a couple with one severely disabled child with caring needs will receive at least £199 per week.

I turn to our proposed reforms for severe disablement allowance. Reform will focus the benefit on people disabled before age 20 who have not had the chance to work. Perhaps they were born with Down's Syndrome or cerebral palsy. That extra help could be worth up to £25.60 per week after a year on benefit. Young people who have had no opportunity to work and pay contributions will be entitled to a level of benefit which, for the first time ever, will float almost all of them off means-tested benefits.

For the first time, too, we are proposing to help three year-old and four year-old severely disabled children by extending to them the higher mobility rate in disability living allowance, currently worth nearly £36 a week. That will greatly increase the help we are able to give to families with children who have very severe motability problems. For example, their parents will be able to obtain a car to carry around large and cumbersome equipment such as oxygen tents or whatever else may

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be necessary to meet the child's needs. That will particularly help families of young children where a child has, for instance, severe cerebral palsy, severe limb or spinal defects or severe neurological disorders.

The well-being of future pensioners depends upon their ability to take up adequately rewarded employment. The best way we can help future pensioners is to ensure that they have adequate, well-paid jobs in their 20s, 30s and 40s on the basis of which they can build up contributions towards their retirement income. But, as the House will know, we also need to do more to ensure security for many of today's pensioners, particularly older single women--that is, widowed women for the most part--who have not had an opportunity to make adequate provision for their retirement.

That is why we are introducing a minimum income guarantee for pensioners from April 1999 of £75 per week for single pensioners and £116.60 per week for couples, plus an annual payment to help with winter fuel bills. We are also identifying pensioners who do not claim the cash help to which they are entitled and are encouraging them to do so. That is important because too many pensioners miss, on average, £17 per week of benefit. That could really make a difference between a cold and a less cold winter for them. We are getting rid of eye test charges for the over 60s from April 1999 and widening travel concessions.

This Government are determined to address the long-term needs of Britain. That includes the need for long-term reform of pension provision. The welfare reform Bill, which we expect to see in this House perhaps around next spring, will start pensions reform by providing for fairer divorce settlements and greater security, especially for women in retirement. As this House determined the policy framework of what was then called pension splitting--what we now call pension sharing--I am sure that that measure in particular will receive a warm welcome when it comes to this Chamber.

The Bill will also provide a new framework of secure, flexible and value-for-money stakeholder pension schemes for people who cannot join an occupational scheme, because they do not exist, and for whom personal pensions are unsuitable. Further proposals for long-term reform of the pension system will be set out in the forthcoming pensions Green Paper.

To conclude, we are making good progress towards our long-term goals for the economy; namely, to secure economic stability, to encourage work, to raise productivity and to create a fairer society. In other words, an end to the boom and bust, stop/go policies of the 1980s and early 1990s. But we cannot have a fully effective economy without a modern welfare state to support and sustain it. The system needs reform. Doing nothing is not an option: simply increasing benefit levels modestly is hugely expensive and still leaves people marginalised and relatively poor. We are determined to modernise the welfare state by providing opportunities for people to work where they can and providing decent levels of benefit where they cannot. We believe that we will be delivering a welfare state fit to face the challenges ahead.

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I commend to the House the measures contained in the Queen's Speech.

3.31 p.m.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen to the noble Baroness opening a debate. On a day which will highlight industry, as well as economic and social affairs, I am not surprised that she has focused most particularly on social affairs, being expert, if not somewhat repetitive, on the subject as she undoubtedly is. But, even more so, I am a little surprised that she gave no particular focus to either industrial or economic affairs. Indeed, since this debate on the gracious Speech first began just over a week ago, the Government's position has fallen into further disarray.

I shall pass over that incomprehensible explanation from the Chancellor of the Exchequer when giving his position on harmonisation of taxation within the European Union. Suffice it to say that, when the EU Commissioner gave him a coherent and restricted line on what he intended, he rather tellingly failed to follow it through. However, if I do the Chancellor of the Exchequer any injustice as regards the explanation that he has sought to give to the nation, I very much look forward to the noble Lord, Lord Simon, correcting me. It would certainly do the country a great favour if it had some lucid explanation of what the Government intend in this vexed area. It would also be helpful if the noble Lord could explain how that approach will be of benefit to our national economy.

The first of the two events which lead me to conclude that the Government's position has fallen into further disarray was the outcome of the Euro election in north-east Scotland at the end of last week. Until the last European election, the Labour Party actually held that Euro seat and within that seat it still holds five parliamentary constituencies. However, on Thursday it was reduced to third place behind the Tories in Scotland; indeed, that is a part of Scotland where, I regret to say, we do not even hold a single seat. Mrs. Helen Liddell is reported as saying:


    "It would be dangerous for any party to draw conclusions from this result".
At least in one economic sense, to which I shall turn later, there is one very obvious conclusion that we should all draw from that result.

However, it was a doubly curious conclusion because, uniquely in a by-election of that character, the Prime Minister and four Cabinet Ministers appeared to support the Labour Party candidate. I acknowledge that their task was probably a hopeless one because the candidate initially claimed that she had been born in Aberdeen. Then, when it was established that she had not been and had in fact been born in Staffordshire, she fell back on the less provable event that she had been conceived in Aberdeen!

The significance of that electoral event is that I hope it may at long last bring to an end the deeply unattractive blend that has characterised the Government's approach both in the last debate on the gracious Speech and in this one. I have in mind that blend of vindictiveness and triumphalism. I doubt that it will ever get through to

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those pager-controlled clones in another place, but it would infinitely enhance the quality of debates in this House if we were to be freed of that characteristic and were prepared to engage in more reflective debate.

The second event since this debate began, which must have been truly alarming to the Government, was the publication by the Office for National Statistics of UK trade figures for September 1998. When we were in office we were accused of fiddling every set of figures that there ever were--from inflation through to unemployment. Being instinctively a rather more generous-spirited party in opposition, I have no intention whatever of challenging the basis for those statistics. I have no doubt that Mr. David Ruffles, who was the statistician in charge of the trade and goods statistics, is a professional of unimpeachable integrity. His problem is that he has a rough old job. In September 1998 he had to record that the UK deficit in goods is estimated at a record monthly level of £2.5 billion. That is not a record over the past five years, nor is it a record for the 1990s: it is a record since these statistics were first kept.

However, despite that catastrophic decline, the Government accept no responsibility. Instead, the South-East Asians are certainly to be blamed and it also appears that the Russians have made their contribution. In fact, anyone is to blame except the Government. At the same time, the Chancellor of the Exchequer repeats his rather lame mantra, which I noticed the noble Baroness picked up; namely, that there is to be no return to boom or bust. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer were to turn to his economic bed-mate "prudence", whose name he so frequently invokes, I am sure that she would offer him the following reassurance. There was no return to bust because, so far as concerns trade and goods, we are already there.

Before the debate is over, I hope that the Government will tell us by what yardstick we are to judge whether in fact we have returned to bust and whether, in the face of these alarming economic figures, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will revise downwards his growth figures of a few weeks ago, as every responsible commentator in the country recognises is now undoubtedly necessary.

The curiosity of the Government's position is further this: it is never their fault when things go wrong. When everything has failed it is someone else's fault. So when Siemens in the north-east of England had to announce the proposed closure of its remarkable semi-conductor plant in Newcastle, it was not their fault. I actually have some sympathy with the Government over that position because there had indeed been a massive plunge in the worldwide price of semi-conductors. However, I am now pleased to see that there is at least some glimmer of hope that someone may be prepared to take on this factory, continue the semi-conductor production there and provide employment. It is not those who are going to provide the jobs who are to take the credit; indeed, even before the deal has been settled, we have already been told that it is either to the credit of the Prime Minister or Mr. Peter Mandelson that this is to be achieved.

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It might be too much to hope, but if there are results beyond the economic control of the Government, modesty might allow them to acknowledge that they should not seek to take the credit for it if those events correct themselves. On the contrary, a better, more realistic and responsible approach would be to face up to what might be the economic consequences of their own actions.

The noble Baroness made mention of the minimum wage. After what we went through last year, I have no intention of returning to the issue. But it would be helpful, at a time when there are economic problems in this country, if we had at long last some true estimate from the Government of what they believe will be the consequences for those seeking employment. Now that we are to have fairness at work in this Session of Parliament, it would be interesting to know to what extent there is any acknowledgement made that some people may lose their jobs or others may find it much more difficult to secure employment--particularly as it is clear that it will affect a large number of smaller firms, in respect of whom the Government frequently claim to have a real regard. The Government ought to face up to their responsibility for that.

I said that after the north-east of Scotland by-election there was one economic conclusion that we might draw. As the noble Lord, Lord Simon, will certainly have noticed, this past week the price of a barrel of oil descended to a 13-year low in real terms. That has been the lowest price that it has reached. But for anybody watching the price of oil over the past year, it must have been very obvious indeed that that price was certainly not going to firm and that there was every risk it would collapse in the way that it has done.

In spite of that, following on the general election, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that there was to be a review of oil taxation. That oil taxation review bumbled on for month after month after month, and it was only with a sort of adolescent petulance that the indication was given in the early summer that this review would not take place after all. But the Government failed to indicate whether they would be returning to a review of that taxation.

This is not simply a matter of remote interest to those who are keen on taxation matters. It has had a direct knock-on effect on those people who are employed in the fabrication and supply business to the oil industry. Although there is a clear focus on such activities in the north-east of Scotland, there is also a very real focus on that activity all the way up the east coast of the United Kingdom. I would anticipate, as this unhappy downturn occurs in supply and fabrication activity, that regrettably the north-east of England is likely to suffer quite as much as any other part of the country.

I hope that we might at long last get some realisation that it is not only the policies that the Government introduce that might do damage to our economy but that when they are as careless as they were over the oil taxation review they so damaged the confidence of those people who might otherwise have found jobs, or continued in jobs that they had found, that they lost that opportunity.

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Up to this point I have focused my remarks on goods. There was a time when certainly old Labour would have regarded themselves as the jealous guardians of the manufacturing sector in the United Kingdom--a voice that is more muted, certainly in another place, than it once was. I do not want to focus simply on those issues, alarming as they are for the United Kingdom as a whole. But before I conclude I would like to turn to the matter of services. I want to recognise most particularly how important financial services are to the United Kingdom. Something like 1 million people in the City of London work in financial services. What they achieve represents about 7 per cent. of our gross domestic product.

As the gracious Speech unfolded and the debate on it began, we anticipated that we would hear what would happen to the Financial Services Bill. It is a Bill of undoubted complexity. I have no doubt that the Government certainly began on the right course by embarking on extensive consultation. It is troubling that when the Leader of the House rose in the immediate aftermath of the gracious Speech she did not indicate--as we had anticipated and as press reports had led us to believe--that the Bill would be shortly introduced in this House, where there is a wealth of experience which would have significantly improved the Bill before it went to another place. That is not going to happen.

We have been advised that this Bill will not be introduced, as I understand it, at any time before the spring of next year. It will not be subjected to careful, expert scrutiny in your Lordships' House first, as one might have anticipated. The indications to date are that it will be introduced in another place. The other place might deal with it more superficially than your Lordships, but, nevertheless, if it is introduced in the spring it will undoubtedly take many weeks before the Bill has been properly considered in another place. We are then left with the alarming question of when are we to have the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill in the fashion which is undoubtedly required. There are a number of points of principle that we will need to discuss, and there is certainly a myriad of details we will want to examine carefully.

On points of principle, for example, we would wish to see a clear objective contained within the Bill that it is to be part of the responsibilities of that new single super regulator to ensure an international competitiveness for the United Kingdom. I fear that, as consultation has progressed there is growing unease in the financial sector that, far from there being simply an issue of regulation here, there may be the alarming risk that the Bill will contain a rather anti-competitive characteristic. Given the responsibilities of the noble Lord, Lord Simon, for competitiveness, I hope that he will reassure us that a clear regard will be had to that particular issue.


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