Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I welcome the Prime Minister’s speech and the contents of the Gracious Speech.
I urge my right hon. Friend to telephone the President of the United States and say that it is high time Guantanamo Bay was closed down, which we read the President is minded to do. It is a moral blot on the west that people are still there without facing trial or being released for their liberty. If there are people for whom there is not enough evidence for a proper trial but about whom there are still legitimate worries, could they not be let out under surveillance? Surely it is high time we no longer tolerated that prison.
I strongly support what the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister said about our armed forces. They have shown enormous strength, great professional service and huge bravery, especially in Afghanistan. I hope that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will move to get our troops away from risk and danger in Afghanistan as soon as possible. Some might have to stay there for longer, to provide training and support, but surely the Afghans are by now sufficiently trained to do the patrolling and take on the more dangerous tasks. They have the local languages and contacts. I want our troops out of risk and out of danger. So many have died. They have created the conditions in which the Afghans can now have a more secure future, so please now trust the Afghans and take our troops away from those risks.
I hope that the Prime Minister will be extremely careful about being dragged into any intervention in Syria. None of us likes what the regime is doing—the terror, the bombing and the huge loss of life is unacceptable —but we also know that the forces of opposition range from the friendly and those in favour of democracy and liberty to very different types of people whom we would not normally choose to be our allies. While I welcome the Prime Minister’s wish to use what diplomatic weight the United Kingdom has to try to find a solution, I hope that he will resist any hot-headed moves to commit our troops to Syria, whether directly on the ground or indirectly, and be very careful about the idea that killing some more Syrians might be a helpful contribution to an extremely dangerous situation.
I welcome the fact that the Gracious Speech has relatively few Bills in it. That is very good news. We legislate too much in this House, and we often legislate in haste and repent at our leisure. I think everybody would agree that this Government are trying to reform a very large number of things already. A lot of very complex legislation has been put through affecting many of our public services. Surely now is the time for Ministers to supervise those reforms and ensure that they are well thought through, properly administered and embedded, while the rest of us must subject them, and every penny of public spending that Ministers propose, to increasingly extensive scrutiny.
This Government face a mighty task. They inherited an extremely broken and damaged economy. All Ministers now need to lend their weight and their talent to dealing with that one central issue and not get too distracted by other things of interest abroad, and we in this House need to make sure that every penny they propose to spend is well spent, because the origins of our debt and borrowing crisis lie in an enormous surge in public spending. Unfortunately, some of that spending was not well judged and did not lead to the better schools and hospitals that all parties and people of good will want but, instead, added to the complexity, the unnecessary cost and sometimes the waste throughout the public services.
In order to promote this economic recovery, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will inject a new sense of urgency through his new energy Minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. One of the most oppressive things about our current economic situation is the very high energy prices that have been imposed on individuals, families and businesses, and we now need to regard cheaper energy as fundamental to getting better economic growth. Our American friends and competitors have energy prices 50% below our own for running industry, which these days is often more energy-intensive than labour-intensive. That is too big a gap, and it is a matter of great urgency. I hope the Government will look very carefully at ways to get energy prices down and to go for cheaper energy in the United Kingdom.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the pursuit of misconceived green energy policies has contributed to the problem that he is identifying—namely, that we are now one of the most expensive places to generate energy in Europe and as a result our industries are suffering as regards competitiveness?
Mr Redwood: I think that the Government need to re-examine the whole carbon tax regime, which is not imposed by our Asian or American competitors, and the balance of power generation for electricity, because we seem to choose to generate a rather high proportion by extremely expensive means. I would impose this simple test: is it going to work and is it going to be cheaper?
The Government would be wise to understand that we may not be too far away from an unfortunate conjunction of events on a cold winter’s day when there is no wind blowing and we are very short of energy.
I am worried that a number of our important old power stations are being pensioned off or forcibly converted before we have put the alternatives in place. As the Prime Minister has rightly said, that should have been done by the previous Government, who spent 13 years arguing over whether to have new nuclear or new gas and did not put in place the replacement and back-up power that we clearly need with a strategy that relies heavily on wind and other intermittent renewables and where an EU set of rules requires us to close down prematurely a series of older power stations that we might still need.
Indeed, I would hope that one of the new energy Minister’s urgent decisions will be to ask for permission or derogation to keep open some of the older power stations for another two or three years while the Government put in place the necessary permits, licences and investment framework for the replacement power stations—which will, I think, have to be gas powered—in order to ensure back-up and security of supply. One of the important tasks of government in the overall task of keeping the country secure is to keep the lights on, and we need to do more to make sure that that is happening.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will encourage the Chancellor to go further and faster in sorting out the banks. Some of us are extremely impatient about the way in which the Royal Bank of Scotland, the recipient of so much public subsidy and shareholding, is still not able to help finance a proper recovery. It is extremely difficult to have a strong economic recovery in this country at a time when our major bank is still undertaking such a massive slimming programme and trying to reduce its loans and exposure to risk because it got itself into difficulties under the previous regulators and remains in difficulties under the new regulators. There are regulatory fixes; I do not wish to go into the technical details, but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will move quickly and more purposefully to split up RBS and create working banks to finance the faster recovery that all parties in this House clearly want.
That would also help with private infrastructure. Those on the Government and, I think, Labour Front Benches are keen to promote more large infrastructure projects, and it would be very good if they could be financed privately. We are many years beyond the initiation of that idea under Labour, and then under the coalition, but we are yet to see the commitment of large financing to the power, transport and wider broadband and other communications projects needed for economic development and to trigger more economic growth through the construction industry. I hope that more attention will be directed to tackling those issues.
I am very pleased that at the core of the Gracious Speech, as the Prime Minister said, is his wish to do more to control our borders sensibly. I am a free-enterprise free trader—I am all in favour of talent coming in and of diversity in our country. However, I think that most of us believe that far too many people came in far too quickly, creating difficulties for housing, health and other service provision. When new people arrive in our country, we want them, as well as the people already settled here, to enjoy a reasonable lifestyle and for that to be achieved at a pace with which the existing community is happy.
I think the big mood of anger that we saw in Thursday’s elections stems from the feeling that many people have that some of those who arrive in our country get free and easy access to public services and benefits before they become British citizens and valued members of our community. People ask, “Is this fair at a time of cuts, pressure and difficulty? Can we really afford to have hundreds of thousands of new people coming in who are immediately eligible for high-quality public services and welfare provision?” When we see the details of what the Prime Minister is suggesting, I hope that a fair and sensible system will be introduced.
In meeting the European Union obligations on the freedom and movement of workers, it would be a very good idea to say that while of course people can come in to take a job, that would not make them eligible to receive a welfare or top-up benefit of any kind, and that it would not give them automatic entitlement to a lot of fringe benefits for their wider family. It should be the free movement of workers, not the free movement of benefit-seekers. I believe that the contributory principle is enforced in other parts of the EU, so why do we not have a rule that says that people can get access to welfare benefits and services only if they have paid national insurance for five years, or—to cover those who are already settled here but who, through no fault of their own, have not been fortunate enough to have a decent work record—if they have been in full-time education in Britain for five years? We need to look at whether we can use that contributory principle to provide some discipline.
Something that is of great interest to the trade union movement and the Labour party, as well as to the rest of us, is the impact that high volumes of migration have had on wages. Because Britain has been such a welcoming home to so many people, it has seen a large number of migrants from the rest of Europe. That has undoubtedly acted as a damper on wage levels at the lower end of the market. Often, people of great talent and skill come in and do jobs well beneath their skill level for very low wages because they are better than the wages where they come from. Some of that is a good thing, but too much of it creates enormous difficulties because it means that people who have been here for many years or were born here cannot get a job, the overall level of wages is rather low and living standards are not as high as we would like. That causes anger and tension in local communities.
Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would help if the minimum wage in this country was enforced vigorously?
Mr Redwood: I do not think that the minimum wage is high enough for a family. Our ambitions should be rather higher. It is a Labour cop-out to say that all the problems can be solved by enforcing the minimum wage. We all know that, on the whole, people do not live on the minimum wage, but get benefit top-ups. If people have family commitments, they of course need benefit top-ups.
I am talking about the justice of a system in which there are people in Britain who cannot get a job at all and lots of other people coming in from outside who are taking jobs on very low wages and expecting welfare top-ups, making it difficult to get the welfare bill down. That does not make any sense. There is a double bill for Britain: we have to pay the full welfare costs of the British person who cannot get the job and the top-up costs for the person who comes in from outside. Labour should take that point seriously and worry about it.
British people expect the Government, in trying to keep the country secure, to have the power to get rid of terrorist suspects and other unpleasant individuals who have, perhaps foolishly, been let in. I want the Government to appear strong and to be able to act strongly when necessary. There is huge public will for this House to gain powers that enable us to extradite people who are guilty of crimes or who are suspected of crimes and need to go elsewhere to be tried properly.
My final point is about Europe. I know that the Prime Minister is not keen to have a long debate on Europe. The trouble is that Europe is no longer a single subject; it is about the life that we lead. If we want to be sure that we can control eligibility to our welfare system, we have to sort out European welfare issues. If we want to extradite people from Britain, we need to sort out the European Court of Human Rights and will soon have to sort out the European Court of Justice as well, because there is an important European constraint on the power of Governments to act in that area. If we want to have cheap energy, we may well need to change European energy policy as well as our own. We can make immediate progress through derogations and permissions, but it would be far better to change the overall energy policy, because the whole of Europe is being damaged by its dear energy strategy, which allows America, Asia and others to take the jobs and markets that we need. We need to control our borders, keep the lights on and extradite people who deserve to be tried somewhere else. To do that, we need to sort out the European issue, as well as all the individual issues in their own right. I wish the Prime Minister every success in that.
I do not want to belong to a powerless Parliament. I do not want to belong to an impotent Parliament. I want to belong to a Parliament that can give redress to angry people outside if we think that they are right. I want to belong to a Parliament that controls our borders. I want to belong to a Parliament that settles our energy crisis. I want to belong to a Parliament that can legislate to finalise who has welfare entitlement and who does not. We are not in that happy position today. That is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement that we need a new relationship with the European Union. Bring it on as soon as possible and put it to this House of Commons, because without it this House of Commons is, indeed, impotent.