Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, it is an important milestone and I very much hope that her family will take her out for a splendidly organised celebration this evening. We have had our differences in the past and we shall no doubt have them again in the future. However, this afternoon I declare a cessation to any hostilities and I wish her again a very happy birthday.

During the rest of this debate I look forward also to the many maiden speakers whom we shall hear. I hope that we shall hear from those speakers much again in the future.

Today I am not particularly interested in the question of the legitimacy of the new House. The fundamental reason why I move this amendment is

18 Nov 1999 : Column 34

that it is high time to subject this Government's performance to far more critical scrutiny in this House. That is, and always has been, the role of your Lordships' House. We are not going to disrupt the Government's business. I scent in that a new Labour lie in the making. What we shall do is to carry out our duty of scrutinising and revising.

This Government now have a record, and that record is not a good one. The tax burden is up; red tape and regulation are up; and the number of spin doctors and policy wonks lurking in No. 10 at the taxpayer's expense is up. However, so much of what is happening is not living up to fine words. Where is the beef? Come to mention it, where is the beef? It is certainly not where it should be--on the bone, on the dining tables of Britain and France and Germany. This issue represents another bumbling, bungling foreign affairs fiasco of the kind that we have come to know so well. And we, Great Britain, are supposed to be influential in the chancelleries of Europe. When shall we have a parliamentary Statement on what has happened in relation to beef?

Back in year one of this Government--and how long ago that glad, confident morning now looks--amid the tawdry and pathetic wrangling and gerrymandering over the mayoralty of London, it all started with promises. The trouble is that wherever one looks--helping savers, reducing taxes, putting 5,000 more policemen on the beat, strengthening the family, waiting to see the doctor--the promises are still just that--just promises; words, words and more words. As the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, said yesterday, is it not time that the Government began to reconnect with the real world? By the way, do the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, and her colleagues on the Front Bench still have that dog-eared pledge card in their pockets? I rather doubt it. I suspect that the noble Baroness is far too sensible for that. However, I bet that later on this evening they will be rifling through their desks trying to find it just in case the people at Millbank read this debate. So much for year one--the year of empty promises.

In year two, the Prime Minister declared that it was to be the year of delivery. We all remember that phrase, "the year of delivery". But why are we still waiting for the delivery? Is that why we have a half-baked Post Office Bill in the gracious Speech? I have to ask: where is the delivery? Old people in pain are waiting longer to see surgeons in our hospitals; disabled savers face penal denial of the help for which they have paid; people's savings have been despoiled and 10 million future retirements impoverished; grant-maintained schools have gone; poor children have lost assistance for the best that education can provide and grammar schools are now under threat; and small firms, the backbone of our economy, are groaning under a burden of new regulation. And now what is happening? The Government are setting up a new committee to catch the old committee that was supposed to be trying to stop all the other committees regulating too much. It is a comic opera. "There was an old woman who swallowed a fly" has nothing on it. It would be ridiculous if it was not so sad.

18 Nov 1999 : Column 35

The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has just reported that small companies of up to 10 people are now paying almost £2,000 a year more because of new Labour regulation. Slightly larger firms of up to 50 employees are paying nearly £5,000 a year more on average just to fill in forms and respond to regulators. Frontier industries that we desperately need, like IT consultants, are being hounded from pillar to post. A million small traders are sitting up until midnight filling in the Government's forms. The cost is estimated to run into hundreds of millions of pounds. That comes from a Government who claim to be the friend of business and who claim to be deregulating.

It is no good claiming that when you have a Queen's Speech like this, one which will launch a mass of new regulations on utilities, on financial services, on farmers, on landowners, on transport, on motorists--you name it, they regulate it. Where old Labour controlled through nationalisation, new Labour controls through regulation. They are like reformed alcoholics: throwing out the old-fashioned whisky and reaching for a trendy new cosmopolitan cocktail. But the result is much the same--a "We know best" Government, and they love telling us about it.

Now we are told that it is time for the countryside to sit up and be thankful because there is going to be a new committee for rural affairs. That will have them setting up statues of the Prime Minister in Norfolk, Devon and Shropshire. The countryside is groaning in agony, and what does this gracious Speech give it--the right to roam, and of course a free hand for a Bill against fox-hunting. This is a government of urban dwellers for whom the countryside is a giant theme park on which to impose their values; not a place where millions of people live, and struggle in order to make a living. Who made the countryside what it is today? It was not Labour Ministers with three homes but working farmers, country dwellers and, yes, even caring landowners. They made the countryside what it is, but this Government hit them where it hurts; time after time after time. It is country people who know the value of the motor car; and thanks to this Government, they know the cost of driving, too. It has never been higher--not in any country of the world.

This gracious Speech contains as its crown jewel a transport Bill. Apparently, the Deputy Prime Minister has been fighting for this Bill for more than three years. A transport Bill will do nothing for the motorist and little for anyone else. What will the Bill do for all those older people who need a car to run to the shops and carry the shopping? It will tax them. What will it do for town centres and the small shops and markets when people take their custom elsewhere? It will close them. The only people who will rejoice at a tax on town centre driving will be the owners of the out-of-town supercentres--Wal-Mart; Sainsbury; the big battalions that are this Prime Minister's favoured friends.

I warned yesterday about the potential size of the transport Bill. It is an incoherent Bill at the heart of an incoherent programme. What possible relation is there between the regulation of railways, buses and the

18 Nov 1999 : Column 36

future of air traffic control? It is certainly not an integrated transport policy. The Deputy Prime Minister has been searching for that for three years and, like the North Pole in Winnie the Pooh's great expedition, it is yet to be found.

The gracious Speech shows that if the Government are the party of the people, it is certainly not country people. It is not the motorist. It is not savers, for whom this speech does nothing. It is not taxpayers, who now face a tax burden soaring ever higher. It is not teachers, who face new burdens in the classrooms. It is not families, who will find family life further undermined by the speech. Will this gracious Speech help any of those people? No, I think it will not. It is a speech that will give more power to the people who sit on the backs of other people. It is a Magna Carta for the regulators, the new agencies and the inspectors. It is manna to the single issue campaigners who bask in government favour. But on the great things that count--health, schools, choice and family--it is silent. It deals with fur and foxes and councils wanting to promote homosexuality to young children. But where is the concern for our old people and for those who are sick?

The Government now have an established character. It is a bossy, fussy, meddling character that is fully reflected in this incoherent and grossly overloaded gracious Speech. At home we see it in a political correctness running out of control. I detest bigotry and I loathe discrimination, but if the Government lose touch with the common sense of the British people in telling them how to live and breathe--whether about race or sexuality or about what they can think, wear or eat--they will be in danger of damaging the very objectives that they hold dear. One cannot enforce tolerance by restrictive legislation, by a mentality that sees evil and hears institutional evil where there is none. One cannot uphold liberty by banning things one does not like. The doctrine of subjective and selective liberty is one that is ultimately a threat to liberty itself. We should bear that in mind when we look at some of the provisions that we are promised in this Session of Parliament.

Among the measures at which we will want to look extremely carefully are the proposals on freedom of information. This amounts to a freedom to have the information that Ministers want you to have. We will be looking to extend the Bill and I hope that we will be joined by Peers from all sides of the House. We are also deeply worried by the restriction on the right to trial by jury. We know that the Prime Minister's mania for modernisation has run from Britain--last week to the Commonwealth, yesterday to the United Nations, and no doubt in future to the rest of the world. But are there not some ancient things worth preserving and is not the right to trial by jury one of them? I must warn the Government that they will have trouble from this House with the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Moynihan will wind up tonight on defence and foreign affairs. But having heard the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, I must ask what has happened to the ethical foreign policy. I salute the opening of the way to bring China into the

18 Nov 1999 : Column 37

WTO. That will do more for the world economy and for freedom in China than a thousand homilies from the Chancellor or the Foreign Secretary. It could be one of the seminal events of our times. How ironic that it comes almost 10 years to the week of the crumbling of the Iron Curtain. We need constructive engagement with China. But did that justify the fawning and kow-towing to President Jiang Zemin on his recent visit, or the heavy-handed policing? I do not think so. All of us have in mind the unfolding tragedy in Chechnya. I also acknowledge the moving words of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, on Kosovo. But what happened to the Blair doctrine? Has it been shelved because Russia is strong and Serbia was weak? Why is President Jiang Zemin as gut-warmingly good as former President Pinochet is gut-wrenchingly bad? Is it because China is strong and Chile is weak; or is it because the ethical foreign policy is so much humbug and hypocrisy? I do not mind Her Majesty's Government pursuing our national interest--

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page