1997 Onwards -
Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons response to the Queen’s Speech debate, in May 1997.
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION:
Mr Major: Parliament is only a few days old, yet we have already lost one of our most distinguished senior colleagues, Michael Shersby. Many of the new Members present today may not have known Michael, but those old or new Members who did know him knew a kind, gentle and good House of Commons man. We will all miss him.
We will also miss other hon. Members whom we lost towards the end of the last Parliament. I recall particularly my colleague, Barry Porter, and Martin Redmond, both of whom showed the most incredible courage in the face of inevitable defeat by their similar, dreadful illnesses. Every-
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton [Mr. Kaufman] moved the Loyal Address with his customary skill and wit and in his customary suit. When he was speaking, I suddenly remembered how much he loves ice cream, and now I think I know why. What the right hon. Gentleman did not disclose was his clear financial interest in the change of Government. It is a substantial interest, because the right hon. Gentleman stands to make rather a lot from the future sales of his book "How to be a Minister". I can thoroughly recommend it. When he wrote it, he had just left office and I thought that, having just lost an election, he had rather a cheek to write such a book. Now I am not so sure that that is the case.
The book is in hot demand and I can thoroughly recommend it. The Foreign Secretary has woken up. Let me tell him that one can always prepare. To those on the Front Bench who are after the Library copy of the book, I must say that I have it. It is available for private sector loan to anyone requiring it. It contains some excellent advice on such everyday subjects as how to get on with No. 10. That is useful reading for any new Minister. How to get on with the press is clearly best not talked about while the Minister without Portfolio is around. There is also a chapter on how to lose office gracefully, to which new Ministers may not wish to turn for a week or two, but I advise them to tuck it away.
There will have to be changes to the right hon. Gentleman's excellent book, because it was written a long time ago and things have changed. We then had Prime Minister's Question Time twice a week, which is specifically mentioned in the book. The chapter on working with No. 10 says:
"Your meeting with the Prime Minister is over. You are now a member of the Government. What will your relationship be with the Prime Minister who has just appointed you? Clearly it cannot be what it was just 10 minutes ago".
In those far-
The right hon. Member for Gorton is a formidable opponent, as I have found to my cost from time to time. When I first became Foreign Secretary-
Only a few weeks ago, I saw a moving article by the right hon. Member for Gorton about his mother. I believe that she would have been very proud of what he had to say today, and very proud of the way in which he said it. All who heard his speech heard a remarkable parliamentary performance, and I congratulate him on it without reservation.
The hon. Member for Sunderland, South [Mr. Mullin] spoke very well, and rather charmingly. He is a man of conviction, and he has even publicly conceded that he was a socialist. These days, therefore, he is something of a visionary. I do not share many of his political convictions, but I admire the courage and persistence with which, over the years, he has frequently and often with great success pursued unfashionable causes. He has often been proved right, despite incurring much odium along the way, and I much admire him for that.
As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South said, his result was the first to be announced in the general election. I heard that result, and I shuddered for new Labour, although perhaps I did not shudder quite as much as the Government Chief Whip. Nevertheless, the result was an intriguing prospect for those who have heard so much about the Government's programmes and know so much about the hon. Gentleman's convictions.
The hon. Member for Sunderland, South referred, with some charm, to the stories in The Sun about him, one of which he still has hanging on the wall of his house. I fear, however, that he is a little out of date on that newspaper. Perhaps he should visit Australia to discover precisely the current allegiance of The Sun. He will be in very serious trouble if he continues to attack it in that manner.
The hon. Member for Sunderland, South was also burgled. Like me, he lived for a while in Brixton-
The hon. Member for Sunderland, South-
We have heard two excellent speeches in support of the Loyal Address. As the right hon. Member for Gorton said, it has been 23 years since we last heard two Labour Members move and second the Loyal Address. They were such excellent speeches that I believe that they would last for the next 23 years, if we were not to have the pleasure again for some time. The right hon. and hon. Gentlemen can be proud of their efforts.
I should deal with other matters. First, however, it is appropriate to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Labour party on their success in the general election, and I do so warm-
The Prime Minister has made some political appointments to his private office, political appointments as his chief press secretary and other press secretaries, and changes-
I believe also that it was unwise to rush ahead with a decision on the Bank of England that, similarly, was not discussed or considered in the House, or announced to it, or foreshadowed in the Labour general election manifesto. Those individual decisions are understandable, and no doubt taken in the first flush of enthusiasm, but I hope that the Government will reflect on the fact that the strict impartiality of the civil service is of great importance and the rights of Parliament should not be bypassed. I hope that that will be borne in mind for the future.
Although the Government have a mandate, so do Opposition Members. When the Government act sensibly, they will deserve cross-
The programme placed before the House and the country today is a mixed bag. It contains a great deal that we can support; indeed, if I may say so to the Prime Minister, some of the policies seem rather familiar. Strong defence based on NATO, the completion of the single market, reform of the common agricultural policy, a wider and more open Europe and, of course, a determination to pursue a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland are among the matters on which the Government can legitimately look to wide cross-
During this Session of Parliament, there will be many debates in which the objectives sought by Members on both sides of the Chamber are the same, but there may be fierce debates because we shall disagree about the means of achieving an undoubtedly desirable end. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and today's Gracious Speech is full of good intentions. It also contains some very bad policy. It heralds three new taxes-
There are other areas of some importance. The reform of the social security system will continue to be one of the most important long-
We have also been promised a Finance Bill. Next month's Budget will be only the first of a series of tax-
The first tax increase is, of course, the retrospective windfall tax which we have been promised for some time. It is to be levied on an unknown number of companies at an unknown rate, but it will certainly come in the near future. It is presented as a tax on fat cats. It is, in fact, a tax on jobs, fuel bills, pensions and investments. We do not know precisely how much the Chancellor seeks to raise. Figures such as £3 billion, £5 billion and £10 billion have all been floated at different times. If £5 billion is to be raised and only half that tax is passed on in higher bills, the average household bill will rise by around £50. The real figure could be double or even quadruple that.
Labour Members may think that that is not very much for the use of that £5 billion, but 3 per cent. off VAT on fuel will cut bills by only 36p a week-
The windfall tax also has rather magical properties. It is a one-
What is to be the net result of the new windfall tax? It is likely to be higher fuel bills, which we might charitably regard as ironic after all that was said about VAT-
Some commentators were surprised by the Chancellor's decision. I share their surprise. Only two or three months ago in a set-
"the Bank must demonstrate a successful track record in its advice and build greater public credibility"
before it could control interest rates. By the time the Chancellor took his historic and, I believe, mistaken decision, he had seen the Bank demonstrate a track record. The only problem was that it was a track record of four days only. Two of those days were the weekend and one was a bank holiday. I am unsurprised, therefore, that the commentators were surprised.
The Chancellor claims that he is taking politics out of interest rate decisions. Glossing over the fact that I wonder what he thinks politicians are for if not to take decisions that affect millions of their fellow citizens, I make the point that he has not taken interest rate decisions out of politics at all. The decisions will be taken by a nine-
The Chancellor has handed a very important political power to unelected officials. He has damaged his choices as Chancellor of the Exchequer; he has taken a vital choice away from himself. He has damaged his choices in managing the economy, he has ensured that unemployment will grow and that growth will be held back, and he has done all that without debating with, considering or consulting the House of Commons on the decision. Although I know that the decision was well-
The Queen's Speech stated that education was to be a high priority. Again, I agree with that aspiration. Everyone wishes to see higher standards, and I am delighted that the percentage of pupils getting good examination results has doubled over the past few years. Here again, however, we share the aspiration but not the way in which to achieve it. For example, the previous Government aimed to give more power to parents and to take it away from town halls, whereas the Prime Minister proposes precisely to reverse that process. Hundreds of thousands of parents have voted for their schools to be independent of local authority control, but the Prime Minister proposes to ride roughshod over their wishes.
That is not all. Local education authorities will have new powers over development plans and admission policies specifically at the expense of parents and school governors. The Government intend that despite the fact that, over many years, the worst-
The reason for that bit of ideological spite is, allegedly, to save money to reduce class sizes generally; but the figures do not, of course, remotely match, as the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment will find out. The children who will not get an assisted place will go elsewhere to be educated, putting up class sizes in the short term and eating into the savings. Some independent estimates-
The Government's education priorities are very lopsided. They include worthy aims such as higher standards and the new targets set by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment-
Let me now turn to the centrepiece of the Government's programme-
Can the Prime Minister now confirm to the House that constitutional Bills will be taken here on the Floor of the House in accordance with convention? Can he please do so this afternoon? The Minister without Portfolio wriggled unmercifully on the radio the other day without giving any coherent answer to that plain, straightforward question. So I repeat it: can the Prime Minister confirm that the Bills will be taken on the Floor of the House? Can he promise that they will not be smuggled upstairs to a Committee stacked full of enthusiasts who will not properly examine the measures?
Can the Prime Minister tell us why he favours a tax-
When the Prime Minister was asked for his answer to that question, he said that it was the same as he had always given, but he has never given an answer. Will he do so this afternoon? Will he let Scottish Members sit as Ministers running Departments and managing English affairs? The Foreign Secretary once memorably said that, as a Scottish Member, he would not be able to do that if there was a Scottish Parliament. Does the Prime Minister agree? Why is it Government policy at present to have a tax-
Devolution of power, whether to Scotland, Wales or the Bank of England, inevitably takes power from the House of Commons, as does the Government's known policy for the Amsterdam summit in a month's time. In various important matters, our veto-
Of course there is a genuine disagreement between the parties over many European policies, but once a veto is surrendered at Amsterdam, Britain will have no right at any stage in the future to say, "No, we do not want those policies here," or to reverse those policies if they fail. The Prime Minister knows that. I therefore have a suggestion, which I hope he will find helpful. If he thinks that the policies are right, why does he not bring legislation before the House and let hon. Members decide through free debate and discussion? If we get it wrong, successive Governments can change it; but if we surrender the power to our partners, we can never change it-
In the debate on the Gracious Speech, many of my right hon. Friends will want to raise a series of detailed points about the plans that the Government have set before the nation. The Opposition will do so, as far as is practicable, in a spirit of friendly co-
At the start of a new Parliament, a new Government deserve some good will and some luck. I willingly give them the good will and, for the sake of the country, I wish them luck. They begin their term of office with a large majority, a sparkling economy and unemployment below 6 per cent.-