John Lee – 1978 Speech on the Loyal Address

Below is the text of the speech made by John Lee, the then Labour MP for Birmingham Handsworth, in the House of Commons on 1 November 1978.

I am not quite sure what is implied by that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. By a happy coincidence, I followed the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Hutchison) in the same debate a year ago. I echoed then, as I do now, the sentiments he has expressed with regard to the Falkland Islands. I shall not go over the ground again. The hon. Member has covered it well. He knows the Falkland Islands well and cares very much for them. As I said on the last occasion, I agree with all that he says.

One comment I might make, in response to what you have said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, concerning my reappearance, is that one happy consequence of the unexpected extension of the life of this Parliament is that one of the few doughty anti-Marketeers who stood firm in this House—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South—will be with us for a while yet. When I have gone, I shall be replaced, I am glad to say, by a person who is equally anti-Market in sentiment. The lady who is to take my place, without question, at the next General Election is of those sentiments. I do not know whether that is the situation in Edinburgh, South. I fear that it will not be.

Having watched the way in which the number of anti-Marketeers has been pared clown, because arms have been ​ twisted, it is good to see the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South still here. I know that he will remain as firm on that issue as he has been on the Falkland Islands.

I turn to other matters. I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) that it is a little odd, perhaps surprising, that there has not been a reference to prisons in the Gracious Speech. We know, and there is no reason why we should pretend otherwise, that much of the Gracious Speech is determined by the complexities and peculiarities of parliamentary arithmetic. There is nothing wrong in that. If this Parliament should follow the pattern of the Parliament of 1959, which went through to the very end of its life, the Conservatives cannot complain. They took that Parliament to the full legal limit. In this century, two other Parliaments have gone to their complete statutory limit. One went far beyond, because of wartime requirements.

It is understandable—and I as one of those below the Gangway looking for more Left wing measures have to accept this—that the limitations of parliamentary arithmetic make some of the measures I would wish to see not feasible in this Parliament.

I refer now to a matter which is not dealt with in the Gracious Speech and which is a concomitant of the question of prisons. There is a campaign being mounted, it seems, by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir David McNee, and supported by a number of other people, which seeks to alter our criminal procedure to the detriment of suspects. I find this disturbing and ironical.

When we look back over the past 15 years and reflect upon the sensational criminal trials involving the integrity of senior police officers, starting with the Challoner case and going through the fraud squad, the drug squad and, most sensational of all, the porn squad, it ill becomes the Commissioner of Police to mount a campaign which would reduce the rights of accused persons when in police custody. That does not mean that I am entirely satisfied, as a criminal law-year with procedures, or that I do not think that there are certain circumstances ​ in which the criminal law plays into the hands of the professional criminal.

Indeed, there is room for certain improvement in the criminal law. For example, there is a case to be made for a reduction in the number of inhibitions upon the right of a judge to comment on the silence of an accused person or his refusal to give evidence at a criminal trial, but if we are to change our criminal procedures—and I very much suspect that this will be so since the present Home Secretary is so amenable to his civil servants in so many matters, as I have noticed—the change should form part of a package deal which will provide, among other things, for certain compensatory advantages for suspects. For example, the questioning of suspects might be video-taped. That would act as a protection for the police against false accusations of improper conduct and it would also act as a protection for defendants against oppressive police behaviour, when it occurs.

That said, may I welcome several items in the Gracious Speech? We have long waited for a measure dealing with public lending right. This has been an initiative mounted by a number of Back Benchers which has been successfully stopped by others. As one who normally does not vote in favour of guillotines, I give the Government the undertaking that if that Bill should find itself being filibustered I shall be in the Government Lobby in favour of guillotining procedures that might be necessary. I would welcome that move. The Government may think that that is unusual for me, but I give them that token of my good will with regard to that measure.

I welcome, although I shall be more fulsome in my praise when we see the text, the proposed amendments to the Official Secrets Act. If I were to comment on certain proceedings in the courts I should be out of order. Some of us are not unamused by the way in which the Establishment has ended up with egg on its face in a number of proceedings going back for some considerable time. We remember the farcial Official Secrets trial of the editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, indeed, of a Conservative Member, among others, which ended in fiasco 10 years ago.

The Home Office did not learn the lesson on that occasion. I am wondering ​ whether, in a few weeks’ time, we may be able to make some rather less inhibited comments about this matter. We shall wait to see what is said.

I am glad, too, to hear that the Government will press for improvements in the common agricultural policy. Again, I am a little sceptical because I noticed that a report published in The Guardian yesterday suggested that the protagonists of this system say that it will continue essentially in its present form for at least another 10 years. I know that the Minister of Agriculture tries hard, although I thought that he back-pedalled a little the other day in dealing with fisheries in a way uncharacteristic of him. Perhaps, again, I shall be able to be more unstinting in my praise when I see exactly what is proposed to be done and what the Government will do when, as will be the case, they fail to change the policy because those responsible will not accept change.

Another measure which is most certainly overdue is that regarding credit and the banking institutions. I suppose that this is intended to prevent the occurrence of the scandal of the secondary banks over which the Government of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) presided so ignominiously at the beginning of the seventies. Certainly, as it operates at the moment, it does not seem that the Consumer Credit Act, although it contains a number of useful provisions, does all that is necessary. As for the Crown Agents, why it has been so long before we have seen a measure to put that extraordinary and anomalous organisation on some sound and rational footing, I do not know. I welcome the fact that it is there. All power to the Government’s elbow in getting this measure through.

I turn to one or two matters that are not so welcome. Among them is the proposed European monetary system. I suspect that we have not had reference to it today because the Government have not yet made up their mind. I hope that this means that we shall not have that system heaped on top of all the other Common Market measures.

It will be difficult enough, with the pound rising in value against the dollar as it has done over the last six to nine months, to maintain our competitive position as the economy gets going again. ​ But if we were to be locked into a European monetary system, no doubt at a level which the Germans and French would ensure was to their advantage and our disadvantage, we should find our difficulties compounded. I suspect that the disadvantages would not end there and that, as a further consequence of the “salami” process of integration into the Common Market bit by bit, we should be expected to pool our second and third-line reserves and our overseas portfolio and overseas fixed investments would be the next target for the Eurocrats.

I wonder when the day will come when we shall be able to stop them. All of those who are against the Common Market, who regretted going in and still work to get us out, will give the Government no end of difficulty should they eventually decide to bring us into the proposed European monetary system.

There is the allied matter of the European elections. We hear stories that Government funds are to be made available because the Labour Party has not the money to spend on them. I hope that that is not to be the case. I hope that, in order to avoid the derisory poll which I hope and believe will be attendant upon the European elections, we do not have the extraordinary situation of the British General Election and the European elections being mounted on the same day.

It has been suggested that in order to boost the European elections, following, as they will, the Scottish and Welsh referendums and the local government elections, the only way to avoid a contemptuously low poll will be to mount the General Election for this House and the elections for that organisation overseas on the same day.

I heard the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) saying “How sad” when the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), whom I had always understood to be an anti-Marketeer—perhaps I misunderstood him—proclaim that the Euro-elections were more important than the elections to this House. What an appalling confession of failure; what a defeatist attitude. Whatever part I shall play in the elections next year—there will be plenty of them—I shall do my best to see that as many Labour voters as possible—indeed, as many voters as possible ​ —have no truck whatever with the European elections and treat the European ballot paper as the waste paper that it deserves to be.