The Queen's Speech: Blair aim is a mixture of idealism and realism

Queen's Speech
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Tony Blair's government will be radical, modern and "very definitely new Labour," the Prime Minister promised yesterday as he introduced his legislative programme.

But John Major told him: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Mr Blair's government was full of such intentions, the Conservative Party leader said, and the British people would pay the price in higher public spending bills and higher taxes.

Yesterday's clash was the first Commons exchange since Tony Blair and John Major swapped roles, and at times the only change seemed to be the fact that Mr Blair stood at the Government rather than the Opposition despatch box.

The Prime Minister continued his old habit of attacking the Conservatives' record, while the new Opposition leader continued to warn of the dangers of a Labour government almost as if he were still in office.

Opening the debate, Mr Blair claimed that his government would demonstrate "long-termism in action".

"This is the ambitious, practical programme of a new Labour government that has its feet on the ground, sound values in its heart and the necessary mixture of idealism and realism which the modern age demands," he told the House of Commons.

"We speak as the one-nation party in British politics today. We speak for the whole nation and we will serve the whole nation."

Mr Blair said his party's landslide victory had given it a clear mandate "to modernise what is outdated, to make fair what is unjust, and to do both by the best means available, irrespective of doctrine or dogma, without fear or favour."

The Prime Minister said education remained his first priority. "Building the best-educated and best-skilled nation in the Western world will take time, of course, but at least now we are making a start. I want this government to be long-termism in action," he said.

In Europe, he promised to replace isolationism with leadership, in politics, to clean up public life and in the economy, to replace Conservative "boom and bust" with stability.

Mr Blair said he intended to provide strong leadership and to build on the hope and optimism which the election result had set "coursing through the veins of our nation."

"We will not put right the damage of 18 years in 18 days, or 18 months, but we will start as we mean to go on - setting the agenda, not having it set for us," he said.

Conservative scares over what could happen under a Labour government no longer carried any weight, he said.

"People know them to be false. They rejected them in the last election. If Tory MPs have learnt no lessons from the last election defeat, they had better prepare themselves for the next one," he said.

The minimum wage would help to underpin the system with fairness and the redistribution of lottery money would help to put the Government in touch with the people.

The former prime minister said that Labour had inherited a nation in better shape than it had been for many years, with inflation at its lowest for 50 years, tax at its lowest for 60 years and the lowest interest and mortgage rates for a generation.

Employment was rising, unemployment was falling and standards of health and education were improving, Mr Major said.

"The new government deserves some goodwill and it deserves some luck. I am willing to give it goodwill and for the sake of the country I am prepared to wish it luck. No government has ever come to office with such an inheritance, but it was an inheritance won against daily opposition and obstruction of many of the members now sitting opposite on the government benches," he said.

Labour's plan to abolish the Assisted Places scheme would simply open up new social divides, he claimed.

"The Government don't believe that children from less well-off families should have the opportunity to attend good public schools. Only those children whose parents can afford it can go. Under new Labour, the size of the wallet matters most in education," he said.

Although he was prepared to work with the Government where its policies reflected those of the Conservatives, Mr Major said that he would oppose many of its Bills vigorously.

On devolution, Labour had not only failed to answer the West Lothian question on how Scottish MPs could vote on English affairs at Westminster, while English MPs could not vote on Scottish affairs. It had also failed to answer "the West Devon, West Hampshire and the West Lancashire question," he said.

Mr Major added: "On devolution the Government have always had the best slogans, but I believe they have had the worst arguments." The former prime minister also criticised as "profoundly mistaken" the decision by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to hand interest rate decisions to the Bank of England.

"What he has done is to hand a very important political power to unelected officials, damage his choices as Chancellor of the Exchequer," Mr Major said.

"He has taken a vital choice away from himself, damaged his choices in managing the economy, ensured unemployment will grow and growth will be held back."

Mr Major, in generous mood, praised the Labour left-winger Chris Mullin, MP for Sunderland South, who was selected by his party to second the speech. Mr Mullin, like, Mr Major, used to live in Brixton.

"He was burgled so regularly that he put a note on his door ... 'I've been robbed so many times that if you find anything of value you're welcome to it'," Mr Major said.

He added: "I know how he feels. So far as policy is concerned I nearly put a similar note on the door of the Cabinet Room when I left it," he said.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, said his party would play a role of "constructive opposition" in the new Parliament.

"Of course we shall criticise the Government where we believe they are wrong - and especially where their actions fall short of the programme of reform the country needs," he said.

The Bills

Education (Reduction in Class Sizes) Bill: Money raised from phasing out the Assisted-Place Scheme to reduce classes.

Education Bill: To raise school standards; give parents a role on local education authorities; help to finance school repairs; change policies on selection in grammar schools; establish a General Teaching Council; new student loans.

Bank of England Bill: Bank takes control of interest rates; Bill also provides for greater accountability of the Bank.

Competition Bill: Reforms and strengthens competition law; prohibits anti-competitive deals and abuse of market power.

Statutory Right to Interest on Debts Bill: A new right to claim interest on late payment of commercial debts and a requires large firms to declare how many bills they paid late.

National Minimum Wage Bill: Provides a statutory national minimum wage.

Finance Bill: Enacts the Budget expected next month.

Crime and Disorder Bill: Fast-track punishment for young offenders; replaces repeat cautions with a single final police warning; reverses the burden of proof to defendants in criminal cases involving children aged 10-13; new sentencing powers.

Firearms (Amendment) (No.2) Bill: Extends the ban on private possession of handguns to small-calibre weapons, although the Government will offer a free vote in the Commons.

National Health Service (Private Finance) Bill: Clarifies the power of NHS Trusts to enter into contracts with the private sector to build hospitals under the Private Finance Initiative.

National Lottery (Amendment) Bill: Allows Lottery funds to be used to promote education, health and other initiatives.

Local Authority (Capital Receipts) Bill: Aimed at allowing local authorities to use receipts from the sale of council houses for building new homes and renovating old ones.

Referendum (Scotland and Wales) Bill: Authorises referenda on a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly.

Scotland Bill: Subject to the result of the referendum, this will establish the Scottish Parliament.

Wales Bill: Also subject to the referendum, this will set up a Welsh Senedd, inheriting the powers of the Welsh Secretary.

European Convention on Human Rights Bill: Allows UK citizens to enforce their rights without having to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Data Protection Bill: Applies stronger protection to personal, computerised and manually held records.

Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill: Referendum for new strategic authority for the London and elected mayor.

Regional Development Agencies Bill: New bodies in the regions to encourage inward investment and small businesses.

Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill: Will replace and re-enact provisions to preserve peace and law and order

Northern Ireland (Parades and Marches) Bill: Transfers decisions on marches from the police to a new Parades Commission

European Communities (Amendment) Bill: Will be needed after the rolling Intergovernmental Conference on Europe is completed to ratify a new EU Treaty.

Bills promised but not identified in speech

Social Security Bill: Simplifies benefits decision-making and appeals process and introduces new National Insurance measures.

Immigration Appeals (Amendment) Bill: Remedies deficiencies for deporting those who are a threat to national security.

Wireless Telegraphy (Radio Spectrum) Bill: Introduces auctions of radio spectrum, likely to lead to higher charges for mobile phone users and taxi firms.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Ratification Bill: to ratify the international agreement to end nuclear weapons testing.