Queen's Speech Debate, 17 May 2005

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6.19 p.m.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): May I begin by congratulating you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your return as Chairman of Ways and Means, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) on her excellent maiden speech. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) made a fine maiden speech and I am sure that he will make a valuable contribution to our debates. He certainly has a hard act to follow in his predecessor, who was well respected here, which is evidenced by his imminent accession to the other place. I was going to congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, on her new appointment, but unfortunately she has just left the Chamber. I intend to refer directly to her responsibilities.

I welcome the Queen's Speech, especially the references to creating safe and secure communities and fostering a culture of respect. Such policies will be greatly welcomed throughout the country, not least in my constituency. At the forefront of such policies will be our elected local authorities. They are not mentioned directly in the Queen's Speech, so I hope that that points to a period of stability and a lack of interference by central Government, although I somehow doubt it. However, I have a great deal of respect for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Communities and Local Government and I know that he will have the strength of character to overcome the prejudices of the civil service when dealing with local government.

Thinking about democratic mandates brings me neatly to House of Lords reform. Unlike the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I do not believe that the effectiveness of the House of Lords is measured by how well it frustrates the mandate of the elected Government - whatever political colour they might be. If he believes that people in the country at large want another 500 elected politicians, with their salaries and expenses, he has not been watching events very closely.

I was pleased by the reference in the Queen's Speech to continuing the reform of the House of Lords. Although I must admit that that was not a prime topic of conversation raised with me on the doorstep, it remains a fundamental plank of the constitutional bridge by which we have brought the governance of the United Kingdom into the 21st century. Great steps have already been made in the direction of reform, and although the hereditary principle has been consigned to the political dustbin for all but the remaining few, the breezes of reform are yet to blow away the last vestiges of power held by a wealthy, privileged class. However, I am sure that many hon. Members share my amusement at the irony that the only democratic element in the upper House is the remaining hereditary peers, who recently had to hold a democratic ballot to select a replacement for a deceased peer.

There must be further reform to make the second chamber more representative and accountable. The status quo is not sustainable, and when the remaining hereditaries are gone - I hope that that will happen soon - it will be totally unacceptable for the entire House to be appointed by the Prime Minister, whoever that might be. On the other hand, an elected, or partly elected, second chamber would seriously threaten the primacy of the House of Commons and destabilise our system of government.

Before we enter into a debate on how representatives in the other place should be selected, it is important to decide what the functions of the second chamber should be. It has long been my view that the second chamber's role should be deliberative, revising and advisory. The job of holding the Executive to account is for the Opposition and Back Benchers in this place, not for the House of Lords. It should be a function of the second chamber that it can suggest, but not make, amendments to legislation. Such amendments could be deposited in the Vote Office of the House of Commons, but would have to be tabled by a Member of the House of Commons and debated and voted on here. There would be no more ping-pong or deliberate attempts to frustrate the will of the democratically elected House of Commons. Amendments would thus be more likely to be well considered and genuinely helpful, instead of being the politically motivated decisions that emanated from the Lords during the last Parliament.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I am interested by what my hon. Friend is saying, but does he agree that we should consider not only the powers and responsibilities of the upper House, which are important, but the way in which this House operates? Does he agree that an important aspect of reforming the system of scrutiny would be to enshrine in the processes of the House pre-legislative scrutiny, which worked effectively in the last Parliament?

Mr. Clelland: I agree with my hon. Friend. The system of draft Bills that was tried in the last Parliament worked extremely well, so I hope that the Government will increasingly adopt it in the future.

The second chamber should give well considered advice, publicly debate the great issues of the day and make comment on the quality of legislation and governance, with its views commanding wide respect. It should be made up of people selected for their experience and knowledge and considered qualified to offer advice and guidance to the elected House. However, such a second chamber could not be guaranteed by elections.

There is more to our democracy than elected politicians. Many bodies - statutory, voluntary and professional - play an important, and indeed vital, role in our democratic society. I envisage the second chamber drawing its membership from those bodies. They would provide the gender and ethnic balance that still eludes the Commons, but is needed if a truly revising, advisory and representative body is to have any claim to legitimacy.

It would be possible to create a second chamber made up of such eminent people while making it representative and more accountable. However, that would not be achieved by creating yet another appointments commission because that would be only a small step towards more democracy. Experience shows that appointments commissions merely appoint people such as their members. Also, who appoints the appointments commission?

We must make the selection of representatives in the Lords more democratic by widening the responsibility for making appointments. Political parties should appoint representatives regionally, perhaps in proportion to the number of votes cast in the general election. Local government and devolved Assemblies should appoint representatives, as should business, trade unions, voluntary bodies, religious organisations and so on. We would thus create a representative second chamber with members who would be accountable to their appointing organisations. It would be separate and distinct from, but complementary to, the elected House of Commons. Such a new second chamber would add value to our system of governance and, in the words of our manifesto, be more

"effective, legitimate and more representative without challenging the primacy of the House of Commons."

Perhaps more important than widening access to power is widening access to prosperity and opportunity. I am proud to be a member of a political party with that as its central tenet of belief. The Labour Government have done much more than any previous Government to attack poverty and the causes of poverty, and that work must be intensified during this Parliament, both at home and overseas. I welcome the references in the Queen's Speech to such matters.

I was also pleased to hear the references to support for housing costs. Many of my constituents struggle to get on the first rung of the housing ladder, even though they live in the north of England, where prices are much lower than in the south. Some housing associations providing shared ownership schemes have offered welcome help and support to first-time buyers, but there is a snag to that. Shared ownership can mean that a housing association effectively owns part of a property while the buyer has a mortgage for the rest. The original intention was that the buyer would buy out the association and become the sole owner. However, the rise in property prices has meant that rather than a buyer having to repay the £15,000 contributed by the association, for example, he or she must pay many times that sum because the value of the house is now nearer £75,000 than the original £30,000. Such a sum is completely beyond the means of many home owners, so they are thus prevented from getting off the first rung of the housing ladder. I make a plea for a structure that recognises housing associations' contributions by allowing them to charge a reasonable amount of interest on the sum borrowed, but does not let them share fully in the increased value of the property, thus avoiding trapping people with a debt that they can never repay.

There is a reference in the Queen's Speech to help for consumers. Many years ago, I introduced a private Member's Bill that hit the statute book as the Sale and Supply of Goods Act 1994. I was proud of the legislation, which for the first time, amazingly, meant that goods sold had to be fit for the purpose for which they were sold. That principle now seems to have been enshrined in most of our commercial transactions. However, one thing remains glaringly exempt: the private sale of motor cars. The daughter of a friend of mine recently bought a car for £3,000. After taking it in for a service, she was told that it was a death trap. When she took it back to the seller, she was told, "Tough." Aficionados of "Only Fools and Horses" will be familiar with Boycie, the man from whom one should not buy a used car. Sadly, Boycie is by no means a fictitious character. I am afraid that he is alive and well in many areas. Although it may be a joke on a TV programme, it is not a joke for the many hard-working citizens who buy a used car only to find - sometimes only days later - that the car on which they have spent their hard-earned cash, or for which they have taken out a loan at an exorbitant interest rate, is not roadworthy.

It is probably impossible to legislate for rogues and charlatans to have scruples or, dare I say it, respect, but it is certainly possible to legislate to ensure that it would be illegal to sell a car with less than, say, nine months of a valid MOT certificate to run. That would give the buyer some measure of confidence in the roadworthiness of the vehicle and some redress with the testing station should it turn out not to be so. It would also afford much protection for hard-working families. I hope that the Government find time in the other measures that Her Majesty said would be laid before us to introduce such simple but essential protection to buyers, to say nothing of making our roads safer.

Although not referred to directly in the Queen's Speech, transport is none the less vital to the pursuance of many of the Government's objectives. It is an aspect of Government policy that needs to be elevated up the priority list, nationally and in the North-East. Driving down to the House yesterday, I noticed much ongoing work to improve the road network, and there were several instances of major improvements to the A1. None, however, were in the North-East. Ours is a much neglected region in terms of investment in the transport infrastructure and remains the only region in Britain not directly linked to the national motorway network.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Get real.

Mr. Clelland: Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene?

Robert Key: Yes. If the hon. Gentleman were to experience the congestion, the gridlock and the lack of investment in roads in the south of England, he might think twice before coming to the House and begging for money for roads in the North-East.

Mr. Clelland: If I am ignorant of road congestion in the south, the hon. Gentleman is equally ignorant of problems in the North-East. I represent the North-East and am entitled to argue on behalf of my region.

Let me educate the hon. Gentleman. The links from the north to Scotland rely on miles on single carriageway roads. Our links to the north-west are on intermittent stretches of dual and single carriageway. Our links to the south are by two-lane motorway and then dual carriageway through North Yorkshire. The traffic congestion on the A1 western bypass through Gateshead and Newcastle rivals the worst cases elsewhere and, I suggest, anything experienced in the south-west. It will get much worse without early intervention.

The North-East badly needs a detailed regional integrated transport plan to link our conurbations and to serve our local communities. Regional transport plans, drawn up in the regions, by the people from the regions, should form an integral part of national transport planning. Bus operators have more interest in their licence to print money than in their licence to run buses. There is no effective control of bus services and no meaningful integration with other modes of transport, such as the Tyne and Wear Metro system. We need legislation to bring some regulation of local bus services back to local authorities so that they have an influence over the services provided to local people.

Mr. Kevan Jones: On what my hon. Friend says about integrated transport in the North-East, many of the problems in my constituency relate to bus travel. They were made worse following deregulation by the Conservative Government. Does he agree that one thing the North-East needs is a single passenger transport authority, or some other body, to control transport for the entire region? It is quite a small region, but it is still divided, with different types of transport in operation.

Mr. Clelland: I agree entirely. That is my point. We need a regional transport strategy and a regional transport authority to plan and implement it. The Tyne and Wear Metro system is badly in need of modernisation, upgrading and, some would say, extending. I look forward to the co-operation of Transport Ministers in the sensible and detailed proposals of the transport executive, Nexus, to maintain that popular system at the quality and level of service to which people have become used.

We need more adventurous thinking in the Department for Transport, and I hope that the Eddington review helps to provide that. Our manifesto said that we will consider options for a new generation of high-speed intercity trains. My recent question to the Secretary of State about the use of the linear motor - the Maglev system - to provide fast, efficient and environmentally friendly intercity trains met with the comment that only one small stretch had been tried in China, and it was still in the experimental stage. Why, when the linear motor was developed here more than 50 years ago, are we waiting for some other country to develop it before we are brave enough to put a toe in the water? We should be leading the way in innovative and climate-friendly transport systems, not following others.

The proposed provision of free local transport for the elderly is very welcome, but it is restricted to buses and local authority boundaries. Unless that can be extended and applied to systems like the Tyne and Wear Metro, which accounts for 20 per cent. of all public transport journeys in the area, the system will suffer a drop in revenue, the flexibility of travel modes will be restricted, and those who live in areas served mainly by metro will have to pay, while those where buses predominate will travel for free.

Transport is one of the major challenges facing the new Government, and I hope that we see new and radical proposals to drag it into the 21st century. That would cost money, of course, but a fraction of the money going into London transport and the proposed Crossrail system would provide much needed relief and a boost to the economy of the North-East.

The north-south divide continues to dominate the harbingers of doom and despair in the northern press. Although things have certainly improved in the North-East - unemployment has tumbled, measures such as the minimum wage have hugely improved the lives of thousands of citizens, educational achievement has improved and new health services have been introduced - the disparity between the north and the south is not reducing as the current philosophy that all regions should advance equally maintains its breadth and its depth.

However, for most citizens the quality of life in the region remains high. Ours is a region of beauty and culture, with a proud history of contributing to the prosperity of this country. The efforts of people in the region to improve the lives and lifestyles of the population are showing real dividends. The Chancellor's target of full employment is welcome and achievable, but only if the region's economy is growing and sustainable. In that regard, Government assistance in bringing more research and development into the region, which has the lowest level of research and development, and the redistribution of the promised civil service functions out of London and the south, would be of much assistance. More respect for, and policies to assist, the manufacturing industry would be greatly welcomed in the North-East.

I also welcome proposals to bring about greater voter participation. Postal voting has proved popular. Although we need safeguards against abuse, the experience in Newcastle and Gateshead is that it has worked well, and more and more electors are requesting it. That was certainly the experience in the last general election.

In this historic third-term Labour Government, we have a great opportunity to bring about a fundamental and positive shift in the social and economic life of our citizens and the way in which our country is governed. I know that the basic principles of the Labour party will take us in that direction and that this Government will implement the policies to get us there. The Queen's Speech is the first step along the way.

6.38 p.m.

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