May 23, 2005

Debate on the Address: Home Affairs and Communities

John Bercow examines a number of proposals in the Queen’s speech, including a controlled immigration system, asylum policy and reform of the House of Lords.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), who, in his maiden speech, addressed the House with a combination of skill, wit, authority and, to use his word, pride‚Äîpride in his constituency, pride in his surroundings and pride in having arrived in this House to represent his people. As it happens, I know the hon. Gentleman’s immediate predecessor, Ross Cranston. He is an immensely intelligent and engaging man. The hon. Gentleman spoke movingly about his predecessor, and he will be a very good successor indeed to Ross Cranston. We look forward with interest and respect to his future contributions to proceedings.

I also congratulate a number of other Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I refer, of course, to the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and for Tooting (Mr. Khan), the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who seems to bear many of the admirable traits of her immediate and remarkable predecessor, and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), who is something of a seasoned professional in politics. This is before I even get to the bit that I treasure most, as a continuing party animal, which is to pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski).

I have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury for many years. He loves his constituency, he is part of his constituency, he was determined to represent his constituency—and in the end he got here. He spoke with great warmth and sincerity about his patch and the challenges that it faces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor described in compelling terms the journey that he has made from what he called his humble origins to the success and status that he is fortunate enough to enjoy today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham displayed a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of his constituency‚Äîvery impressive in a debut performance‚Äîculminating in a witty and appropriate reference to the special relationship that he is cultivating with the Prime Minister’s father. If that does the trick in securing an improvement in public performance, we shall all owe a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend. And by the way, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I am to have any chance of being called to speak, either in debates or at Question Time, I know that I must always resolve to sit in front of my hon. Friend and not behind him.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in this debate. The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) threw down a very legitimate gauntlet to the Conservative Opposition earlier. I cannot speak for my right hon. and hon. Friends‚ÄîI gave up attempting to do so some time ago‚Äîbut for my own part, I want to make it clear that I remain implacably opposed, on grounds of principle and practicality, to the introduction of identity cards. The Government’s arguments on this matter have consistently shifted, and none of them is persuasive. I shall endeavour to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to go the right way on this subject, but whether they do or not, just as I spoke and voted against the introduction of identity cards in the last Parliament, so I intend to continue to do so now.

There are good things in the Queen’s Speech. In what they have set out so far, the Government are picking up on a number of important public priorities. The difficulty, of course, is that the devil is in the detail. So much will depend on the practicality, and on the extent to which the Government are sufficiently rigorous in their pursuit of their objectives and display the necessary determination to overcome the people and things that tend to get in the way.

I should like to focus on a number of the specifics in the Queen’s Speech. The first point that I want to make is that immigration and asylum should not be artificially conflated and confused. They should not be regarded as synonymous‚Äîthey are not. On immigration, let me make it clear that I welcome the Government’s intention to introduce a points-based system for admission to this country. Yes, I believe in controlled immigration, but I also believe that it is incumbent on people of good faith in all parts of the House to be as ready to proclaim a commitment to fairness in immigration policy as they are to proclaim a commitment to firmness. A successful, free enterprise capitalist economy needs a decent level of immigration. The economic as well as the moral arguments for immigration need to be made, and I am not afraid to make them.

On asylum policy, let us be explicit in our debate. There are currently people in this country who should not be here. Equally, there are people who are not in this country but who, in a fair system, should be. I was appalled to hear recent testimony of people trying to get to this country from Darfur who were denied the chance to do so because they were told by the Government that it would be safe for them to relocate to Khartoum. That is a bogus and ignorant argument that completely underestimates the significance, power and ill intent of the state apparatus in Sudan. I want to see firmness, but I also want to see fairness. I did not make a party political issue of immigration or asylum in my constituency, and I do not seek to do so now.

The Government’s proposals on incapacity benefit represent an important area of public policy, and the way in which Ministers reform it‚Äîby retitling it and dividing it into two parts‚Äîshould be driven by the extent of the abuse that is being committed, rather than by an anticipation of the level of revolt that they will face for seeking to address the problem. In other words, if they do the right thing and are fair in giving support to those who need help while denying it to those who do not, the Conservatives should not play games; we should support them. If, however, the Government simply cower at the first sign of grapeshot from left-wing Labour Back Benchers, we should not support them. We have a duty as a constructive Opposition to point out the error of the Government’s ways. The opportunity is theirs. I shall try to take a constructive approach and I shall not be afraid to support the Government when I believe that they are right‚Äîsometimes flying in the face of judgments made by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Never!

John Bercow: My hon. Friend speaks from the Front Bench with a degree of intensity and feeling.

There is much to do on education, but I want to make one important point. Using private money to support and bolster the public sector is one thing, and I favour it. Using public money to support and bolster the private sector is quite another, which I do not favour. There are lessons to be learned by my own party in its approach to this subject as we seek a reformed and strengthened public sector capable of delivering for the interests of the majority.

On House of Lords reform, there is a difference between destructive and constructive reform. It is all very well for the Government to say that they will get rid of the remaining hereditaries. Let me make it clear that I find the hereditaries’ continued presence intellectually difficult to defend, and I am not one to say that their removal cannot be justified. I believe that the Government can make a case for it. I do not believe, however, that the Government should simply get rid of something without putting something substantial, constructive and enduring in its place. If the Government can combine the removal of the hereditary principle with a constructive proposal for sustainable reform along the lines argued for by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and the former Member for North Cornwall, Paul Tyler, representing the Parliament First group, I say three cheers to that.

My final observation to the Government is that allowing sufficient time for debate on all these important measures is not a sign of weakness; it is a display of strength. If the Government really believe that they have a compelling case for their measures, they should not be shy about it. They should allow other views to be expressed, and ensure that there is time for that. They should listen to the public, who feel that the Government, for all their good intentions, are often too arrogant and too dismissive of other views. I hope that they will turn over a new leaf, and in the interests of the country, I wish them well with the legislative programme that they have outlined.

7.37 pm

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