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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I do not believe that the noble and learned Lord had that qualification in his letter. I am not wriggling. I hear what the noble and learned Lord says. As a very clever lawyer, he tells the House that noble Lords' licence to rebel on this Bill has been withdrawn because he has found a way out of it. It seems that it is no longer madness just because there may be an appeal. That is a pretty lean defence. But the noble and learned Lord has had a few lean defences, some of which have probably been quite successful given his experience at the Bar.
I turn to the proposals relating to freedom of information. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, interestingly this proposal may make information more difficult to obtain than at present. Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of
The proposals relating to electoral matters and referendums in particular are an inadequate response to the Neill Committee. It is a totally inadequate response to what the Nairne Commission had to say on the conduct of referendums. That is a serious omission that we shall probe. However, one welcome omission from the gracious Speech is that the Government appear to have gone very cold on playing around with the first-past-the-post electoral system which has served us well in this country for so many years.
When the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, summed up the debate before the closing speakers, which seemed a bit unusual, I realised that the Government had learnt from the mistakes of Monday when the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, gave a fairly inadequate reply (to put it at its kindest) to the agricultural debate. My noble friend Lady Byford said of that inadequate reply that it,
Still on the countryside, the Post Office privatisation Bill is an interesting one. I so describe it because yesterday I received an admission from the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, following an intervention in his speech. He made quite clear that,
I know from experience of the past few days that it is pointless to quote OECD figures or House of Commons figures on the burden of taxation. According to the Government, those are out of date. I am surprised they do not say that they are not modern. That really means that the Government do not like them. I shall not quote those figures. But I shall use some other government figures about specific taxes. I have a Written Answer in another place on 11th November to the Written Question from my honourable friend Mr Tim Boswell about petrol prices throughout the European Union. The United Kingdom's position is quite secure. We are at the top of the list for the price of unleaded petrol per litre. Why are we at the top of the league for the price of unleaded petrol per litre? It is because we are at the top of the league for the tax on petrol per litre. It seems amazing that the Chancellor continues to ratchet that up so that we are at least at the top of that league.
And then there is ACT and pensions. I make no apology for a brief mention of pensions, in which I have had some involvement over the past years. ACT was a £5 billion a year hit on pension funds. Yet pensions are what this gracious Speech tells us the Government are keen on, and they will introduce pension reforms. On the one hand they want more people to have more pensions; and on the other hand, they whack those with pension provision with a £5 billion a year hit. Talk about saying one thing and then doing another, my Lords.
These and all the other burdens placed on business are estimated to cost something like £5 billion a year. Listen to a small business man: Mr Stefano Boni of Boni's ice cream shop in Edinburgh. He said:
Of course the Government tell us that they are going to do something about it. They have set up task forces up and down Whitehall. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, was told that there were 33 task forces in being. That is not strictly true because over the past three years I gather that the figure is about ten times that number, with hundreds of people brought in to sit on these task forces, and all done in secret.
Big companies are at the forefront. One of them has loaned--I think that would be the right word--the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. He leads the Better Regulation Task Force. Some noble Lords with shares in Northern Foods might think that he would be better employed doing his day job rather than going down Whitehall. But down Whitehall he chairs meetings in Conference Room A in the Cabinet Office. Those of us who have been in government, and those of your Lordships now in government, will know that the chairing of Conference Room A committees is normally reserved for Cabinet Ministers.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I shall come in a moment to this unusual experience of seeing the noble Lord here. But when will the noble Lord answer questions for his responsibility in the Cabinet Office? That is the question. My goodness--must not his attendance here be a relief to the Chief Whip, who must have wondered whether the noble Lord was ever going to come to vote for the Government!
So the burden of taxation is up; the burden of regulation is up; and the Government's programme lacks coherence and vision--exactly our amendment. I suspect that I shall hear from the noble Baroness the Leader of the House that we have no right to propose an amendment to the Queen's Speech. Have the Government no sense of history? As recently as 1996, the then Opposition proposed an amendment and voted on it. Explaining his decision, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, had this to say--and before everyone gets worried, I shall not quote from that stunningly good read which is Lady Richard's diary but from Hansard:
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, first, I must apologise for my dismal voice. I can say one thing with confidence about my contribution; it will certainly read better than it will sound. I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, finally addressed the Motion on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I was equally delighted that the noble Lord was present to hear it. The dog has finally barked. It has been curiously ignored throughout the five days of the debate, but the time has come to take the Motion head on and urge the House to reject it.
Given the amendment's sweeping condemnation of the Government's programme, it is surprising that so few speakers from any place in the House bothered to discuss it. I have to believe that perhaps noble Lords, with their usual political acumen, have followed what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, said at the beginning of the debate; that this is an amendment being pushed from behind. Or perhaps more likely, I suggest, it is being pushed from the other end of the corridor. Is one's suspicion that the amendment was drafted in another place by those who we learn are strong on jokes but weak on judgment?
The amendment apart, the debate has been characterised by its authority and diversity. I have been struck by two general impressions. The first is the problem of the size of the agenda. Reference was made--I thought slightly unfairly--to my noble friend Lady Blackstone. However, what was interesting about the exchanges between my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, at the end of the debate on the third day was that they somewhat unusually agreed on this issue. Both noble Baronesses admirably sought to respond to matters ranging from further education to fur farming and both found difficulty in adequately addressing every policy area covered by the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
The issue was raised in different contexts at different times and at the beginning of the day the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, raised the relevant point about the conclusion of today's debate. The problem of the over-rich menu is not new. I am bound to say that this year it reflects the rich programme which the Government are putting forward. However, there are questions about how subject matter is divided between different days of the debate on the Address which could usefully be explored before we begin another Session. I hope that that can be taken forward through the usual channels and I note what noble Lords said today about a possible role in this for the Procedure Committee.
I believe that my second overall impression is shared by everyone who has spoken. It is the outstanding quality of the large number of maiden speakers who have taken the opportunity to enrich our debate. They have covered many interests, from my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, speaking about the vitality of her arts education, to my noble friend Lord
All the speakers have maintained the exceptionally high quality of previous days. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, who I know has had to leave, in looking forward to the first non-controversial speech of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth! Very importantly, I think that all the maiden speakers have shown the special combination of expertise and understanding of the real world urged on your Lordships by my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley when she moved the Motion on the gracious Speech last Wednesday.
Turning now to the major topics of today's debate on health and home affairs, I think that my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath has been able to reply very successfully to many of the points made about health policy. I will attempt to respond to some of the general points raised on home affairs. However, I am aware of the time, of the state of my voice and the need, as I said just now, to take the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde's, amendment head on, so I hope noble Lords will understand if, on this occasion, my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton deals with detailed points in writing.
There is clearly a great interest and a variety of strong opinion in your Lordships' House on the mode of trial Bill. I believe it is important that the Bill will be taken first in this House. I am sure it will benefit from the scrutiny of the distinguished lawyers and experts in criminal justice in the House, some of whom, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, we have heard from today. Incidentally, I am sure I can say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, that he would have advised his wife to appeal to the Crown Court if he had thought that she was being inappropriately treated by magistrates. That right, as my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General just explained in response to the noble Lord who wound up for the Opposition, will now be open to everyone.
As a non-lawyer, I would simply say to those who have expressed alarm about what they see as a full-frontal assault on all our civil liberties that I have been surprised by the relatively small scale of the changes proposed. As my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton said in introducing the debate, the right to elect a jury trial applies today to only a small number of cases. Over 90 per cent of all criminal cases are already dealt with in the magistrates' courts. Over the years, this number has been increased by reclassifying the number of cases to be heard. I would remind the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, that between 1977 and 1979, for example, under a
I thought today's debate was enhanced by the unique authority of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, speaking on the political parties' elections and referendums Bill. The noble Lord helpfully reminded the House that the Government have adopted the vast majority of the recommendations in his widely supported report. We did not hear any challenge from the Opposition to his proposals now being incorporated in the Bill on openness about party funding. There was perhaps unsurprising silence too on the questions of overseas donations and trusts.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Gale for so clearly setting out her practical experience in Wales of containing election expenses and her support for the changes in the election procedures. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, also made a very interesting contribution basing her remarks on her practical experience of local government in London.
The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, not surprisingly perhaps, attracted vigorous contributions, notably from the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and from the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. I confirm that the Bill concerns two very important issues: equality before the law and the protection of the most vulnerable, children. The Bill raises issues which are a matter for each person's conscience. It will therefore, as in the last Session, be subject to a free vote. However, this time, as my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton made clear, the Parliament Acts will be used to secure its passage if the other place again votes for the Bill and this House again rejects it. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, said that this was extraordinary given that the arguments against the Bill had yet to be heard. I suggest respectfully to the noble Baroness that, although I am absolutely sure that her advocacy will be, as it always is, well considered and powerfully presented, I doubt that we shall hear any new arguments when the Bill is again brought forward.
I turn now to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. The amendment complains that there is no vision in the gracious Speech. Yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, insisted that the vision was Marxist, third-way Marxism. That is an intriguing concept. But either way, no vision or Marxist vision, I must insist that both assertions are preposterous.
In reality, the gracious Speech has one central, coherent theme--to build a Britain which is fair and includes enterprise for everyone. All our measures promote sound economics and usher in a new economy based on knowledge and skill. Our programme alleviates poverty and social division, tackles crime, further reforms welfare and takes
Enterprise contributes centrally to the platform of economic stability which we need, not just for its own sake but in order to deliver our commitments to modernise schools and hospitals; to tackle crime; and to reform the welfare state. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, that we are determined to give public services the investment and status they deserve.
We are determined also to have our vision of fairness completed. I am sure that that must be shared by many of your Lordships. It is a vision of the eradication of child poverty; a vision of full employment; a vision of an end to discrimination of every kind; a vision that gives equal, fair opportunities to all.
Our programme for this Session builds specifically on what we have begun to achieve. It continues those themes. Bills on e-commerce, skills for over-16s, transport, reducing regulation and the Post Office promote enterprise. Bills to protect children and elderly people, to provide decent pensions for all, to improve the ways in which the public is protected from criminals, to give access to the countryside and to remove race discrimination across the public sector guarantee fairness. Much of our legislation addresses both issues. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, may not like that narrative but he cannot complain that it is not coherent.
The noble Lord made it clear that he sees it as his job to scrutinise the Government more closely. I welcome that. I believe that the Government's programme can more than withstand the kind of scrutiny which his party may be able to muster.
On the fourth day of the debate, in the amendment before us and in the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, the Opposition have sought to scrutinise closely the Government's record on tax and regulation. My noble friends Lord Sainsbury of Turville and Lord McIntosh of Haringey robustly rejected those accusations in detail yesterday. This evening I do not intend to replay the disputes as regards the Red Book versus the OECD, the tax burden as a proportion of GDP or price inflation and so on. I simply ask noble Lords opposite, if those obstacles of high taxation and red tape are so threatening and destructive, why is the economy doing so well? Why are so many people better off?
In this month's pre-Budget report, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out the Government's economic strategy. We are taking action to secure a platform of economic stability, low inflation, steady growth and sound public finances. Long-term interest and mortgage rates are at historically low levels. More people--27.5 million--are in work than ever before. The claimant count for unemployment is at its lowest for 19 years.
We are making work pay for people who, under the previous government, were caught in a poverty trap. The working families' tax credit means that no family with someone in work will take home less than £200 per week. The national minimum wage has benefited 2 million people--1.2 million of them women.
Two-and-a-half years ago, I also spoke to wind up the debate on the gracious Speech, the first from this Government. Noble Lords on the Benches opposite predicted disaster and failure. Independence for the Bank of England would not work. The national minimum wage would cost a million jobs. The New Deal would fail to provide new jobs. What do we find? Interest rates and inflation are low, the economy is stable, employment is up and unemployment down.
Last Wednesday the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition tried to tease us about the 1997 pledge card. Not only do I always carry my pledge card with me; I have the updated version in my diary which gives us the record of the Government so far and asks the people who receive it to achieve more. On both of them the Prime Minister looks extremely confident and cheerful.
So, I am not afraid to be reminded about our commitments. However, I wonder how comfortable it is for the noble Lord opposite to be reminded about what he and his party said two-and-a-half years ago. How many of the policies that they opposed then do they still oppose? Would they challenge the independence of the Bank of England? Would they repeal the working families' tax credit, the national minimum wage and parental leave? Would they reverse our NHS and education investments? Even more importantly, what would they do instead? We have heard many criticisms from the Benches opposite but few alternatives.
Perhaps I may trespass on the time of the House for two more minutes. Last Thursday the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, offered advice to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about using his current majority over the Government in this House with care and discretion. Perhaps, with due temerity, I may offer a further piece of advice. Just because you have the ability to do something does not necessarily mean that you should do it. If the noble Lord, as he says he intends to do, presses the amendment to a vote and wins, what does he achieve? The only consequence will be that the Government will send the humble Address to Her Majesty and it will contain a misdirected expression of dissatisfaction. Frankly, what is the purpose of making a political point to a constitutional monarch?
The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said that he wishes to demonstrate that the transition House has greater legitimacy, but the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition does not intend to disrupt the Government's programme. I am delighted that the noble Earl now agrees with me that this House, without the majority of the hereditary Peers, is more legitimate. What a pity that that was not admitted during all the hours of debate last Session on the House of Lords Act when we were constantly told that this would be a chamber of cronies, a rubber stamp.
I really do think that the noble Lord should think carefully about the signals he is sending. The Conservative Party still has a majority over the Government in this House. However, the noble Lord should remember that at the last election the Labour Government received a large parliamentary majority to carry through measures such as those proposed in the gracious Speech. If the noble Lord presses this amendment and wins, he will be saying once again that the unelected Tory Peers still do not accept the election result.
Frankly, I am not surprised that the Benches opposite are against the contents of the gracious Speech. It is not surprising because the party opposite is opposed to the creation of a modern Britain. It is committed to combating change. It is rigorous in being reactionary. It is not surprising either that it says it is against fairness. It has always been a party of privilege. These days, it is not even surprising that it appears to be opposed to certain forms of enterprise--that, I am afraid, picks up the point of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, about his ice-cream man--with its government record of boom and bust. It is true, and I recognise the particular anecdote of the ice-cream man, that many business people have rightly abandoned the party opposite in favour of a political party that is creating a stable environment for investment.
The gracious Speech expounds a coherent vision of a prosperous and fair life for Britons in the 21st century; a vision opposed by the Conservatives, who are still a majority in this House but a receding minority in the country at large. I invite the House to accept the Government's vision. I commend the gracious Speech to your Lordships and urge you to reject the amendment.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, this debate moved rather more quickly than I originally estimated, so I must apologise for my late arrival. I was present earlier this evening with the Captain of the Gentlemen at Arms and the Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, who are now standing at the Bar. The difference between me and them is that they had the courage to remain correctly dressed while I had to get changed.
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