The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I thank the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) for praising the Prime Minister—we can do much more of that in the debate. I also thank the leader of Plaid Cymru for his earlier welcome of my reinstatement as Secretary of State—I am grateful. I apologise to him and the House for having to rush off after I have spoken to get my seals of office. I have to stand the hon. Gentleman up for the Queen.
I shall respond to the hon. Member for Moray shortly and urge hon. Members to reject the motion, which calls for a dissolution of Parliament. However, first, I want to ask why the motion is not in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. He calls for an immediate general election every time he gets out of bed and every time he goes on television. He has said virtually nothing for the past few weeks, except to demand an early election. So why does not he table the motion instead of trooping dutifully behind the nationalists? Is he just playing to the media gallery, as usual, because he knows that the House of Commons will not back him? Is it a case of bravery before the cameras, cowardice before Parliament?
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider and withdraw that remark.
Mr. Hain: I happily do so—it was said in jest.
The leader of the Conservative party is allowing the nationalists to do his work for him.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition has followed the example of the Prime Minister. We have a debate in which the Prime Minister could have explained why he does not want an election, yet he has not bothered to turn up. He has sent a Minister who is not available for the whole debate. When we have a three-hour debate in the Chamber, the least the Government can do is find a Minister who can be here for it.
Mr. Hain: Where is the leader of the Liberal Democrats? Where is the leader of the Conservative party? I see that the leader of the SNP has dutifully travelled down to do the Tories’ work for them, as he so often does. Plaid Cymru and the SNP are the Tories’ little helpers. In 1979, the SNP voted to destroy a Labour Government and usher in 18 years of miserable Tory rule. In the European elections, voting Plaid Cymru allowed the Tories to top the poll in Wales—albeit on a pitiful vote of just over 6 per cent. of the electorate. Voting SNP will allow the Tories to get in at Westminster.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Not that it matters a great deal—although the right hon. Gentleman has apologised once to the House, a few seconds ago—but just to be accurate, he said that Plaid Cymru voted to bring down the Labour Government. We did not.
Mr. Hain: Actually, I did not say that at all. I said that the SNP voted with the Tories to bring down the Government in 1979. However, let me remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that we remember well that Plaid Cymru came to the rescue of the besieged Conservative Government under John Major, by doing a grubby deal in 1993.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Talking about grubby deals, does the right hon. Gentleman remember that in 1979 the Labour Government did a grubby deal with Plaid Cymru to secure their votes and to try to cling to office?
Mr. Hain: Actually, it was an honourable deal, concerning quarrymen in north Wales as I recall. We were happy to do what we did, which was in their interests.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Will the Secretary of State give way?
Mr. Hain: In a moment. The SNP—the hon. Gentleman’s party—has a history of seeking to inflict a Tory Government on Scotland. It did that in 1979 and it is trying to do it again now. The SNP’s real agenda is not about an election; it is about wanting to get a Tory Government in Britain to undermine Scotland’s link with the rest of Britain. The SNP would love to have a Tory Government in Westminster, inflicting mass unemployment, education cuts and hospital closures in Scotland again, so that it could try to ride a wave of revulsion towards independence for Scotland.
Pete Wishart: I agree with the Secretary of State: the last thing that Scotland needs is a Conservative Government. We remember all too well the scorched earth policies and being the testing ground for the poll tax, but does he not agree that the reason that we will get a Conservative Government in Scotland is the failure and futility of his Labour Government?
Mr. Hain: Is the hon. Gentleman saying, then, that he prefers a Labour Government? [ Interruption. ] That is very interesting. So, as far as he is concerned, he does not mind a Conservative Government in Westminster.
Several hon. Members rose —
Mr. Hain: Let me make some progress. We now have the hon. Gentleman on the record as being indifferent to a Tory Government, and the people of Scotland will note that. People who back the nationalists get the Tories on their coat tails, just as the Tories are on the nationalists’ coat tails in voting for today’s motion. That is what the nationalists are: tartan Tories in Scotland and daffodil Tories in Westminster.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC) rose—
Mr. Hain: I give way to a daffodil Tory in Westminster.
Hywel Williams: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, but we need to respect history. We had Tory Governments throughout the ’80s and ’90s not because of the actions of the nationalist parties, but because the Labour party lost the election—and then lost and lost and lost. That is the Labour party’s responsibility, not ours.
Mr. Hain: I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but it was his nationalist colleagues in Scotland who helped to bring down the Labour Government, which paved the way for a Tory Government.
Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I agree with the Secretary of State’s comments about what happened in 1979. The people of Scotland have good memories and they will never forgive the separatists of the SNP for what happened in 1979, which was an unmitigated disaster for the people of Scotland. I am sure that the Secretary of State will remember that, following 1979, the SNP—the separatists—were dubbed the tartan Tories by the people of Scotland. Is he also aware that, given that the official Opposition are totally devoid of any policies at the moment, the people of Scotland currently dub the separatists of the SNP the political wing of the Conservative and Unionist party?
Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend puts the case very eloquently, and I have to agree with him. Here are the tartan Tories, at it again today, siding with the Conservatives to achieve their objectives. People who back the nationalists get the Tories on their coat tails.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): How can the Secretary of State have the gall to accuse our parties of being Tories when on virtually every major issue of the past 12 years—whether the Iraq war or the privatisation of Royal Mail—our parties have been to the left of his?
Mr. Hain: What about the minimum wage— [ Interruption. ]
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Members have a right to be heard.
Mr. Hain: What about the statutory minimum wage? I do not remember massive support for that from the nationalists. To dissolve Parliament now would be to walk away from the necessity for the reform that voters are demanding, as the hon. Member for Moray rightly said, and that we are delivering in the form set out by the Prime Minister earlier today. I heard the hon. Gentleman waxing lyrical—and being very persuasive—about the need for democratic reform. Virtually every one of the proposals that he advocated was enunciated from this Dispatch Box by the Prime Minister a few hours ago. To dissolve Parliament now would be to turn our backs on the British people in their time of economic need and insecurity. Neither of the two great challenges that we face—the political challenge and the economic challenge—would be solved by an election. Playing with parliamentary motions might be a priority for Opposition parties. Cleaning up politics and getting the country back to work is Labour’s priority.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): Does the Secretary of State not believe that a Labour victory in a general election would clearly reinforce the strength and competence of the Government to address the issues that confront this nation? Is that not a case for holding an election now?
Mr. Hain: When the time comes to call an election, we will indeed get a renewed mandate to take the country forward and to meet the challenges of the future. That will be the choice that is put before the British people at that point. They would not forgive us, however, for abandoning the job of implementing parliamentary reform and economic recovery now. They want the Government to sort things out; they want us to do it quickly, and then, and only then, to call a general election. There will be one soon enough—within a year—and only then will it be right to go to the country and ask who should take us forward to the future, once we have addressed the pressing concerns of today.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The Secretary of State says that these things need to be done quickly, and I entirely agree with him. So why, after 12 years, have we still not got a fully elected House of Lords and a proper democratic system for this Chamber? This is expediency on the part of the Government; they are not taking decisive action. Their argument is facile beyond belief.
Mr. Hain: The reason that we have not been able to get our reform through the House of Lords is that the House of Lords blocked it. Labour has only about 30 per cent. of the votes in the House of Lords, and the Conservative party—despite now advocating a policy of an elected second Chamber—cannot deliver its own peers in the House of Lords in such a vote. Sooner rather than later, however, we will put that question to the House of Lords, and we will hope to carry the House with us in getting full reform for a democratic second Chamber.
Meanwhile, there is a lot to do. Of course the European elections were terrible for the Labour party. But, far more significantly, they were an alarm call for all the parties, and for parliamentary democracy itself. For every party, a low turnout at elections is the clearest sign that the British people are not engaged with the political process. That is our fault, not theirs. We seem obsessed with procedure and tribal party politics—as we can see this afternoon—and now the public also think that MPs are all in it for our own ends.
If this motion were carried and Parliament were dissolved, all that the poll would amount to would be another referendum on MPs’ expenses. The low turnout and the rising support for fringe and extreme parties show us one thing: that people used their vote last Thursday to protest, not on the finer points of European policy, but on the story of the day—indeed, the story of every single one of the past 30 days: MPs’ expenses.
Mr. Donohoe: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way on a point on which the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) would not give way. I want to ask my right hon. Friend a simple question. Does he honestly believe that, if the motion were successful and there were to be a general election in the coming weeks, the question of Members’ expenses would go away? Would it not stay with us for the following four years as well? Would not The Daily Telegraph and all the other newspapers revisit the issue and find some other reason to print the same story?
Mr. Hain: I could not agree more, which is why we need to lance the boil now, and why we need this Parliament, on a cross-party basis, to sort this out here and now. Then, within a year, we can have an election to decide who should take the country forward—not how we should reform parliamentary expenses, because that will have been done, but who should take us forward to meet the big challenges of the global economic crisis, of climate change and all the other issues before us.
Lembit Öpik: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what has effectively happened, in summary, is that the general public and the media have become obsessed with the process of politics rather than the outcomes that we are meant to create, part of which is our own fault? The people of Montgomeryshire are less interested in process than in getting out of this recession, so if we are not to have an election, will he explain how he envisages the Government responding in the months ahead to the need of the citizens of Montgomeryshire and across the country for outcomes to make their lives better, their jobs more secure and to reduce the sort of social tensions that led to the reaction we saw in the European elections last week?
Mr. Hain: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman that the media are far too obsessed, almost to the exclusion of all else, with process. It is process, process, process rather than substance, substance, substance. That is why we will carry on with delivering our policies to get the housing market going again, to build more social housing, to tackle the lack of confidence in business and to ensure that business is supported so that we can recover from this economic crisis brought about by the global financial collapse and move the country forward. Then there will be a choice—a very clear choice—at the next general election.
We do not need a referendum on expenses because we have just had one. We were all given a real kicking by the voters and we understand the message: “Clean up, shape up, get on with the business of Government and come back to us when the problem is fixed”. Where the Opposition parties posture, we deliver. We are determined to take the necessary action, not to walk away.
Just imagine what might happen to the economy if Parliament were dissolved and we had an election. In the middle of probably the worst financial crisis the world has faced in living memory, Britain would face weeks and weeks of instability and uncertainty—just when there are reports of rising consumer confidence, just when business surveys show the pace of decline is slowing, just when mortgage approvals have risen for the third month in a row and just when the poison infecting our banks has been stemmed. Why, just at this critical moment when the global economy is still volatile, do the nationalists want to trigger instability in the markets and in the British economy?
Let us imagine for a moment pursuing this nationalist-Tory alternative. We dissolve Parliament, then spend the next three weeks fighting each other rather than the global crisis, and the nationalists do not have a clue what to do about it. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who rather fancies himself as an economist, praised Iceland as an inspirational model. No sooner had he done so than its economy imploded, while his other small country model, Ireland, has sadly had its own serious difficulties, yet Plaid lauded both Iceland and Ireland as an arc of prosperity.
As for the Tories, the real reason they want an election now is that they cannot go on for ever dodging the questions. They have no policies at all except for multi-billion pound cuts in public investment.
Several hon. Members rose —
Mr. Hain: I will give way in a few moments.
It is good to see that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has found time from his millionaire speaking and consultancy contracts to be with us today. He has a vivacious Welsh wife, but sadly she has not managed to educate him politically. He opposed the minimum wage, which has benefited millions of workers throughout Britain. He opposed the social chapter, referring to
“minimum wages, social chapters and all the other job-destroying nonsense”.—[ Official Report, 20 January 1997; Vol. 288, c. 606.]
He said that the National Assembly for Wales would be
“nothing more than a talking shop and a terrible waste of money”.
Does he still hold those views? Should he not now apologise to the shadow Welsh Secretary for landing her right in it?
When the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for Wales, at least he learned the national anthem—indeed, his rehearsing it led to him marrying his private secretary—but he blocked billions of pounds of objective 1 and convergence funding for Wales, which a Labour Government subsequently delivered. He is now part of an Opposition who want to implement billion-pound cuts that would decimate those very European programmes right across Wales.
Adam Price: The Secretary of State’s speech is another good argument for an early dissolution. He is obviously out of practice. If Plaid Cymru has nothing to contribute in terms of the economic crisis, why did his party agree to form a coalition with us, and why is the leader of my party, the Minister for the Economy and Transport, coming up with the ProAct wage subsidy scheme, which the Secretary of State has himself praised and described as an innovative scheme that should be copied here?
Mr. Hain: If we are talking politics and government in Cardiff Bay as opposed to politics and government in the House of Commons, why did the hon. Gentleman’s party chase after the Conservatives in the desperate search for a coalition before Labour helped it out and got it into government?
On the “Today” programme this morning, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, let slip that
“that does mean over three years after 2011 a 10 per cent. reduction in the departmental expenditure limits for other departments. It is a very tough spending requirement.”
Yes, the demand from the Tories is very tough. A 10 per cent. cut would be an utter disaster for housing policing, business support, defence and many other public services. A 10 per cent. cut would amount to cuts of £50 billion across the United Kingdom, £600 million in Wales, and £1.2 billion in Scotland.
The Tory mask is slipping. The Tories want people to vote soon, before the truth is out. They have no positive solutions to the financial crisis, just opportunist spin on the economy today followed by savage cuts to public services tomorrow—cuts made almost with relish, gleefully. The Tories would use the financial crisis as an excuse to do what they have always wanted to do: cut, cut and cut again.
Stewart Hosie: The Secretary of State is absolutely right: making savage cuts in the teeth of a recession is the wrong thing to do. He will therefore criticise his own Chancellor and the Treasury for the £500 million worth of cuts that will be heading Scotland’s way next year in the teeth of a recession.
Mr. Hain: Is this not curious? The Scottish Government have never had more money than they have now. Their budget, like that of the Welsh Assembly Government, has more than doubled since we came to power in 1997.
What is the real nationalist agenda? Why would the nationalists dissolve this Parliament today? It would not just be for the purpose of an immediate election; they would dissolve this Parliament for ever. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!” There we are. They are cheering the idea. If they were frank, they would admit that they would break up the United Kingdom, cutting off Wales and Scotland from the main markets, population centres, wealth and international influence of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): He is talking sense at last.
Mr. Hain: That is the sense that the people of Scotland will reject: cutting Scotland’s links with the United Kingdom, just as Plaid Cymru would cut Wales off from the great benefits of sheltering under the umbrella of the United Kingdom and making us all stronger together.
Mr. Salmond: Given that the Secretary of State’s colleagues in the Labour party in Scotland have been deploying these arguments for years—and, I am sure, deployed them in the European election campaign—to what does he attribute the judgment of the people of Scotland in increasing the SNP vote by 10 per cent. in mid-term, and last week’s resounding endorsement of the SNP Government in Scotland?
Mr. Hain: The right hon. Gentleman speaks of a resounding endorsement, but I believe that the SNP received less than a third of the vote on a tiny turnout. Labour voters, for reasons that I have explained, stayed at home in their hundreds of thousands.
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that people listening to this debate will be appalled by the petty discussions about which party’s votes have increased by what percentage? What concerns the people of this country, and certainly the people of Wales— [Interruption.]
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mrs. Moon: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
What concerns the people of Wales and the people of this country is the memory of being told to get on their bikes and find work—of “hunt the job”. They remember money being sent from Wales to Westminster when it could have been invested in Wales. They remember schools falling apart, and education waiting lists. That is what people want us to discuss here, not whether another party has increased its voting share by 1 per cent. Nobody cares about that; they care about their lives.
Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend makes that point extremely persuasively, and it reminds me that when the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks was Secretary of State for Wales he endorsed the policy of his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), in sending money back from Wales to the Treasury, which we then had to reverse by more than doubling the budget for Wales since we came to power. If the nationalists were successful in wrenching Wales and Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom, that would leave Wales with a £9 billion deficit in public finances, and the figure for Scotland would be about £10 billion.
The SNP Administration at Holyrood are propped up by the Tories. Tory votes in the Scottish Parliament supported the SNP’s budget of cuts, and the quid pro quo is that the SNP in Westminster does the Tories’ bidding. People in Scotland whose communities still bear the scars of Thatcherism did not thank the SNP in 1979, and they will not do so now.
Let me make this plain: the Tories and the nationalists would turn their backs on the British people and walk away together. They would dissolve this Parliament because they hope it would suit their short-term political ends. Only Labour will stay the course to do the hard work, to reform, and to give real help to the British people. They can dissolve if they want to; this Government are not for dissolving. We are standing firm, and I urge the House to reject the motion.