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Miller in Queen's Speech debate (day one)

26 November 2003
MPs have had a wide-ranging debate following the deliverance of the Queen's Speech, which outlined government's plans for the next legislative year.

Key Bills included in the speech covered top-up fees, immigration, civil partnerships, civil contingencies, domestic violence, and child protection. A number of smaller measures were also included.

Conservative leader Michael Howard took the opportunity to launch a fierce attack on the Labour government, arguing that they had achieved little in power.

He pressed the Prime Minister on divisions within his party and cabinet, and told the government they should be ashamed for themselves for suggestions that the children of asylum seekers be taken into care.

Michael Howard went on to attack the government over its record on education, health and home affairs.

However, the Conservative leader also welcomed a number of bills, and promised a free vote on civil partnerships.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy also criticised the Government's lack of ambition over the last six years.

Particular areas of criticism were the invasion of Iraq, the treatment of asylum applicants, crime policy, constitutional reform, and tax. Charles Kennedy also drew attention to the lack of attention to environmental protection from the government.

The Prime Minister responded to criticisms, and laid out his view of the forthcoming year. In response to a question from Dennis Skinner, he confirmed that fox hunting would be dealt with in this legislative year.

Turning to criticism from the Conservatives, Tony Blair ran through their performance when last in government, reminding the house of the poll tax, cuts in police numbers and substantial increases in unemployment. 'Not even Paul Daniels could make that record disappear,' Mr Blair told the Commons.

Moving on to his own policies, the Prime Minister defended top-up fees, arguing that taxation could not bear the costs of higher education. He also explained that his immigration measures would strip the multiple layers of appeal and fast track the asylum process.

The Queen's Speech would also create a fairer society, Mr Blair argued, pointing to legislation, which would create child trust funds, a children's commissioner, pension protection, new employment rights and civil partnership registration for same sex couples.

Concluding, Mr Blair repeated his support for the two main themes, future and fairness, which ran through the Queen's Speech.

The debate which followed was wide-ranging, with MPs offering their views on proposed Bills, and highlighting issues of concern. It was marked by Conservative attacks on the government, with little backbench Labour criticism.

Constituency issues were aired in the speech, with most relating to hospital funding, education funding and planning issues. Liberal Democrat Patsy Calton referred to telecommunications masts, and David Amess spoke about masts for mobile phones.

MPs welcomed measures in the Queen's speech on employment rights, civil partnerships, child protection and domestic violence.

The Child Trust Fund was also widely praised, although opposition MPs pointed out that it would be the middle classes who benefited most, as they would be able to take advantages of tax breaks and top up the fund.

The proposed domestic violence bill was also widely welcomed by all parties.

Conservative Tony Baldry regretted that a Bill on corporate manslaughter had not been included in the Queen's Speech, outlining a constituent's case relating to this. Other MPs echoed his calls.

Conservative David Amess was unhappy that there was no animal welfare Bill in the speech.

Key points of debate were on the proposed education and immigration bills.

The contentious proposals to increase tuition fees, with payment being deferred until after graduation, were raised by a number of opposition MPs.

Labour MPs argued that it was unfair to expect tax payers to pay for services they don't use, with Tom Levitt stating that the proposed graduate tax would ask only those earning more than £15,000 to pay back the costs of their degrees.

Conservatives argued that the government's policy would reduce access for poorer students.

The government's proposed immigration bill would withdraw benefits from asylum applicants whose claims are rejected, and to take their children into care was also a source of debate. The appeals process would also be reduced.

Conservative Tony Baldry pointed to the costs of taking children into care, and detailed plans to build an accommodation centre in his constituency, calling for assurances that the government would pay for this, and not the council.

Labour back-bencher Jon Trickett was troubled by the suggestions that children be taken into care, noting the history of immigration into the UK, making it a 'mongrel nation'.

Conservative David Amess had the practical suggestion that asylum applicants be allowed to work while their application is being considered.

Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael added that twenty per cent of applications at the second appeal in asylum cases were successful, asking the fate of these people following abolition of the right to appeal.

The proposed disabilities act was widely welcomed, with MPs outlining issues that should be included. Labour backbencher Ross Cranston referred to abuse of the blue badge scheme by able-bodied motorists, and others spoke about categories of people who are currently not recognised under the DDA, such as those with cancer or HIV.

The scheme for identity cards was welcomed by some Labour MPs.

Backbencher Ann Cryer was the main advocate. 'If people are living honest lives and are not of a criminal bent, they should have nothing to fear from them', she stated, going on to argue that they could help to combat benefit and prescription fraud. Ann Cryer also suggested that medical insurance be a requirement of visas, and that donor cards could be merged with identity cards.

Fellow Labour MP Andrew Miller agreed, but stressed that users must be in control of the use of information. He added that a national change of address system should be set up.

There were many speeches on pensions, all of which welcomed the pensions Bill was again broadly welcomed, although some regretted that it would not be retrospective.

In addition, MPs from all parties agreed that House of Lords reform should be addressed more quickly, although they had different opinions on the form which this should take.

There were few interventions against the proposals for civil partnerships, although some MPs suggested that this should be extended to opposite sex couples.

Other issues were touched on briefly in MP's speeches.

Labour backbencher Ross Cranston spoke about the proposed to the justice system, warning that people may be reluctant to apply for judicial appointment due to a fear of rejection. He added that committees were typically unimaginative and risk averse, and called on the Secretary of State to initiate and choose candidates.

Liberal Democrat Robert Smith was one of the few MPs to look at international affairs, calling for increased effort from the government on fair trade and debt relief, and on ensuring that the US does not abandon the multilateral approach.

Labour backbencher Brian White hoped that the economic reconstruction of Iraq would not follow Conservative economic policies, but would be led by his own government's approach.

Finally, Orkney and Shetland Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael spoke about the handling of Scottish issues by Westminster, calling for more consultation, with Scotland Office ministers working on Standing Committees and Report Stages of the Bill.

Other issues covered included reform charities funding, energy and Ofgem.