Queen’s Speech 2008: Clegg response
It is on this day that we celebrate our democracy and our most fundamental tradition – scrutinising the Government and holding it to account.
It is a matter of great sorrow that because of recent events, that tradition is being brought into question.
With almost comic timing, the Queen’s speech claims that new measures will be taken to ‘strengthen the role of Parliament’.
But there is no sign that the Government understands how much this place has been neutered by the secrecy and might of the Executive. If this Government did understand, it would immediately include three bills in the Queen’s Speech:
First, a Parliamentary Privileges Bill, as recommended by a cross-party committee nearly ten years ago, setting out clearly what the rights are of Members of this House and under what exceptional circumstances those rights can be curtailed.
Second, a Civil Service Bill to ensure our civil service is as impartial as it should be, and is always protected from undue political pressure.
And, third, a Bill to restore protection for whistleblowers who act in the public interest. We need to bring back the whistleblower protections that this Government, and its predecessor, abolished.
This isn’t just about the arcane Westminster belief in parliamentary privilege, a term most people have never heard of and probably care about even less. It’s about defending the simple principle that anyone wanting to unearth information about the way this Government runs things on our behalf should not live in fear of having the anti-terror police at their door.
This should not be a fight amongst Parliamentarians. It’s a fight to protect every citizen’s right to tell the truth about our Government – no matter who gets embarrassed.
Mr Speaker, today was a tremendous opportunity. It has been a truly terrible year for millions of people – and they are out there waiting.
Anticipating. Saying, asking, pleading – please, help us.
The Prime Minister has been telling them he’s just like Churchill. The Business Secretary says he’s like Moses. So people have the right to expect big things – a tablet of stone to fix their problems.
But all they’ve got is this meagre piece of paper, dressed up as a solution.
This is a time of unprecedented economic crisis. People need a big helping hand. But these are the same old ideas they came up with in the pre-Queen’s Speech in May.
Hasn’t the Government noticed that times have changed? The non-stop drumbeat of initiatives from this Government has become like legislative musak – an irritating hum in the background, of no use or help to anyone.
The Government is hyperactive in places where it should pause for breath, and inactive in all the areas where it should do something. It acts where it shouldn’t, it fails to act where it should.
How else can the Government justify tabling legislation that will give police the power to check the identity of every British citizen, smuggling in Identity Cards by the back door – while doing nothing to get people’s energy bills down.
How on earth can the Government justify a 26th criminal justice Bill – more tough talk, more criminal offences, yet public fear of crime still on the rise – while it doesn’t mention the word ‘housing’ once in the Queen’s Speech, an area of policy crying out for urgent Government action?
This is a speech from a fag-end Government which is running out of ideas.
The Queen’s Speech ran to 650 words. Proposing 14 Bills.
Yet not one of those Bills will help build one extra social home. Not one will put a single penny in the pocket of people in need. Not one will lower a single family fuel bill.
Rarely has so much been promised, and so little delivered.
These are strange political times. After a generation of political cross-dressing. Labour trying to be Conservative-lite. The Tories trying to be cuddly and green. The parties are back in their corners again.
And we remember why Labour and Conservatives have failed Britain so many times in the past.
That lot want to run everything and that lot want us to do nothing. It’s a terrible choice. A choice between the wrong direction – and backwards.
The Government’s determination to do very little is only surpassed by the Conservative determination to do even less. Listening to the Rt Hon member for Witney, I still don’t know what he’d actually do.
The Conservatives seem to be planning to slash spending from 2010 when the recession may still be bearing down on millions of people struggling to make ends meet. And they call this ‘being responsible’.
The Conservatives – responsible for some of the worst recessions Britain has ever seen – trying to steal the cloak of prudence.
We know Labour imagines the recession is good for their poll ratings. But the Conservatives seem to think a recession is good for our health.
Labour may be fiddling while Rome burns. But the Conservatives would prefer to hide the fire engines.
What could this have been? Mr Speaker, the Queen’s Speech should be offering hope where there is fear, reassurance where there is uncertainty.
The Prime Minister should be offering big, permanent and fair tax cuts for ordinary people and families, to put money back in their pockets, funded by closing the multi-billion pound loopholes that benefit only the very rich and big business.
Releasing local authorities from Whitehall rules so that they can borrow against their assets, buy up unsold properties and turn them into social housing, complete unfinished housing projects, and provide affordable homes to the thousands of families without a permanent roof over their heads.
He should be forcing the banks to lend money on fair terms to small businesses and families – and making it quite clear that if the banks cannot be made to act, the Government will lend directly itself.
Instead of the tiny VAT cut that no-one will notice, he should be creating a big programme of green investment to create jobs, stimulate the economy, and set Britain up for a more sustainable future.
And finally, Mr Speaker, he should be forcing energy companies to charge fairly for heating and lighting our homes, so that a pensioner trying to heat just a single room is no longer paying more for her units of energy than a millionaire heating five floors of a mansion.
But the Prime Minister has done none of these things. He’s just offering us more of the same, tired old ideas. A banking reform Bill that won’t stop repossessions. A local government Bill that won’t free councils to invest in homes for people who need them. An education Bill that won’t save apprenticeships. And more tub-thumping populism on law and order that won’t cut crime.
Why is the Prime Minister marching about the world, trying to be chancellor-in-chief of every country there is? He’s supposed to be running Britain. He’s supposed to be helping ordinary British families. Not congratulating himself that he’s having a good recession.
The Prime Minister is showing hubris when what we need is humility.
What people want is less of his arrogance, and more of his help.
Mr Speaker, it’s clear today it isn’t just Britain’s economy that’s broken.
Politics is broken, too.
And this isn’t just depressing – it’s dangerous. Economic crises breed discontent, anger and frustration.
People need solutions, but all they see here is pantomime. A Government with the support of just 22% of the voters. Stumbling through a crisis much of which was its own making. Ramming through laws against all opposition. Deaf to all criticism. Blind to all dissent.
People will give up on politics. No wonder more people stayed at home at the last two general elections than voted for the winning party.
If this was a truly reforming Government, the Queen’s Speech would be reforming politics, as well as the economy. Getting big money out of party politics. Changing the unfair, undemocratic electoral system. Devolving power away for where it is hoarded in Westminster and Whitehall. We got none of this.
Today’s Government programme is just political pantomime – plenty of bright colours and bad jokes, but very little substance. Labour’s run out of ideas. It is clearer today than ever that Britain needs a new, different Government. A different political beginning. That’s what the Liberal Democrats will deliver.