The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech During 1995 Queen’s Speech Debate – 15 November 1995

Below is the transcript of Mr Major’s Commons speech during the 1995 Debate on the Queen’s Speech, on 15th November 1995.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield) It is traditional at the beginning of our debate, before commending the right hon. and hon. Members who have just spoken, to note the deaths of hon. Members in the past year. I am sure that the House will want to record its appreciation of the work of Sir James Kilfedder, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, Geoffrey Dickens and Derek Enright – different characters, but people who all, in their different ways, brightened the dullness of political life. They will be missed. In particular, perhaps I may be permitted, on behalf of the Opposition, to express our grief at the tragic and very recent loss of Derek Enright, who will be long remembered and deeply mourned.

I am delighted to commend the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) and the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth). The speech of the right hon. Member for Witney was, of course, as elegant as ever. As Northern Ireland Secretary, Home Secretary and, indeed, Foreign Secretary, he was never less than decent, assiduous and honest – and, on occasions, he was far-sighted, courageous and successful. He served no fewer than three Prime Ministers and was totally loyal to all three, which I would take as a compliment.

After the election, of course, the right hon. Gentleman will have more time for his own writing and Conservative Members will find food for thought in at least two of his earlier offerings. Written in the 1970s, they tell of a rather different age and, indeed, a different Conservative party. One is called “Truth Game” and the other “An End to Promises” – probably not many sales among the Cabinet nowadays. The best testimonial to the right hon. Member for Witney, whose speech I enjoyed and I commend him for it, was that offered by his friend and colleague the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir J. Critchley), who said that he is “a touch too clever for the Tory party.” That charge has never to my knowledge been levelled against the hon. Member for City of Chester, but I greatly commend him for his speech. I mean no offence when I say that I greeted the end of it with some relief since I gather that he holds the world record for after-dinner speaking. It is recorded that he spoke for 12 hours and 32 minutes, though sadly it is not recorded how many of the audience stayed to the end of it.

The hon. Member for City of Chester came to the House with a great reputation for loudness; indeed, that was only for his sweaters. He also runs a teddy-bear shop, I understand, in Stratford, so who says there is not sufficient diversity of experience in the House today? He is also a past winner, I am told, of the world Monopoly championships. No doubt there is a place on a board of the utilities waiting for him. More important, he is the author of a book called “Great Sexual Disasters”. The remarkable thing is that it was written before he came to the House. I have no doubt that a sequel is well on the way. He made a highly witty and amusing speech and I commend him for it, as I do the right hon. Member for Witney. They have lived up to our usual standard of speeches before the main debate begins.

Before I come to the main part of the Queen’s Speech, I should mention the issue of Northern Ireland, which was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. The Labour party will continue to back the Government in their efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland, and we will do so even when progress is difficult.

All of us know that for the current ceasefires to be turned into a lasting peace, there must be all-party talks with a view to a negotiated, constitutional settlement that has the support of both communities in Northern Ireland. Those talks can take place only in an atmosphere of trust where all parties are committed exclusively to the democratic path. That is why we have supported the establishment of an international commission to look at arms decommissioning in parallel with preparatory talks that could lead to substantive all-party negotiations. We very much hope that the two Governments can proceed in this direction as soon as possible. It will be a hard road ahead.

We appreciate the enormous pressures on all involved in the search for peace – pressures that are often conflicting. From the first, we have supported the Government and we will continue to support them while we believe that they are acting genuinely and in good faith in the search for peace.

On the rest of the Queen’s Speech, I cannot, of course, comment – it would be quite improper – on how Her Majesty responded when it was first put before her, but I think that the reaction of most people would be, “Is this it?” Indeed, she could be forgiven for fearing that she was the victim of another hoax, but this time it was not a joke by a DJ pretending to be the Canadian Prime Minister but the British Prime Minister presenting her with a joke of a Queen’s Speech. It is utterly irrelevant to the interests of Britain. It is the programme of a party that has ceased to have any real vision or purpose in government at all. It is about the interests of the Tory party, cobbling together any old brie-à-brae of legislation that can keep the Conservative party in one piece. Because that can be done only by appeasing the extreme right-wing members of the party, it is they who have determined the small substance of the programme, which is as far from one-nation politics as it is possible to imagine. There is nothing about jobs, nothing about reducing inequality and insecurity and nothing about helping those in poverty. Indeed, there is the opposite.

The programme has another purpose. In an extraordinary move – and an extraordinarily inept one – an advance press briefing on the Queen’s Speech was given yesterday, not by the Leader of the House, as is traditional, and not by any of the Ministers who will implement the Queen’s Speech, but by the chairman of the Conservative party. What did he say in what journalists call an “unprecedented” eve of Queen’s Speech briefing? He gave the game away. What did he say the purpose of the Queen’s Speech was? He said that it was “to smoke out” the Labour party. He did not say that it was to provide new energy, ideas or vitality for Britain, but that it was to smoke out the Opposition. He did not say that it was to help the people of Britain, but that it was to play a game in the run-up to the election. I say that a Government’s job should be to govern. If they cannot govern in Britain’s interests, they should not be governing at all.

Let us look at the problems that our country faces. They demand a radical Queen’s Speech, a giant of a Queen’s Speech and one that matches its ambitions with the nation’s problems. Instead, we get a rag-bag of right-wing ideas, fiddling around at the edges of Britain’s problems – a pathetic mouse of a Queen’s Speech that is designed not to help Britain, but to secure the survival of the Tory party. There cannot be any more eloquent testimony to the state of today’s Conservative party than this.

Let us look at the problems that we face. There are the scandals in the privatised utilities; there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech about that. One in seven 21-year-olds is unable to read properly and one in five cannot count. There is drug abuse and violent crime. One in three people is on welfare benefits under this Government. The national health service is under strain and has been turned into a two-tier system. Public transport is crumbling and pollution is rising. Does the Queen’s Speech address any of those questions? It is utterly irrelevant to the problems of Britain and shows no real recognition of the state of Britain today.

Britain is 35th in the world standard of education-35th Britain. To be 35th may be good enough for the Conservative party, but it is not good enough for this country or for our children. Can the Conservatives not see that it is, in part, because of our slide in the education league that we have slumped in the economic league too, from 13th to 18th? They are not the only team to have slumped to 18th in the league; Wolverhampton Wanderers has as well, but at least Graham Taylor did the decent thing – he resigned. He will be at home now, watching our proceedings on the TV as many unemployed people do, and he will be speaking for the nation when he says, “Do I not like this Queen’s Speech.”

It is extraordinary. Britain is 18th in the league of prosperity – 18th in the national income per head. Over 16 years, Britain has had the lowest growth rate of any G7 or European Union nation and the deepest recessions – two of them. Even at the current point of the economic cycle, investment is below what it was in 1989. According to the Bank of England, it is 20 per cent. below what it was at previous similar stages in the cycle. Between 1979 and 1993, the level of investment in the United Kingdom was the lowest of that of any of the 18 countries of the G7 and the European Union. There has been record borrowing, a decaying infrastructure and a 20 per cent. devaluation. All that has happened after the Government have had £120 billion of North sea oil and £80 billion of privatisation money, which they have taken and spent. People often say of the Conservatives that they may be cruel, but that they are competent. This is an economic record of shame. They are cruel and incompetent in equal measure.

Of course, what happened to the great relaunch of the Prime Minister – relaunch No. 19 – when he came back from his holidays? We all remember the press briefings, do we not? The leadership election was won. We were told that he was “brimming with energy” and “fizzing” with new ideas. Perhaps what will worry the Cabinet as much as it worries us is the report that the Prime Minister was making a Cabinet “in his own image”. He was looking at all areas of policy, and he was going to “stamp his personal authority” on every area.

That bit at least we can accept: this Queen’s Speech has the Prime Minister written all over it, with the imprint of the last person who sat on him. It is a Queen’s Speech designed to appease those who kept him in his job. It has been dictated by his party’s craving for survival rather than this country’s need for change.

We will, of course, examine each Bill on its merits. Some Bills are likely to be uncontroversial. There must, of course, be a broadcasting Bill. We have accepted the principles of the White Paper, and we shall examine the contents of the Bill with care. There must be legislation on defence, the reserve forces, Army discipline and chemical weapons. Some of the housing proposals in the Queen’s Speech are those that we urged on the Government. We 16 will scrutinise carefully legislation on the disclosure of evidence in criminal cases to see that it is fair, although we have supported the royal commission’s recommendations on making the system more open.

The divorce and domestic violence legislation is now back on the agenda, but where is the scope and the vision that matches up to the problems of Britain today? Surely that is the point that Conservative Members should understand. In so far as there is an agenda of substance, it is one dominated by the right – for example, vouchers for nursery places. We know that the Secretary of State did not want them, nor did her Ministers. We know that she was overruled by the Prime Minister, and why? Because, as The Sunday Times put it, “a powerful coalition of Tory right-wingers, including Michael Portillo and John Redwood” leant on him: they who must be appeased, and appeased they have been.

There will be no choice when the nursery places are not available. A huge bureaucracy is to be created and £5 million will be needed to administer the pilot projects alone. Many local authorities – including the chairmen of Conservative local education authorities – are already saying, and it has not been denied either, that they fear that they will lose funding. All that will happen when the £165 million could provide a real guarantee to all four-year-olds of a proper nursery education.

What else did the right demand? It demanded more money for assisted places. Why? Not because that will even begin to address the problem of under-achievement in our schools, but because it imagines that that will make things difficult for the Labour party – another piece of smoking out. That £100 million will be spent to play a party political game. That money is there to be spent on our children’s education, and the Prime Minister chooses to spend it on subsidising private education for 30,000 children while the educational needs of millions go neglected in our country.

Resources mean choices – assisted places for the few, or smaller class sizes for the many. I know the choice that the Labour party makes; it is the choice that British people make. [Interruption.] It is the choice – [Interruption.] Before Conservative Members tell us that class sizes do not matter, why do so many of them send their children to private schools with small classes? [Interruption.]

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) rose –

Mr. Blair indicated dissent. The rowdier Conservative Members get, the more beaten they show themselves to be. [Interruption.] They appear to have a new tactic – to sit there and shout rather than stand and shout. We shall wait and see.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover) He is losing his temper.

Mr. Blair I gather that I am being accused of bad form by the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw).

We all know the purpose of the asylum Bill. The former Tory research director, who is now a Conservative candidate, said when he left: “Immigration, an issue which we raised successfully in 1992 and again in the 1994 Euro-elections campaign, played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt.” Of course the hurt is done not only to the Labour party. When politics is played with such issues, it causes hurt to many ordinary, decent people in this country who should not be hurt.

We oppose bogus applications and fraud and we recognise the need for immigration controls, but race and immigration should not be the plaything of party politics. Let me suggest to the Prime Minister how the issue may be tackled to ensure that it is not.

We should be clear in our minds what the real problem is – the real opening for fraud. According to recent parliamentary answers, not a single asylum decision on the fast track has been taken within the seven-day limit; the average is 40 days. The decision on the substantive procedure is meant to take 28 days; it takes, on average, eight months. The appeals procedure is supposed to take nine weeks; it takes 10 months. If we deal with those delays, we shall start to deal with the problem properly.

The Prime Minister denies that that issue is being used to play the race card in any sense. Let the new Bill go to a Standing Committee of the House, so that evidence may be taken and considered, and let it be a genuine consensual exercise in getting at the truth. I am delighted to see that some Conservative Members are nodding at that.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) You do not mean a Standing Committee.

Mr. Blair It is not an unreasonable proposition. It would be a way to take the issue out of party politics and have it dealt with sensibly and with reason. I very much hope that we shall hear a pledge in the debate, especially in the light of events of the past couple of weeks, that Nigeria will not be on the list of nations decreed by the Home Office to be free of internal repression.

On housing, the Government have removed the duty to find accommodation for priority homeless households. That duty on local authorities is to be scrapped despite warnings from charities and local authorities of the effects of doing so. It is a cruel and senseless measure, which will harm some of the most vulnerable people in Britain.

Every issue that is now considered by the Government is considered on the following basis. I want to describe the way in which government now works, and I believe that many Conservative Members know, in their heart of hearts, that this is how it now works.

These are the tests that are applied. What can put Labour on the spot? What can squeeze a headline out of tomorrow’s papers? What can keep the two wings of the Conservative party together? As a Minister said to a newspaper the other day, it is government by tacking. It is a tawdry, low-life, demeaning exercise in political tactics. It is everything about using government as a propaganda machine and it is nothing about the interests of Britain as a country.

Consider the year since the previous Queen’s Speech. [Interruption.] It is very interesting. Conservative Members all want to shout sedentary interventions, but I do not think that they want to intervene today. No – they do not want to intervene today; they are so pathetic. It is another little game: usually, they intervene; today, they are all going to sit there and shout instead. Why do not they, just for one minute, behave like a Government 18 instead of a rabble? What is wrong? Do they not dare to stand up today? Is there a problem? It is a little game with the Whips. To think that those people can keep themselves in government for another 18 months – it is a tragedy for this country.

I shall take advantage of the fact that Conservative Members are not going to interrupt me. Let us look at the past year – [Interruption.] Does the former chairman of the Tory party want to intervene? The tactic of not intervening is so bad that I can believe that he might have thought of it. No one wants to intervene – what a pathetic bunch they are.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston) Conservatives recognise convention and tradition. We recognise that during the speeches this afternoon, on this special day, we do not intervene.

Mr. Blair First, in that case, Conservative Members broke the convention at least 10 times last year. Secondly, I think that the hon. Lady means the Budget speech, not this one. [Interruption.] Let us break a rule – they can come at me if they want to.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe) As someone who was. a one-nation Tory long before I entered the House, I must say that the right hon. Gentleman is not doing much to convince people like me that he has converted.

Mr. Blair If the hon. Gentleman considered the current position and policy of the Government on the immigration issue that has just been raised, on Europe, on tackling poverty and on employment, he would probably find that he had a lot more in common with what we say than with what the Government say.

Let us consider the past year since the Queen’s Speech. If the BBC were to run a review of the Tories in the past year, it would not know whether to get the news, sport or light entertainment departments to put the compilation together. The country needs to know how the Government are run. Let us consider the Nolan inquiry. There were allegations of sleaze and we were told that there was no need for an inquiry. Then, there was an inquiry and the Government accepted the findings, but their Back Benchers did not like them so the matter was put in the hands of a new committee. There was then a vote – the Government lost the vote, said the vote did not matter and blamed the Whips. That is how the Government conduct their business.

On the issue of the utility bosses – the fat cats – first, there is no need for an inquiry, but the pressure grows so there is a Confederation of British Industry inquiry, and with it the new mantra, “Wait for Greenbury.” We wait and the recommendations appear. First, the Government accept them, but when they try to implement them they find that they hit the wrong people – the subject was not even mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.

On the subject of arms to Iraq, first, we heard that there was no need for an inquiry but then we were told that there would be an inquiry and that we were to wait for the Scott inquiry. We are still waiting. On the subject of Europe, the Whipless wonders were expelled to darkness for daring to defy the Prime Minister. They were propelled into fame; they were so in demand by the media that they should have paid council tax on No. 4 Millbank. They were brought back into the fold having conceded nothing, having given up nothing and having won the policy battle.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey) While the right hon. Gentleman is on the subject of Europe, will he say whether a Government led by him would join the single European market and retain our controls on immigration?

Mr. Blair We are in the European single market and we have made it clear that we shall retain our veto on immigration issues. We have always said that. As to the family and domestic violence Bill, imagine trying to portray the Lord Chancellor – of all people – as a wild-eyed, anti-family, anti-religious destroyer of all that Britain holds dear. One expected him to turn up eating muesli and wearing sandals. The Government caved into the pressure, but then there was a backlash against the backlash. The Government caved in again and the Bill is back in the Queen’s Speech.

Never was there a greater show of appeasement or a better indication of how the Government work than at the Conservative party conference when the Defence Secretary made one of the most ill-considered speeches ever delivered by a Defence Secretary. The chiefs of staff were appalled, the Special Air Services were sickened and former Tory Prime Ministers found the speech revolting. But what did the Prime Minister do? He stood up and he led the applause. The Prime Minister, who once would have had us at the heart of Europe, rose to salute the person who would have us out of Europe altogether.

The Prime Minister does not believe in that policy – I would have more respect for him and for his current position if he did. The Prime Minister has lurched to the right on Europe not through deliberation but through default. It is time that the one-nation Tories who disdain such views stood up and said so loudly and clearly. They must sit in the Chamber, listening to the stridency and extremism, asking themselves why the Prime Minister caves in to the first four or five members of the hard right who want to see Government policy change. One-nation Toryism is dead; it is finished. There is only one party of social justice in the House today. Do not ask me who it is, Madam Speaker: simply read the comments of the hon. Member for Aldershot which appear in today’s Evening Standard.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford) As we are talking about supposed cave-ins, will the Leader of the Opposition explain Labour’s education policy to the House? Last year Labour favoured taking grant-maintained schools back under political control, but when the right hon. Gentleman sent his child to a grant-maintained school, the policy changed and suddenly grant-maintained schools were in favour. Extremists such as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) complained and the Labour party shifted policy again. Now it is in favour of retaining half of all grant-maintained schools under political control.

Mr. Blair The hon. Gentleman is wrong on every point, and if he were to read the relevant Labour party documents, he would realise that. I will tell him what the difference is between Labour and the Conservatives. If we make a change, we do so in the interests of this country and we stand up for that change. What is more, if there needs to be a change, I lead it; I do not follow it.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) Why should we believe the right hon. Gentleman’s views on Europe today when they are the complete opposite of his views 12 years ago? What will his views be in 10 years?

Mr. Blair I have heard it all now. Twelve months ago, the right hon. Gentleman sat in the Cabinet and agreed with the Government’s policy. He is the man – I shall be corrected if I am wrong – who served in the Government at the time of the Maastricht decision and supported the Government all the way. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker Order. Hon. Members will stop shouting so much.

Mr. Blair As I said last year – and I meant it – I would rather serve in a party that stands up for a constructive, proper relationship in Europe, than in a party that, probably later under the right hon. Gentleman, would move to take Britain out of Europe altogether.

Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth) Does the right hon. Gentleman know that last year there were 38,000 bogus and 1,700 genuine applications for asylum in Britain? Bogus applications damage race relations in this country.

Mr. Blair I hope that no one will suggest that we or anyone else are in favour of bogus asylum applications. I hope that the Government are not either. Earlier, I made a suggestion that is worth considering. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman would agree that the Bill should go to a Special Standing Committee that would take evidence. That would take the matter out of party politics altogether.

Not a promise has been kept on tax, VAT, mortgage relief, the value of the pound, Europe, education and health. The Conservative Government have created a less equal, more unfair and more divided country than any Government this century. For decades, our nation, under Governments of both political persuasions, tried to pursue policies that brought the nation together because it was fair and efficient. Today, there is not even a pretence at it by the Government.

Britain as a nation is less fair, less united and less cohesive. It thinks and acts less like one nation than at any time this century. The Tories may wrap themselves in the language of the nation state, but they have done more to destroy the fabric of Britain than any party in living memory.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr) A few minutes ago, the right hon. Gentleman suggested that he would rather belong to a party that had constructive and objective views on Europe, so why does he not come and join us? Why does he not accept that he has already moved down a whole pile of avenues that the Conservative party has advocated over the years? Perhaps he should recognise his true position in future.

Mr. Blair At first I thought that it was an error of judgment by the Whips to stop interventions. Now I know that it was a canny and intelligent move. For heaven’s sake, we know perfectly well that there are different views on Europe in the Cabinet, but now the Government cannot even discuss certain issues connected with Europe as they are so worried about disagreeing.

We needed a Queen’s Speech for Britain. We needed measures to lift Britain up the prosperity league by raising investment in skills, infrastructure and the regions and to bring knowledge and information to the people by harnessing new technology for our schools, in the workplace and in the home. We needed a Queen’s Speech to provide new opportunities for the young unemployed, to build homes for the homeless and to allow people a decent standard of living. We needed a Queen’s Speech to reform welfare and allow people back into work who need and want to work, to cut class sizes, to raise standards and to take tough action against failing schools. We needed a Queen’s Speech to restore the health service as one unified system of proper public service in Britain. We needed a Queen’s Speech to make the streets safe again by legislating for a proper crime prevention strategy in every part of Britain.

We should and could have had a Queen’s Speech to revive local government, to bring real democracy to the nations and regions of Britain and to clean up politics after years of Conservative sleaze. We should have had a Queen’s Speech with a foreign policy based not on the need to appease people within the Conservative party but on Britain’s true national interests.

The Queen’s Speech was not designed to make Britain proud, hopeful or confident. It will merely strengthen the desire of millions of people to see the Government put out of office. They have been there too long, they have told too many lies and they have made too many mistakes. They have nothing whatever to offer the future of Britain.

A Queen’s Speech designed to smoke out the Labour party has instead smoked out the Government. It exposes them for what they are – tired, inept and incompetent. The Government have given up governing the country. By their tactics today, they show just how pathetic and pitiable they have become. The Government are now behaving like an Opposition and they will soon get the chance to be an Opposition. It is time for them to go.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) At the outset of his remarks, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), the Leader of the Opposition, paid tribute to those of our former colleagues who sadly died in the past 12 months. I willingly join him in that tribute. They each in their own way made a distinctive contribution to the House, and we shall miss them. I reiterate our sympathy to their friends and families.

No one who knows my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) will be remotely surprised by the quality of his excellent speech. I sat alongside my right hon. Friend often enough at international meetings to know his worth. Time after time, often in a hostile environment, he won arguments for the United Kingdom, and won them well.

In the House, my right hon. Friend has a particular reputation. Throughout the years I have known him – that goes back to long before I became a Member of this place – my right hon. Friend has always been valiant for moderation. Not for him the cheap and silly soundbite to sully his opponents. My right hon. Friend is rightly contemptuous of that. His politics have been constructed on rational argument. I believe that the country and the House will be the poorer when he leaves this place.

My right hon. Friend has been a generous source of wise counsel to the country as well as to the Government. He has been a great servant of the state. I am most grateful to him. All of us in the House who wish our country well should join in those sentiments.

I congratulate also my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) on his amusing speech. He was very amusing but not wholly frank. My hon. Friend had a dark secret that he declined to mention – his distant ancestor, Jeremiah Brandreth. Jeremiah was an agitator, a left-wing agitator, and, like so many, he was rather unworldly.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) He was a good one.

The Prime Minister The hon. Gentleman says that he was a good one. Well, he was known as the hopeless radical, and so good was he as a left-wing agitator that he was arrested and convicted, and became the last man to be beheaded for treason in this country.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) So far.

The Prime Minister The hon. Gentleman may unknowingly be right. I have not told the House that Jeremiah was arrested by a Mr. Waldegrave, an illustrious predecessor of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary. I warn my right hon. and hon. Friends: if they consider that the spending round is rigorous, let them know that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary is in no mood for compromise.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester was president of the Oxford union. He had an endearing habit in debate. If he found – it was a most unusual circumstance – that he was losing the argument, he would physically stand on his head to confound his opponents. I congratulate him on an extremely useful preparation for national politics.

We have heard U-turn after U-turn from the Leader of the Opposition. The right hon. Gentleman does not literally stand on his head, but he has a remarkable chameleon-like ability to change political colour, depending on the audience that he is facing. I have rarely heard such copperplated nonsense as he fed to the House this afternoon. It was humbug at its worst, and juvenile in its style of criticism. It was what we have come to expect from the right hon. Gentleman – cheap soundbites and no sign of his real policy substance, if he has any.

We had the usual nonsense and absurdity that we have heard over the past few days about lurching to the right. That is this week’s approved soundbite from the thought merchants who govern the right hon. Gentleman in his back room. I hope that one day he will learn to give up this silly name-calling –

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North) Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister I will later. I hope that, one day, the right hon. Gentleman will learn to give up this silly name-calling, and learn to address serious issues of policy that are of interest to the country.

The right hon. Gentleman had something to say about “one nation”. Only one party – mine – is truly the “one nation” party. The right hon. Gentleman has an interesting way of claiming to be in the “one nation” party. He would start by dividing up the United Kingdom and covering it with a rash of assemblies; he would then give the remnants to Brussels, because he would not want to be isolated on any single issue. He would put the young out of work with a minimum wage; he would destroy grant-maintained schools, and the choice they offer. As for defence, he would put it under the control of a former member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – which describes most members of his shadow Cabinet.

Those policies would not create one nation. They would weaken it, split it and divide it – and that is what the right hon. Gentleman stands for.

Dr. Reid Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister In a minute.

Let us just examine the latest soundbite: “lurching to the right”. Giving parents more choice – is that lurching to the right? If it is, I willingly lurch in that direction. Reforming welfare to help those in genuine need: a lurch to the right? I welcome it. Fighting crime and the drugs barons – is that a lurch to the right, or does the right hon. Gentleman agree with it? Helping the disabled, giving tenants the right to buy their homes, creating incentives for enterprise – what sort of lurch is that? What are those, other than commonsense Conservative policies that are in the interests of this country?

The Opposition conduct policy by finding their cheap sneer of the week and using it, whatever happens. When – if ever – they return to real politics, they will find that there is much more substance to politics than the childish, juvenile nonsense that they spout day after day after day.

Dr. Reid I believe that the Prime Minister personally has not lurched to the right. We are suggesting that he has been caught in a trap by those on the right. There is, however, a way in which he can illustrate his moral fibre – the fact that he is not a prisoner on every issue – and show that he is not prepared to use the race card in a general election. Will he accept the Leader of the Opposition’s suggestion that the asylum Bill be dealt with by a Special Standing Committee? The people of Britain can judge from his answer whether he is really committed to “one nation” policies, or whether he is a prisoner of the right.

The Prime Minister I shall turn to the asylum Bill later. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that there is one party in the House that is using the race card, and it is not mine: its members sit on the Opposition Benches.

When the right hon. Member for Sedgefield next talks about world prosperity, he might get some of his facts right. The countries that have risen in the prosperity league include low-taxation, free-market countries such as Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore; the countries that are slipping down the league include countries that have pursued socialist policies of high taxation and high spending.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister Not for the moment; I may do so a little later. The right hon. Gentleman sees his job as being to disagree with everything – to attack the Government’s motives first, and their policies second. In his view, all is wrong; nothing is right. But if he were in power – ah! Amazing things would happen. We would never be isolated anywhere in the world. He would never be isolated: the world would automatically accept his position. Everything would suddenly become for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Taxes would not rise, although the deputy Leader of the Opposition says that they will rise for the highest-paid. That is not something that I heard from the Leader of the Opposition at the CBI conference just the other day. But of course, spending would rise, because spending promises are made daily, despite the efforts of the shadow Chancellor.

Unemployment, the Opposition think, would vanish. The sun would shine. That is the substance of the right hon. Gentleman’s soundbite, day after day. His position is, of course, total baloney, and he knows that it is total baloney. I intend to concentrate on the real world of sound policies, not on the right hon. Gentleman’s world of soundbites. This country is now enjoying a more sustained and secure recovery than it has known for many years.

Several hon. Members rose –

Madam Speaker Order. Hon. Members should not persist. They heard the Prime Minister say that he will give way a little later, and having heard that, they should not persist.

The Prime Minister I reiterate that I shall give way to some Labour Members in a few moments. Britain is back in business in a big way. The changes of the past 16 years have transformed this country’s prospects for the better. Sixteen years ago, the dead could not be buried in Labour Members’ constituencies; 16 years ago, we could not take our own money abroad; 16 years ago, people could not run their own companies, because of the way the trade unions ran amok; 16 years ago, Britain had an incipient inflation problem.

The Leader of the Opposition may choose to forget, but I do not think that the nation will have forgotten the shambles that emanated from Labour policies. Whenever the Opposition talk about this country, they try to talk it down, and refuse to recognise what has happened. Inflation is no longer a serious issue: it is under lock and key.

The number of people out of work – [Interruption.] The deputy Leader of the Opposition sniggers. When was inflation less than 8 per cent., even on a rigged quarterly basis, under the last Labour Government? It has been about 3 per cent. under this Conservative Government for three years, and shows no sign of getting out of control. What help have we had from the Opposition to bring down inflation?

The number of people out of work has fallen by almost three quarters of a million. It is now below Germany, and well below France. A higher proportion of British people are in work than ever before in our history, and more than in any comparable European country. [Interruption.] Labour Members do not like it, but that is the real world, from which they try to hide.

Strikes are at their lowest level since records began, interest rates are at half their peak, public spending is under control, and growth is firmly based on rising exports and rising investment. It is the most secure platform for prosperity that this country has known for generations.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East) The Prime Minister has explained how other countries have moved within the economic prosperity league. After 16 years of Tory government, where has Britain moved in the economic prosperity league? We want to hear it from his own mouth.

The Prime Minister We have moved, over the last few years – [Interruption.] Curiously enough, I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at The Sunday Times, which exploded Labour’s advertisements. It showed that, in fact, Britain is becoming progressively more prosperous, while socialist countries are becoming progressively less prosperous. That is because they insist on policies such as the social chapter, from which they cannot opt out once they have signed in – unlike what the Leader of the Opposition suggested the other day.

Ms Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. I want to ask a question similar to that asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth). Has not Britain now moved down the prosperity league from 13th to 18th place? Will he give the House the benefit of his opinion on why that has happened under his Government?

The Prime Minister I can tell the hon. Lady directly that Britain is now the fastest-growing economy – [Interruption.] She does not like that. We have put right what was wrong under the last Labour Government, and Britain is now the fastest-growing economy in western Europe. She does not have to take just the Government’s word for that: she should read what the OECD has to say about the British economy. It is the OECD that comments favourably about us, and it was the IMF that carted Labour away to the knacker’s yard when a Labour Government were trying to run the economy.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford) Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Leader of the Opposition, not only throughout his speech but in all that he has said all over the country in the past 12 months, has hardly been able to point to a Conservative reform of the past 16 years, in labour law or in industrial law, in health or in education, that he proposes to repeal? Does my right hon. Friend agree that perhaps no one in the House has moved further to the right than the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)?

The Prime Minister The Leader of the Opposition certainly seems to have lurched quite a long way to the right, but I sometimes wonder to what extent his party has lurched with him. I think that Labour’s heart and soul are where they always were – opposed to strong defence, nuclear weapons, low-inflation policies and free enterprise. That is where the heart of the Labour party is, even if a squatter is moving off its land on to ours and posing as the leader of the Labour party.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister I should like to make a little progress now, and I trust that the hon. Gentleman will permit me to do so. I have set out the platform for prosperity that we now have, but it is not a platform that the country can afford to take for granted. Getting there has not been easy. The policies that picked Britain up from its knees were fought tooth and nail by the Labour party, and those who fought them are not the people to build on them in future.

As the Leader of the Opposition said, we still face many challenges – harsher competition from all over the world threatening jobs and security, a growing elderly population in need of care, tidal changes in technology and rapid social change.

Conservatives are clear about how to deal with those problems. First, we have an unswerving commitment to an enterprise economy. That means low taxes, for the economic benefits they bring. It means incentives to encourage investment and create wealth, policies to increase personal prosperity and choice, and Government accepting that they should not always interfere. There are times when Governments do damage by interfering. In short, ours are policies to make Britain the enterprise centre of Europe.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) rose –

The Prime Minister I shall not give way to the hon. Lady now, but perhaps I shall a little later. Opposition Members will hate our policies, because they hate choice. In their hearts, they hate the private sector, and believe that our great public services can be built only by higher taxation. As usual, they are wrong. People do not want, and in the 1990s they do not need, every choice to be taken for them by the Government or by some other central bureaucracy.

Of course, there will always be a role for the state. I do not favour a totally laissez-faire attitude in society, any more than I want a nanny state. Conservatives have always accepted the social obligation to care; so do the Government, and so will Conservative Governments after the next election. But we need those who can do so to care for themselves. For those who cannot, there must be the help that only an enterprise economy can pay for.

We care for our public services – schools, hospitals and welfare. I grew up dependent on those, just as people do today – and unlike some Opposition Members, I do not intend to kick away the ladder that I climbed as a boy. But to build our public services, we need growth, not high taxes. Growth is built on policies for enterprise, not on the policies of envy and spite that ignite Opposition Members.

We must also win the war against crime, protect the stability of the United Kingdom and stand up for our sovereign interests abroad. In the future, as in the past, that will mean tough action to deliver safety and security.

Mrs. Mahon As the Prime Minister was talking about public services and choice, is he aware of the serious problem facing people in Calderdale and Kirklees, who face having their water cut off in a few days? Why was there no provision in the Queen’s Speech to try to prevent that from ever happening again’? This is a first-world country, so why is the greedy, incompetent privatised Yorkshire Water allowed to run that company? When will the Prime Minister take responsibility for the delivery of free clean water to the people of my constituency?

The Prime Minister In addition to everything else, the Opposition have a policy to make it rain when it is convenient. We have just heard from the hon. Lady the absolute instinct of the Labour party to oppose the private sector whenever it can. Were there never problems in the old nationalised water industry? Of course there were.

A year ago, I spoke about the changing situation in Northern Ireland. Since then, the ceasefire has held, and there is a new atmosphere in Northern Ireland. There is a new situation: a growing economy, more jobs, policemen patrolling without armed soldiers in tow; in a word, Madam Speaker, peace. For weeks – and for, I believe, negotiating purposes – Sinn Fein has been declaring a state of crisis. It has warned – but it tells us that it is not a threat – that violence could return unless the other parties come rapidly to the negotiating table. But violence does not return of its own accord, like the daffodils in spring.

If Sinn Fein is committed to exclusively peaceful methods – as its leaders claim it to be – there can be no question of violence returning. Let Sinn Fein say that unequivocally. If its commitment is real, threats and thuggery should stop. The killing has stopped, but much else has not. A 16-year-old girl is dragged from her home in west Belfast by masked men, tied to a lamp post and assaulted. Her hair is cropped, and paint is poured over her. A 67-year-old woman from Londonderry is taken to hospital in shock when seven self-proclaimed provisionals with baseball bats break in and smash her house.

That may not be murder, but it is not peace, and it is not behaviour which merits Sinn Fein’s entry to talks. I want Sinn Fein to denounce such behaviour and to stop it. I have given Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness the freedom to appear face to face on the media and express their views. Let them do so, and express their opposition to the punishment beatings which go on day after day after day in Northern Ireland.

Almost every day brings a fresh atrocity – there have been 250 since the ceasefire. Each assault, each threat, each so-called warning puts a question mark in the minds of reasonable people. I wish to move forward to negotiations involving all parties, including Sinn Fein. I believe that we can, and I shall work for that, but it will need good will and trust. We cannot move forward at any price, and we cannot move forward with a gun held to our head. The road to peace will be open if those erecting road blocks remove them, and I hope they will.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) I agree with the Prime Minister. There was a recent case in Londonderry when individuals took refuge in the cathedral. Martin McGuinness – who had directed people involved in the stoning of houses – also directed those who wanted to put pressure on the bishop to remove those individuals from the cathedral. When a ship is decommissioned, it is not only put out of service but its crew is scattered. Until the IRA battalions are scattered, there can be no lasting peace.

On the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, may I point out that the methodology of the agreement still denies people the right to equal citizenship which is at the heart of the Gracious Speech? I yearn for the day when the people of Northern Ireland will be able to put forward an elected representative to negotiate a way forward.

The Prime Minister We all look forward to the day when the road is open, not just for the preliminary talks we are looking at currently, but beyond them to the round table talks between all the constitutional parties which can find a proper settlement in Northern Ireland. I look forward to that day, and I pledge to the House that I will continue to work for that day – but not, as I indicated a moment ago, at any price.

Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West) I totally agree with the Prime Minister’s comments on the punishment beatings by both sets of paramilitaries. But on a slightly different aspect, bearing in mind the fact that the promotion of jobs in Northern Ireland is mentioned in the Gracious Speech, that the Prime Minister has played a noble role in the peace process in Northern Ireland and that he is aware that the Republic of Ireland has a 10 per cent. corporate tax which helps the Irish Government and the business people in the Republic of Ireland to attract investment from the United States and elsewhere, will the Government consider introducing a 10 per cent. corporate tax in the north of Ireland, in order to treat both parts of Ireland equally and to help to attract inward investment? I bear in mind the Prime Minister’s conference in November, when I had the pleasure of hearing him, and I congratulate him once again on that. Surely the introduction of a 10 per cent. corporate tax in Northern Ireland would be a big step forward.

The Prime Minister I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his special pleading – a special pleading with which I am familiar from my visits to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland enjoys a number of other advantages not enjoyed in the south or elsewhere. One must consider the position in the round. Not only would the hon. Gentleman be surprised, but the House would be astonished beyond belief, if I were to deal with such tax measures on this occasion. [Interruption.] I fear that, despite the tempting invitation from the shadow Home Secretary, I have no intention of doing so.

Our commonsense, practical programme of traditional Conservative values is set out in the Gracious Speech. The centrepiece of our economic strategy will be unveiled later this month in the Budget. It will show our determination to turn Britain into the enterprise centre of Europe. As I said a moment ago, I do not intend to anticipate its contents, but it will be consistent with sound public finance and our resolve to move further towards a more enterprising economy. We have brought public spending under control. We will reduce it further, and, when prudent, we will cut taxes on companies and individuals.

For Britain to compete in tomorrow’s world, more of our young people will need to be taught and trained in the skills and knowledge of the new century. Already, our education reforms offer parents more choice and pupils more opportunity. Up and down the country, parents are choosing grant-maintained schools for their children. That is excellent news. We will ensure that those highly popular schools can grow to reflect parents’ choice in the future, as I believe they will. I have given a commitment to make a nursery place available for every four-year-old in the country.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister I shall not give way for the moment. I have given way quite a lot, and I want to make a little progress. We will take a further significant step in that direction by giving parents the power to choose the nursery place they think is the right one for their children. Parents expect that choice, and they will get it.

Those young people will be entering a world of rapid change. One of the key areas of change is broadcasting. Digital technology will revolutionise broadcasting, just as much as the switch from black and white to colour television. Britain will be right at the forefront of those changes, and the broadcasting Bill will ensure that we stay there.

The Conservative party has a long tradition of helping those in need. [Interruption.] It is fashionable for hon. Members to dispute that. The Conservative party has provided more social advance than the Labour party has ever dreamt of. But to help those people to best effect, we must ensure that only those in genuine need receive that help, and our programme will do that.

In housing, our measures will ensure that those in greatest need get the help they deserve. We will raise the standard of social housing by increasing competition in its provision. We will introduce measures to ensure fairer access to social housing, and we will give new opportunities for tenants of housing associations to buy their own homes. Those are the measures that the Leader of the Opposition forgot to mention in his catalogue of what was not in the Queen’s Speech.

We intend to offer further help to disabled people. Fate has robbed our fellow citizens who are disabled of a great deal. Governments should not rob them of choice. We will give disabled people themselves the funds to pay for the equipment and services they need. We have extended, and will continue to extend, the choice available to them.

Britain has always opened its doors to those who are in genuine need of asylum, but our current system has been abused. This year, some 40,000 claims for asylum will be made – 10 times the figure in 1988. The Labour leader spoke of delays in applying for asylum. With that increase in figures, of course there are delays, and that is why we need reform. Only a small number –

Sir Michael Shersby (Uxbridge) Will my right hon. Friend give way?

The Prime Minister Not at the moment.

Only a small number are likely to succeed, and they deserve to be determined speedily. The asylum and immigration Bill – [Interruption.] I suggest that Opposition Members read the Bill before they talk about it. It will ensure that applications for asylum are dealt with quickly and efficiently.

Genuine asylum cases will always receive a ready refuge in our country. That is our tradition, and it will continue. Of course we will continue to honour our United Nations convention obligations, just as we always have. Of course genuine asylum seekers will be treated with sympathy, as they always have been. But further action, including legislation, is necessary to deter bogus asylum seekers and to speed up the consideration of spurious applications, which, I regret to say, form the vast majority of asylum claims.

Several hon. Members rose –

The Prime Minister I will give way in a moment. We will take that action in the interests of fair, but firm, policies. Those who attack that Bill, as the right hon. Member for Sedgefield did, do our excellent race relations no service whatsoever. He said that he opposed bogus applications. So do we, so he should support us on that issue.

On the criticisms that have come from some Labour Members, I have always believed strongly in racial tolerance in Britain. I grew up in a multiracial community. I am proud of the way in which race relations have improved in the past two or three decades. It did not always seem likely that they would do so. Today, many members of ethnic minority groups are role models for all of us, not just for those of their own race and colour. They are Britons. They grew up here. They represent their country – our country – with distinction, at home and abroad, and they must have the same rights as every other citizen. I will not see that progress threatened by those who use race for short-term political gain.

In the interests of good race relations, I will ensure that we have a fair system of asylum – fair for those who need help, and fair for those who do not believe that this country should receive bogus asylum seekers either.

Several hon. Members rose –

The Prime Minister First, I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) who, I think, has a particular interest.

Sir Michael Shersby Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the past year or so, the United Kingdom has been a target for a sustained and planned campaign of illegal immigration, employing the use of sophisticated forged documentation? Is he further aware that my local authority, the London borough of Hillingdon, is paying more than £1 million a year to care for unaccompanied child refugees, who have been brought to this country as part of that campaign? Does he agree that, in dealing with the problem of illegal immigration and asylum, we have to deal with those issues?

The Prime Minister I agree that those difficult issues exist, and we should address them. But I must tell the whole House that we are seeking to address a particular problem. It is not a help to good race relations to leave that problem unresolved; nor is it a help for Opposition Members, for political reasons, to turn that Bill into a Bill about race, when it is about proper asylum procedures.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) In that spirit, will the Prime Minister take some time to reflect on the suggestion of the Leader of the Opposition that the proposed Bill be considered by a special Committee? Also, following the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth, will he investigate why only one Nigerian national has been given refugee status in the United Kingdom so far this year? Will he also take the necessary action to declare Nigeria a country of significant upheaval, thereby enabling Nigerian nationals whose applications for refugee status are subject to appeal to claim benefit pending the outcome of the appeal?

The Prime Minister We shall deal with everybody, from whatever country, on asylum on a fair and free and open basis. That includes those people from Nigeria. I saw some of the rumours about Nigeria a few days ago, and fair old nonsense they were. As far as the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question is concerned, of course, as a matter of courtesy, I will consider what the Leader of the Opposition said. I have to say to the House that I do not immediately find myself attracted by it, for this Bill will be the subject of the proper, wide-ranging discussion that all Bills have in the House during a very lengthy procedure. But of course I will consider what the right hon. Gentleman had to say.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington) Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister I will give way on this issue to one more hon. Member.

Mr. Corbett I am most grateful to the Prime Minister. The whole House will welcome the way that he has spoken about the issue, and the language that he has used in doing so. In that spirit, rather than simply as a matter of courtesy – which is not unimportant – will he take the wider point of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), that if we are going to make the maximum contribution to sustaining and developing good race relations, we would do it best on the basis of consensus? Will he bear that in mind in thinking about my right hon. Friend’s suggestion?

The Prime Minister I have borne that in mind in the manner in which I have approached this issue, but I have to say that it is those who raise the question of race when we are dealing with the question of asylum abuse – [Interruption.] It is those who do that who raise the problem. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that it is his hon. Friends who have been behaving in that fashion, not this Government.

What we are seeking to do – [Interruption.] No one denies – certainly the right hon. Member for Sedgefield did not deny it, to his credit – that there is a serious problem of asylum abuse. It is the responsibility of this Government and this House to deal with that question of abuse. It is not the responsibility of this House to drag in extraneous matters that could damage race relations while we undertake consideration of the Bill. Those people who do it cannot claim to be doing it in the interests of asylum seekers or in the interests of good race relations. I appeal to the Opposition to get off the kick they seemed to be on some days ago, and to deal with this Bill responsibly, as I believe it should be dealt with.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) Will my right hon. Friend give way?

The Prime Minister For the last time, I will give way.

Sir Peter Emery My right hon. Friend started this section of his speech talking about education. Will he bear it in mind that there is a vast campaign by Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled local education authorities, which go out of their way to try to urge headmasters, governors and parents to resist voting for a grant-maintained system? That has to be examined, and the Government must take positive action about it.

The Prime Minister I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend says. I know that there have been real problems there. Whenever our country has been faced with change and difficult circumstances, the family has been a rock for the people of this country. No Conservative Government led by me could introduce legislation that would undermine marriage and the role of the family. At present, almost three quarters of all divorces are completed in less than sixth months, on grounds such as adultery or unreasonable behaviour. In future, no divorce would be possible in less than one year.

The family law Bill will put in place a framework to ensure that married couples face up to the responsibilities they have to each other, and, critically, to the children of that marriage. It will remove the incentive for couples to make allegations one against the other, often harming their children, and usually for the purpose of obtaining a more speedy divorce.

This Bill ensures that arrangements for children precede divorce, and it allows divorce to be barred when it would cause grave hardship. I believe that these measures are emphatically pro-marriage measures, and I believe that they deserve support. But I recognise that it undeniably touches upon the religious convictions and personal conscience of many hon. Members.

I have no wish to seek to ride roughshod over those convictions; so, as far as the Government are concerned, we shall propose free votes on matters of conscience in the family law Bill, and I hope that other parties will follow that lead. The Bill will also deal with domestic violence, a crime from which every person should be protected, whether married or unmarried and in cohabitation.

Over the past two years, we have seen the largest ever fall in recorded crime. However, one of the most frustrating features of our criminal justice system is that cases have to be dropped because of the current rules on disclosure. That may mean that too many guilty people walk free. We will introduce changes to ensure a fairer balance of disclosure between the prosecution and the defence.

One of the most worrying problems we face is the growth of organised crime, which does not respect international borders. Such crime is often a trade in drugs, bringing untold misery for profit. Only in the past few days, we have seen a particularly highly publicised and tragic case of how drugs can devastate a family. In such an evil trade, no drug is soft, and no drug is safe. We must use every resource against this threat.

We will remove the present barrier to the Security Service helping the police and other agencies against organised crime. The usual statutory safeguards on the actions of the Security Service will, of course, continue to apply.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell Will the Prime Minister give way?

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister Not at the moment.

Many of the drugs from south America are smuggled to northern Europe through the Caribbean. Over the past few weeks, I have consulted Caribbean leaders about ways in which to break the chain. At their request and with their agreement, I will ask the European Union to give them effective help. The intention would he to find 33 the resources to stop the Caribbean being used as a way station for drugs from Latin America en route for northern Europe. If we can stop the drugs trade there, we shall damage it significantly, and do a great service to many hundreds of thousands of people throughout northern Europe.

Mr. Campbell Will the Prime Minister give way on the topic of drugs?

The Prime Minister No, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I have taken the attention of the House for a long time. I know that there are right hon. and hon. Members who are waiting to speak. Those are new approaches, but they are necessary. I believe that they can succeed.

The tradition of voluntary military service is an important thread in our national fabric. The reserve forces make a vital contribution to this country’s security and well-being. By their selflessness, dedication and sheer enthusiasm, they enrich the quality of our national life and they deserve our gratitude. The reserve forces Bill will enable the reserves to respond more flexibly to the new challenges facing the country since the end of the cold war. In future, they will be able to take their part in peacekeeping and in many other matters.

Our legislative programme will allow us to build on the successes of the past, and to meet the challenges ahead. The policies that Labour advocates would squander our opportunities as a result of its readiness to increase spending, its readiness to put up taxes, the certainty that it would let inflation rip, and its discouragement of investment with more red tape. Labour will try to square its tax and spending inconsistencies with windfall taxes of one extraordinary sort or another. Such policies do not add up to a credible programme of opposition, let alone of government. They add to the reasons why Labour, as it has admitted in its own documents, is unfit to govern.

We have served our nation well, and we have built a strong economy. Labour’s policies do not add up. We have been tough on crime; Labour has been soft. It is not remotely fit to govern. We have offered choice and high standards in schools; Labour Members exercise choice themselves, but would deny choice to others. They are not fit to govern. We have raised the quality of care in our hospitals. Labour would rip up our reforms and plunge the hospital system into chaos. Again, Labour is not fit to govern. We have stood up in Europe, often alone. Labour Members would not; they are not fit to govern, because they are not prepared to stand alone.

Our legislative programme is the right programme for this country; it will also be a litmus test for the Opposition. Let those who say that they support the market support the measures in the Finance Bill. Let those who rightly, and merrily, take the opportunity of choice in schools support our plans for choice in schools. Let those who would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime join us in being tough on the criminal. That is the litmus test, and we shall see what comes burning through.

While we set out important long-term policies, Labour demonstrates time and again why it is unfit to govern. We will pursue our objectives for the economy, for choice, for opportunity and for a safe and secure United Kingdom. That is what lies at the heart of our programme. I commend it to the House. No other party can put the interests of this country first as this Conservative Government do. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker Order. Will hon. Members now leaving the Chamber do so quietly and quickly?

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil) I join the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party in congratulating the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address.

The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) has an elegance of phrase that we will, frankly, miss in the House, because it is not found in too many other right hon. and hon. Members. I must say to him, bluntly, that I am not sure that we will miss his management of the nation’s foreign affairs, though his long commitment to the business and affairs of the nation has been diligent and is highly regarded.

I seem to remember that the right hon. Gentleman was once famously described by Andrew Rawnsley as “Sir Geoffrey Howe on speed”. That is an interesting description. We have all noted how quickly he left the Government in order to spend more time with his bank manager. I think he will be missed as well when he leaves the House.

I had intended to remind the House of the ancestors of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth), but unfortunately the Prime Minister got there before me. I had intended to say that the fact that his ancestor was beheaded by an ancestor of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), was perhaps an early example of being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.

The hon. Member for City of Chester has often said that he has spent the past few years trying to live down being a past television personality. I suspect that he will spend the next few years trying to live down being a past Conservative Member of Parliament, and I wish him luck in that.

Of course there are some things which we welcome in the Queen’s Speech, and I will touch on them in a moment. But overall, a glance at this programme tells us, frankly, all we need to know about the Government. It tells us that they are no longer a Government of direction, let alone of any kind of long-term vision. They cannot be saved by new policies, because they have none – they ran out of those ages ago. They cannot be saved by another relaunch. I have lost count of how many relaunches they have had since the last election. I recall that the most recent one lasted a full two days before it was forgotten. They cannot be saved by another lurch to the right – they have done too many of those.

Let us admit, since the Opposition parties know it, that this Queen’s Speech is not the event that matters in the month of November. It is an example of going through the motions. The Queen’s Speech is a charade – a pantomime. It is a necessary formality before the real event in less than two weeks’ time, the Budget. The Government now have nothing further to say to the nation except, “Please vote for us because we’re going to give you a tax cut.” That is the beginning and end of the message that they will now present to the country. It is 35 their only hope and they know it. Their assumption is that they can hoodwink us once more – that they can fool the nation again.

The Government believe that we will not remember that the tax cuts pledged before the last election were paid for afterwards with higher taxes, higher mortgages, lost jobs, bankrupt businesses and broken lives. They think that we will forget that. They think that people would rather have a little more money in their pockets today than decent schools and better chances for their children in the future.

The Government think that Britain can be fooled again. I think that they are wrong. Just compare Britain’s economic situation last year with that achieved this year. Last year, borrowing was £1 billion above target at £35 billion or thereabouts. Today, it is not £1 billion above target, but likely to be £10 billion above target, at £30 billion. Last year, the inflation rate stood at 2.5 per cent., but this year it has nearly doubled to 4 per cent., and it is going up. Last year, the growth in gross domestic product was 4 per cent., but this year it is barely 2 per cent. Last year, growth in sales and manufacturing output in Britain stood at 4 per cent., but this year there was zero growth, and more bad figures were published today. However, last year, the Government said that things were so bad that we had to have record tax increases, but this year, they say that they are so good that they can afford a tax cut. Who the hell do they think they are fooling? They are not fooling anyone. Everyone in the country knows what the Government know, and they know beyond peradventure that the Government are preparing to risk responsible management of the nation’s economy for short-term tax cuts to save their own skins.

We now learn that the Labour party will stand idly by and allow the Government to do that – so we hear – because Labour Members dare not vote against a Budget that puts Conservative tax cuts before Britain’s interests.

On Monday, at the Confederation of British Industry conference, the Leader of the Opposition said that he was “unashamedly a long-termist”. I applaud that commitment and I agree with it, but a person cannot be an unashamed long-termist if the best that he can do is to abstain when the Government so obviously place short-term party interests before the long-term interests of the nation. It will not wash.

I believe that Labour cannot do what it rightly and understandably seeks to do – win a reputation for economic responsibility – if Labour Members will not vote against a Government who are so plainly acting irresponsibly. If the Labour party will not stand up for the long-term interests of the nation in opposition, how on earth can the country trust it to do so in government? If the Labour party acquiesces to the present Government distorting the country’s finances to get themselves re-elected, why on earth should the country not conclude that Labour would do exactly the same if it were in their place?

In two weeks’ time, we shall see the cynicism of the Government by the Budget that they present, but we shall also know the mettle of the Labour party by the way in which Labour Members vote on that Budget. The nation will be watching both of them. Today, however, we debate a Queen’s Speech that – the Leader of the Opposition put it rightly – is barely a sufficient programme for three months, let alone a full year. That is precisely the point. For it is a cut-and-run programme, designed to be ditched at any time for an early general election. They are fag-end measures from a fag-end Government.

The one thing that drives the Government – obsesses them – is to find something, anything, to mark out clear water between themselves and new Labour, which now appears determined to become indistinguishable from them. The Leader of the Opposition’s tactics – in my opinion, good tactics but bad strategy – are driving the Prime Minister absolutely mad.

Turn as he will, the Prime Minister has not a clue about how to handle that. Blown hither and thither by the gales that rage in the Conservative party, he now tacks frantically from one side to the other, driven on by his own weakness and rebellions all around him. One week, he leads the applause for his Defence Secretary, who has grabbed the wheel and swung it towards clear blue water with a speech of such juvenile right-wing nonsense that it discredits not only his position but the whole nation; the next, we are told that he has at last found firm anchorage, sheltering under the lee of the Deputy Prime Minister, safe in the harbour of one nation Toryism.

Mr. Skinner What, in his wedding dress?

Mr. Ashdown However, a week later, there he is, throwing overboard long-planned legislation on divorce and domestic violence and making the Lord Chancellor carry the can, to satisfy a tiny group of Conservative right wingers and the ramblings of a freelance journalist on the Daily Mail.

I predict that it will not be long before the Prime Minister is off again, blown on by a news headline or a minor revolt of Conservative Back Benchers or a Minister who has now become too weak to control. Behind him he will trail that sorry, bedraggled Armada that now passes for the Government of our country.

Mr. Skinner You can’t drag an Armada.

Mr. Ashdown Oh, he can; that man can. He can drag them behind. The albatross of the past 16 years hung around their neck, weighed down by broken promises and political sleaze, paralysed by internal divisions and ministerial incompetence, they will limp on until they make their final rendezvous with the ballot box. What drives the programme is fear – fear of what that ballot box will bring. But fear is not only the Government’s stimulus; fear is the weapon that they intend to use – it is the only weapon that is left to them and it will be their chosen weapon at the next election.

The Government will raise fear over constitutional change – we heard it today. They will say that it will break up Britain. But the opposite is true. The Union is more likely to be broken by the arrogance and contempt with which the Government ride roughshod over opinion in Scotland and Wales and the communities of Britain. They will raise fear over the chaos which they say would follow any change to the way we are governed. But the opposite is true. Britain’s democratic structures have become so out of date, so out of kilter with the needs of a modern, citizen-based, information-rich society, that they are now just as much a block on progress as are the out-of-date machines in too many of our competitive industries.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) The right hon. Gentleman talks about changes in the structure of government. Over the past 18 months the right hon. Gentleman and I, and our colleagues in Somerset, have worked together with success to save the tier of Somerset county council; indeed, we have succeeded in saving the county council tier across most of the country. Given the two-tier structure of local government that we now retain in this country, does the right hon. Gentleman’s party still intend to superimpose on top of it – under Westminster and under Europe and Strasbourg – the tier of regional assemblies?

Mr. Ashdown A tier of regional government already exists. The only difference is that it is not democratically accountable. The Government have gone round constructing it – there are people in Bristol who deal with Government Departments for the west country, but the people of the west country have no control over them. All we seek to do is to ensure that those people are democratically accountable to the areas that they serve.

The Government will raise the fear – we have already seen it today – that the nation is about to be swallowed up by Brussels. But the opposite is true. All that Brussels does, it does because the Government have agreed to it, in secret, in the Council of Ministers – and the only person who agreed to more than the Prime Minister was his predecessor.

Many of the things that we and everyone else want for our people in the years ahead – security, the right framework for a strong economy, a powerful voice in the world, a clean environment in which to live – can be achieved only if we work constructively with our European neighbours. But the Government would sacrifice all that to appease a few rabid anti-Europeans on their own Back Benches.

The Government will raise the fear that if we try to invest in education, we will become bankrupt. But the opposite is true: the one certain way to bankrupt Britain is to fail to invest in our people. For they are the most important resource that we have.

The Government will raise the fear that long-term investment in our infrastructure and a long-term programme to clean up our environment will mean short-term misery for us all. But the opposite is true. Unless this country starts taking the long-term view, it is bound to go on failing – in the short term and in the long term.

The Government will raise the fear that the country cannot be safely governed except by people who have had as much experience as they have had. I presume that they mean people like the Home Secretary, whose chief experience since his appointment two years ago is that of being found guilty eight times by the courts for breaking the laws which he is supposed to be there to protect.

Mr. Skinner Nine.

Mr. Ashdown The hon. Gentleman says that it is nine – I am happy to accept that. Frankly, I have lost count.

If it is experience that the Government value so much, if it is experience that gave us the poll tax or the arms to Iraq scandal or sleaze on the Back Benches or economic bungling and mismanagement or the misappropriation of aid for the world’s poor into the Pergau dam scandal or the timidity and failure of three years of fatal hesitation in Bosnia, then frankly I think we can do without it. It is not that sort of experience that Britain needs, but new ideas, new energy and some new policies to prepare it for the next century.

Mr. Gallie Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ashdown If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make a little progress I shall happily give way later. The Government’s programme for the next year should have contained such measures. But it does not. There are some measures that we can welcome in the Queen’s Speech, as I said earlier, but they are few in number and small in character.

If the Bill on asylum is designed to speed up the procedures for dealing with applicants and to weed out bogus applicants, we would welcome it. But that will not be its purpose. Instead, I believe that it will be a disgraceful attempt to play the race card by blacklisting certain countries’ nationals and preventing them from even applying for asylum. I speak of countries such as Nigeria, from where there have been 9,000 applications for asylum since 1993, of which only four have been granted. I am happy to give way to the Prime Minister if he is prepared to answer the question. It would put many minds at rest.

The Leader of the Opposition quoted from an article – which I saw also – by Mr. Andrew Lansley, who was the head of research for the Conservative party at the last election. Interestingly, it is an Observer essay that is targeted at the methods used to destroy Labour in 1992. It is entitled “Accentuate the negative to win again” – and we have seen quite a lot of that. In the article, Mr. Lansley, who is now a Conservative party candidate, says”Immigration, an issue which we raised successfully in 1992 and again in the 1994 Euro-elections campaign, played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt”.” They are the words of a Conservative candidate who was the Prime Minister’s research director at the last election. I shall happily give way to the Prime Minister because I believe that he has a very good reputation on race issues. It is the Prime Minister, and not those on the Back Benches, who will run his party’s policy on the matter while in government. Will he personally repudiate the sentiment expressed by Mr. Lansley and give an absolute undertaking that it will not recur during the next election campaign?

The Prime Minister I indicated earlier to the right hon. Gentleman that I grew up in a multiracial area. [Interruption.] Will the right hon. Gentleman do me the courtesy of listening? I grew up in a multiracial area and, from time to time, I lived in a rented house with people of more than one race. While I lead it, the instincts of my party will not be to play race at any time, in any way, on any occasion or upon any provocation. That will not be our policy.

I believe passionately in the equal rights of everyone in this country – whether they be black, brown, yellow or white. That is my firm conviction and it has always been my firm conviction. That will be the Government’s policy for as long as I sit on the Front Bench. I hope that that is clear.

Mr. Ashdown The Prime Minister’s emotions and his sincerity about the matter are not to be doubted; what must be doubted is his control of his party. The Prime Minister has not done what I asked him to do. Is he prepared to stand at the Dispatch Box and repudiate the words of his parliamentary candidate, Mr. Lansley? He is not prepared to do that, and therefore we must infer that at the next election Conservative candidates will be free to put forward that sort of policy.

The Prime Minister The right hon. Gentleman is doing exactly what I said earlier, and it is contemptible. I have set

I have set out the Government’s policy, which is the policy of the Conservative party. It is the policy of every hon. Member and of every parliamentary candidate. Is that clear enough for the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Ashdown The Prime Minister is not prepared to repudiate Mr. Lansley’s words: I think that the nation and the House will recognise and understand that deficiency.