Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): One of the delights of this debate is that one can range widely over the body politic. If you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not, within the rules of the House, confine myself to discussing local government.
The Queen’s Speech is an opportunity for the Government to set out their stall and their vision. One does not need to be particularly parti pris to come to the conclusion that there is a certain lack of momentum at the moment-I put it no more strongly than that-which is not surprising when a Government have been in power for 10 years. This sort of phase in history has happened before. We can think of Eden following the exciting period of the Churchill Government, of Douglas-Home following Macmillan, of Callaghan following Wilson, and lastly of Major following Thatcher. It may be right that we go through this sort of period when a Government feel that they must consolidate and they do not have any burning ambition to change things because they have been in power for a number of years. The trouble is that a Government who do not wish to change events often are the victim of events-that was the case for the Callaghan, Major and Eden Governments. That is a real danger for this Government. Many people have been disappointed with politics in recent weeks and have started to ask where the beef is, what this Government are about and what their great vision is.
I, along with colleagues who represent Lincolnshire constituencies, talked to the Conservative group on Lincolnshire county council last week. That group had great worries about the lack of direction that it was receiving from the Government. In a sense, the Government started off with a series of reforms. In education, they abolished grant-maintained schools. They went in one direction and they have now rowed back with academies. They made a series of reforms of the health service. They rolled out all that health policy and have rowed back again with foundation hospitals.
We have also had all this debate about reorganisation. Councillors in Lincolnshire and, I suspect, elsewhere want a degree of stability. The French, German and American political systems do not have constant reorganisations. Lincolnshire does not want or need any other reorganisation. Logically and intellectually, I favour the unitary system, but there is no point throwing all these chairs up in the air, abolishing the district councils in Lincolnshire and elsewhere, abolishing the county councils and starting from scratch, because we will not solve our problems by such reorganisation.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman represents a fairly rural area, as do I. Does he agree that rural communities sense a degree of drift by the Government? Having endured a difficult economic situation, made worse by the recent outbreaks of various diseases, the rural community does not feel very supported by the Government. It feels that they are potentially willing to allow the small communities, which are still very dependent on agriculture, to go into terminal decline. Does he agree that we want a clearer strategy and more positive focus on supporting our rural communities in Wales, and indeed in England?
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Mr. Leigh: I heartily agree with that. Of course, this will be denied by the Government, but that is the view of the rural communities.
That view is buttressed by what is happening to post offices. Lincolnshire faces a swathe of closures of apparently productive and profitable post offices that serve the community. The Public Accounts Committee constantly examines areas of waste and incompetence. We do not get involved in party politics; last week, we examined job-creation schemes. One such scheme was spending £73,000 per job, yet my constituents see that profitable, successful post offices that serve the rural community face extinction. We are talking about people who often work for small salaries and who provide an essential public service. No business case is offered for this, and gagging orders are served, so we cannot be given the facts. We write to Ministers and to the chairman of the Post Office, but we do not receive answers. The Government must address the real feeling of rural communities in this country that they are suffering in so many ways in terms of funding. Our Lincolnshire police force is at the bottom of the Government funding league-no county is more badly funded.
I now come to my main theme. Places such as Lincolnshire are, for the first time in their history, faced with a wave of immigration. So many of the issues that my councillors were talking about last week were based on worries about immigration. In a sense, we can have a healthy debate, because one can now talk about immigration without being accused of indulging in racist undertones. This immigration is coming from eastern Europe. The people are extremely welcome, individually and in groups, and they are hard working. However, 40 per cent. of the children in some schools in Boston speak only a foreign language. We welcome them because they will contribute to the community and within just a few months they will learn English. Apart from having difficult, foreign-sounding names, like the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), they will be completely indistinguishable from British people in a few months.
However, where is the Government funding to provide all the services that those people need? This is not a traditional immigration debate about people who have a different ethos coming to places such as Lincolnshire. This is simply a practical debate about how we ensure that the roads, schools and all the rest of it are in place to provide for people. The Government need to provide some answers. But, if we are to be honest about the immigration debate, we must also consider immigration from outside the EU. Personally, I think that the Muslim minority in this country provides an enormous amount of individuality and creativity, and is hugely beneficial. However, the Government have mishandled the whole Muslim question in two ways. First, they have been far too weak in dealing with Muslim extremism. The Government have not made it clear that people are welcome in this country, but primarily because they see themselves as British. We have only to look at the wave of Jewish immigration into this country in the early part of the 20th century to see how successful that community has been in integrating fully into our society. It is now represented in many spheres, right at the very top of society.
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We have to be firm with the leaders of the Muslim community and say to them, “You are very welcome, but you have to integrate”. I am very concerned about the creation of a ghetto mentality in the Muslim community, with Muslim faith schools, in which people spend too long in an introverted system. I would much rather see them integrate fully into the education system.
The other way in which the Government are mishandling the issue is in foreign and defence affairs. I shall stray a little into that area, if you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I think that I am allowed to do so. The Government have alienated the Muslim minority in this country and throughout the world through their policies on Iraq, in particular, and Afghanistan, to a lesser extent. It is well known that I voted against the Iraq war, and I shall not go over that again. However, in the Liaison Committee over the past year, I have repeatedly asked detailed questions of the former Prime Minister, and I have also asked the Secretary of State for Defence what on earth is going on in Iraq. Answers have not been forthcoming.
We have had an answer from a senior serving officer, responsible for thousands of troops, who told a Sunday newspaper that the decision to pull soldiers out of the centre of Basra last month came after commanders concluded that using Iraqi forces would be more effective. He said:
“We would go down there dressed as Robocop, shooting at people if they shot at us, and innocent people were getting hurt. We don’t speak Arabic to explain and our translators were too scared to work for us any more. What benefit were we bringing to these people?”
The article also states:
“British forces have struck a deal with Shia militias to withdraw to a single base at the international airport in return for assurances that they will no longer be attacked.”
The fact is that the invasion of Iraq was a fundamental diplomatic and military disaster. It has given enormous impetus to Muslim extremism and we are still making mistakes there. We are still alienating Muslim opinion. We have got out of Basra and it appears that the only victors there are the Muslim militias. I voted against the war and I think that we should get out as soon as possible.
There are also real dangers facing us in Afghanistan. I know that terrorism is a real problem there, and we should by all means go in there to deal with it. But if we think that we can impose our western liberal values on Iraq or Afghanistan, we are deluding ourselves.
Lembit Öpik: Does it strike the hon. Gentleman as ironic that, given the successes that we had in Northern Ireland in dissolving the motives for terrorism, little effort appears to have been made in the so-called international war on terror to understand the motives? To understand those motives is not to condone the acts of terrorism, but does he agree that the lessons from Northern Ireland could usefully be relearnt by the British and American Governments?
Mr. Leigh: Of course I agree with that. Probably everyone sitting in this Chamber agrees deep down, although they cannot say it publicly, that we have mishandled Muslim opinion and that we have failed to learn from what we achieved in Northern Ireland. It has been a mistake to try to impose our values and we are paying the price-through substantially increased spending on our security services.
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If we are to have an honest debate about immigration and local government, we must also have an honest debate about education and health policy. I suspect a lack of momentum in those areas. We had a Public Accounts Committee report only a couple of weeks ago on the academy programme. Large sums of money are being spent on academies, but the evidence shows that their results are below the national average. I know that they are placed in difficult areas and that some are catching up, but I question whether we are just recreating the comprehensive schools that were built in the 1960s. The first such schools experienced a surge in interest and academic standards, but because we did not address the fundamental flaws in the education system, they ultimately became failed schools. When the new paint has rubbed off in 20 years’ time, the academies could also become failed schools.
I have a simple solution that I have advanced consistently-although I have perhaps not brought my Front Benchers with me-which is giving head teachers the freedom to run their schools in the way that they want. That means giving them freedom over budgets, over hiring and firing teachers and over selecting, deselecting and expelling pupils. I am not talking about a return to grammar schools, because that debate misses the point. I am talking about more freedom for head teachers.
This very day, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), a former leader of the Conservative party, is launching a new scheme for pathfinder schools in some of the most difficult areas. Those schools will provide real hope and opportunity in those areas, becoming beacons of excellence. But we have to set them free. If the academies are to be successful, they have to have that freedom.
That suggestion is not some weird idea from a right-wing think tank. Look at what is happening in Holland and in Sweden, of all countries. Sweden has had continual social democratic government for the last half century and it has a universal voucher scheme. It is also introducing-although this is not generally known-a voucher scheme for hospitals. It is privatising hospitals and providing beacons within its national health service, delivering real choice. I strongly believe that politics is about empowerment, about providing ordinary people-through vouchers or any other means-the real empowerment in health and education that better off people already have.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent’s Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Leigh: I am afraid that I may only give way a couple of times and my time is about to run out.
I have identified a theme that I shall try to impress on Front Benchers on both sides of the House. We are now at a stage in politics at which we have agreed that central direction simply does not work. We now all apparently agree with localism, but if that is to be more than just a slogan, we have to trust the people. We have to trust individual choice and we have to empower local people to make choices in health and education.