Defending Public Services
Nick's Speech in the Queen's Speech Debate
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) on her maiden speech. It always takes courage for an hon. Member to make a maiden speech in this daunting Chamber, but it must especially have been so when she paid tribute to her predecessor—her late husband—whose untimely death robbed this Chamber of a promising new Member who spoke with equal passion for his constituents in her city of birth, Sheffield. She will clearly be a great champion for her constituents, and will speak with the bluntness that she declared. I am sure she will be a much respected Member.
I did not intend to address the issue of the European Union, but will respond to the points made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) and for Wokingham (John Redwood), to whom I listened with great interest. I listened with care to the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. It is surprising that those who have been campaigning to leave the EU, and who for so long have criticised the EU for not completing enough trade deals despite the fact that the EU has more trade deals than any other country—it has far more than the United States—find themselves in the position of criticising trade deals. In my judgment, the benefits of TTIP include a £10 billion a year trade boost to our economy, which would enable us to invest more in public services.
First, may I clarify to my right hon. Friend that I have long campaigned against TTIP? Secondly, Switzerland has more deals than the EU, including deals with China, Australia and India. The only countries with which the EU has deals that China does not are with very minor states.
My point is that the EU has trade deals with more than 50 other countries, whereas the US has only 14. I thought the narrative was that we want the EU to have more trade deals.
The issue is this: any modern international trade deal will involve some kind of binding arbitration mechanism. My right hon. Friend is clear that he opposes the Canadian free trade deal, but that has been championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), who leads the leave campaign, as a model that our country should adopt if we leave the EU. It is also true that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North American Free Trade Agreement and even he World Trade Organisation all involve some kind of arbitration panel that takes decisions out of the hands of elected Chambers. If we are to take the position that any trade deal of that kind should be resisted if decisions can no longer be taken by elected Members, none will be acceptable. We would then be in the position of trading without any such arrangements, at potentially enormous cost to our country.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham spoke with characteristic passion about parliamentary democracy and described this place as a puppet Parliament. I note that none of the Bills in the Gracious Speech that are of interest to me and my constituents are restricted or affected by our membership of the EU. That goes to a central point: we can vote on and discuss much of our legislation and domestic affairs without the encumbrance of the EU. I therefore find it difficult to accept that the 650 Members of the House of Commons are puppets, and that our views and votes on those matters are entirely irrelevant simply because of our membership of the EU. That strikes me as an exaggeration, legitimate though the concern about parliamentary sovereignty might be.
I welcome the proposed prisons and courts reform Bill, having been the author of “Prisons with a Purpose” before the 2010 general election. The document urged the rehabilitation revolution and a transformation of the way in which we run our prisons. The radical reforms proposed by the Government are welcome in respect of reducing reoffending.
A number of measures are of special interest to my constituency of Arundel and South Downs in West Sussex. The neighbourhood planning and infrastructure Bill will address a problem that I spoke about in the House recently. The welcome reform of neighbourhood planning introduced under the Localism Act 2011 empowers local communities to make plans that benefit their local area, but they must not be undermined by speculative developments that call into question the legitimacy of plans that have been voted on democratically in referendums. It would be very welcome if the neighbourhood planning and infrastructure Bill addresses those problems and prevents those speculative development applications. We should remind ourselves that neighbourhood plans have had the effect of producing more and not less housing than was originally intended. Therefore, the proposal will not reduce house building, but will properly empower local communities.
The digital economy Bill is welcome—I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy on the Front Bench. He will know of the concern that many in rural areas have about closing the emerging digital divide. We want to ensure that the Government’s welcome proposal to extend superfast broadband throughout the country reaches those in hard-to-find rural areas—they, too, are entitled to fast broadband speeds. That is important for rural employment, but it is also important on the ground of fairness. It will take new means, and I hope the Bill sets out measures that will future-proof broadband provision to ensure that the speeds obtained in those areas meet tomorrow’s as well as today’s needs. Many areas in my constituency currently cannot get broadband at all.
I welcome the education for all Bill and its promise to meet the Conservative party manifesto commitment to a fair funding formula for our schools. West Sussex schools are unfairly disadvantaged in that respect.
I also welcome the modern transport Bill. I should like to refer to two crucial infrastructure issues that affect my constituency. First, on the A27 upgrade, I am delighted that the Government have announced that that major route will be upgraded to include the Arundel bypass and that funding has been provided. I hope the plans continue to timetable, so that work on the bypass begins by the end of the Parliament, as has been set out.
Secondly, the rail service to my constituency is a concern to a large number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. The performance of the Govia Thameslink Railway franchise has simply been unacceptable over the past year, hugely inconveniencing passengers. It must be said that 60% of the delays are the responsibility of Network Rail and result from infrastructure failure. It should also be acknowledged that the Government are embarking on major infrastructure investment, including the £6 billion London Bridge upgrade, which will improve services. Nevertheless, GTR is not meeting the self-set targets in its performance improvement plan. Those targets were low in ambition, but the company is falling below its original performance thresholds set one year ago to improve performance for customers. That failure is exacerbated by the entirely misconceived industrial action of the RMT on driver control of doors. It cannot be a safety issue when drivers rather than guards already control the doors on 40% of Southern services. Industrial action has exacerbated existing problems with the service, meaning a very serious level of disruption for passengers over the past few weeks. This is now causing real anger among my commuting constituents and many others in the area covered by the franchise.
First, there is no justification for the industrial action and it should not continue, and nor should the unofficial industrial action caused by drivers and guards who seem to be suffering from an unusual level of sickness. Secondly, the management of the GTR franchise must recognise that, while the proposed measures to reform how it runs the trains may be justified, its management of the franchise as a whole has been absolutely lamentable. It has brought the Government’s rail policy into disrepute. It is essential that the company and Network Rail are held to account for their poor performance and that they meet their own self-set performance improvement standards.
Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
Does my right hon. Friend think that the licence to operate this service should be taken away and a new supplier found to ensure it is delivered properly and in line with what he would expect?
My hon. Friend raises a fair point. The ultimate sanction available to the Government for the failure of a franchise to perform effectively is to withdraw it. Indeed, that has been suggested by the Prime Minister. The franchise has only just been awarded. One problem is that the company failed to plan for enough drivers, so for the past year there has been a driver shortage. There has literally been an inadequate number of drivers available for the trains and there is a very long training period. The company assures the Government that it can improve its performance. The Government are reluctant to withdraw the franchise and find themselves in the position of running the railway, but unless the position improves more radical measures will have to be taken to deal with the underperformance of this service. Frankly, t has been simply appalling. It is unacceptable for the rail-travelling public in this area. It is time that both Network Rail and Southern recognise that it is no longer acceptable to deliver a low-standard performance of this kind.
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To watch Nick's speech, see: http://tinyurl.com/gluddsa