It is a great privilege to open the debate on the Gracious Speech.
Yesterday, the Gracious Speech made clear our commitment to supporting families and businesses through difficult economic times. Today's debate builds on that commitment to economic security with plans to strengthen security in our neighbourhoods and on our borders, and the ties that bind our communities.
With families working harder and more demands being placed on public resources, fair rules are essential to ensure that everyone is playing their part. Fair rules make for strong communities. That means supporting those who play by the rules, standing shoulder to shoulder with communities and giving them a fair say in setting the rules, and ensuring that those who do not play by the rules are punished in a way that reinforces public confidence.
The measures that we are introducing in the Session build on the solid foundations that we have laid since 1997. Crime is down by nearly 40 per cent., with burglary and car crime more than halved. The likelihood of being a victim of crime is lower now than at any time in more than 25 years.
The Government have taken tough and determined action to nip antisocial behaviour in the bud and turn the tables on the small minority of persistent offenders who try to make life a misery for the law-abiding majority in our communities.
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I am listening carefully to the Home Secretary. May we consider violent crime? The briefing document that was supplied to Ministers—I believe that it is one of the other leaks in this place—acknowledged that violent crime was increasing, whereas the Government previously claimed that it was decreasing. Will she clarify the position?
The hon. and learned Gentleman knows from the British crime survey and the recorded crime figures that violent crime has decreased in the past year. That demonstrates the tremendous job that the police and their partners do across the country. We have delivered neighbourhood policing in every neighbourhood throughout England and Wales. By the end of the year, we will deliver a policing pledge in every force—a new deal between the police and the public, setting out for the first time the standards of service that people can expect their force to meet.
Alongside the pledge, there will be greater accountability to local communities through crime mapping and regular information updates, and through monthly opportunities for people to help set local priorities for local action.
I am listening to the Home Secretary with interest. Switzerland has made an interesting departure from convention by voting to provide hard drug users with their drug on prescription. Is she willing to hold a dialogue with organisations that believe, through analysing the motivations for the Swiss vote, that that could be a method of significantly reducing crime in this country? Will she consider running similar pilot schemes in the United Kingdom to break the link between crime and drug addiction?
We have already made considerable progress on breaking the link between crime and drug addiction by doubling the number of people in treatment. There has been a 22 per cent. reduction in acquisitive crime. We set out in the next 10-year drug strategy, which we published earlier this year, how we want treatment to develop. I believe that some prescribing pilots are already under way and we will want to evaluate and examine them carefully.
As well as the greater accountability to local people that I described, we will also introduce greater accountability to local elected representatives through the councillor call for action, which will be in place from next April. We will provide a strengthened and reformed role for police authorities through inspection and improved training and skills for their members.
Community crime fighters will be in each neighbourhood, helping local people get their say and giving our clear backing to people who want to get involved in tackling crime and antisocial behaviour.
If the police look for things on any site, they have to explain to the owner that they either need a warrant or that the owner must be satisfied with a written explanation, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 or other legislation. Are they the only two routes or is there a third?
I think that I made it clear that the legal basis for such searches is outlined in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Given that we spent an hour and a quarter on the matter through the statement, it is disappointing that Conservative Members do not want to consider issues about crime, justice and immigration that seriously concern our constituents.
May I take the Home Secretary back to the statistics with which she started? She knows that there has been an increase of about 22 per cent. in violent crime between 3 am and 6 am. That puts huge strain on our police forces. What will she do about it? Is it time to review the Licensing Act 2003?
The review of the Licensing Act that the Government carried out showed that the incidence of violent crime remained unchanged on the whole. Alcohol-related violent crime has decreased, but I will deal later with the action that we should and will take on binge drinking.
In earlier debates, the Home Secretary said that she is keen for the police to build on their good community work by being responsive at all times to people who ask them for assistance. Will she report back on whether she has been able to take action to ensure that that happens? Not hearing back from the police causes a genuine problem with public confidence. Has she or her colleagues in other Departments considered whether, in supplementing the police in communities, more money and support could be provided for detached youth workers to assist with the problems that she experiences in her constituency, as I do in mine, so that those who are on young people's side work with them, rather than those who are sometimes perceived to be against them?
The hon. Gentleman makes two important points. I wholeheartedly agree that local people need and deserve to know the response that they can expect from the police. It needs to be a good response. That, with the agreement of the Association of Chief Police Officers, is set out in the pledge that chief constables have committed to delivering everywhere by the end of the year. It is important to find methods of ensuring that local people are clear about what they can expect because that will help build confidence.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about detached youth workers. That is why support for such youth work is an important part of the £100 million overall investment that went into the youth crime action plan. We are now in the process of distributing the money so that it can be spent and such services can be developed.
It is fairly fruitless to bandy statistics about, as we have tried to impress upon the Home Secretary, although I entirely endorse what she says about neighbourhood policing. The scheme in my constituency, which works with the local authority, has been something of a success. She referred earlier to accountability. Given her passion for accountability, and no doubt for giving more power to a much more galvanised local electorate, what does she believe is the way forward for directly elected police commissioners, for example? Is this going to be part and parcel of the Bill that she is bringing forward, and what are her general thoughts on this matter?
Yes, I am satisfied with the current arrangements for the appointment of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.
All the measures that I have outlined are designed to build public confidence in the fight against crime and are matched by concrete achievements in freeing up the police to ensure that they can focus on the issues that matter to people. We are removing all but one target set from Whitehall, in order to deliver improved levels of public confidence, scrapping the stop and account form and streamlining the process of crime recording for police forces. We are providing the police with the tools that they need to do their job, with 10,000 handheld devices in the past year and 20,000 more to come over the next 18 months.
I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's announcement today, which is very much in line with recommendations that we in the Select Committee on Home Affairs made in our report "Policing in the 21st Century". However, we recommended that every police officer should have a handheld computer. It is not sufficient for some forces to have the facility and for others not to. Also, the devices should be compatible, so that Lincolnshire can talk to Leicestershire without using a different system, which is one of the problems that our police forces have encountered.
My right hon. Friend's Committee produced a good and important report. If he looks at the speed with which we have funded and developed the ability of police forces throughout the country to have handheld devices, he will see that I share his ambition to roll out this important system quickly. He also makes an important point about compatibility. I will talk later about ensuring better collaboration among police forces. The National Policing Improvement Agency is currently leading work to ensure greater compatibility not just between handheld devices, but among all the information systems across police forces, which I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend is important.
Just as police forces must look to their neighbourhoods, so they must also look to each other to collaborate where needed to tackle crime at all levels and to ensure the best use of resources. We will legislate to strengthen the provisions for collaboration, whether in the back office or on the front line of operations. We will also give the police, other law enforcement agencies and prosecutors additional powers to improve the recovery of criminal assets, because criminals should not be able to squirrel away their ill-gotten gains. I make no apology for doing all that I can to ensure that they get the message loud and clear that they should not profit from their criminal activities.
On the subject of collaboration, I am sure that the Home Secretary will agree that there is no place in a civilised society for the vile practice of human trafficking. I very much appreciate what is being done in our country to stamp out that evil practice, but what co-operation is she receiving from her counterparts in the countries from which those sad individuals come?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I will say something about human trafficking later, but his point about international co-operation is crucial. For example, we are currently working with other countries in the European Union, as part of the EU's action programme on countering trafficking, precisely to address some of the issues that he has raised.
It is central to delivering confidence that justice is done and that it is seen to be done. I want people to know that we are 100 per cent. behind them when they stand up to gangs, drug pushers or other criminals. The provisions in the coroners and justice Bill, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor will have more to say about later, reinforce that point. There will be a further opportunity to debate the new scheme for protecting the identity of vulnerable witnesses at trial. We will also extend those provisions to the earlier, pre-trial stages of an investigation, so that we can protect witnesses in gang-related murder cases.
The policing and crime Bill will also establish the fair rules that prevent low-level crime and disorder from taking root in our communities. It will introduce measures to tackle binge drinking and set the framework for a new mandatory code for responsible alcohol sales. Most people, even in the House, know how to enjoy alcohol responsibly. Alcohol-related violent crime has fallen, but there is a minority of people who run out of control and ruin things for others. We will give the police the powers that they need to tackle the crime and disorder that stems from excessive drinking. We will take tougher action against retailers and bars that sell alcohol to children and ensure that the industry plays its part in ending irresponsible promotions such as "all you can drink" offers.
I thank the Home Secretary for giving way a second time. What she has announced is excellent news, given the recommendations that we in the Home Affairs Committee made in our report. However, the supermarkets are still selling alcohol too cheaply. Will her measures include a floor price below which supermarkets will not sell alcohol? If we address one sector—the pubs and clubs—but do not deal with the supermarkets, which are selling alcohol as a loss leader, we will not solve the problem of alcohol-related crime.
My right hon. Friend's Committee made some important points and pressed us on precisely those alcohol-related issues. It is of course the case that responsible promotions will—for example, through their impact on all licensees, in both the on trade and the off trade—impact on price. However, having asked the university of Sheffield to conduct research into minimum pricing—which my right hon. Friend drew attention to—we now have some very useful evidence. Given the current economic climate, it is important that we do more work and think carefully about how and whether that work would make an impact on the harm that we would want it to impact upon, but in a way that did not disproportionately affect others. However, the issue is certainly a live one, as my right hon. Friend pointed out.
May I turn to 24-hour licensing? The Home Secretary knows that our party believes that the decision to introduce it was a mistake. There were some reports in the press that there might be changes to the conditions and greater local discretion. Can she tell the House about that and whether the Government intend to move in our direction?
The element that I am outlining with respect to a mandatory code would enable specific conditions to relate to all licensed establishments, as well as providing for probably a larger number of provisions, which could be applied locally to more than one establishment, which, incidentally, would cut some of the bureaucracy involved in the Licensing Act 2003.
The Home Secretary is being extremely generous in giving way. On responsible drinking, she will be aware that traditional pubs take their duties seriously, but unfortunately 36 are shutting every week. Fortunately, VAT is decreasing, but duties are increasing to compensate and when VAT increases again, duties will remain where they are. How does that help traditional pubs to continue with responsible drinking? Also, on the supermarkets, when the Government came into power, the cost of a pint of beer in a pub was twice what it was in a supermarket. Today, a pint in a pub costs seven times what it costs in a supermarket. The Government surely need to look into that.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice is advising me on the price of beer, on which I have to confess I am not an expert. I am not going enter into future decisions about tax levels, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to.
Strong and safe communities need local people to be given a fair say in the rules that we all live by. My hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) have argued that case very strongly with respect to lap-dancing clubs. We will tighten the controls on lap-dancing clubs, giving local people a greater say in whether those clubs should be allowed to operate in their neighbourhood.
I am grateful for the Home Secretary's intention to assert more control over lap-dancing clubs, the expansion of which into residential areas is of great concern to many communities, including mine. [Interruption.] I would like to speak without being heckled by the Opposition Front-Bench team. When will my right hon. Friend provide more details of what the legislation will say? In particular, is she going to use the definition of "sex encounter establishments" and what will happen to existing licences and those that may be granted during the transitional phases before the policing and crime Bill becomes law?
I reiterate the point that my hon. Friend has been assiduous in campaigning on behalf of his constituents on this issue. We intend to spell out in the policing and crime Bill how we will define these clubs and how we will provide local people with the opportunity to have their say. The Bill will impact, in response to my hon. Friend's final question, on new establishments and it will provide for what I hope will be reasonably regular reviews of the licensing of existing clubs.
The policing and crime Bill will set out new protections for vulnerable groups, particularly women and children, by tackling demand for prostitution and strengthening existing arrangements to deal with sex offenders. Although we do not always agree on the detail, I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart for her campaigning on this issue. I want to make sure that people think twice before they pay for sex, especially if it is with a victim of trafficking or someone forced into prostitution against their will and for another's gain. This month, with particular respect to trafficking, the UK will formally ratify the Council of Europe's convention on human trafficking—a spur for every state around the world to renew their efforts to tackle the evil trade in human misery.
We know the importance of having a strong border to stop traffickers, to disrupt smuggling and to clamp down on illegal immigration. Our borders are already among the most secure in the world and the numbers charged with protecting them are at an all-time high, but we are determined to make the border even stronger as we take forward the biggest overhaul of the immigration system in a generation. We are already issuing biometric visas as a matter of course to anyone applying to travel here. We are reintroducing border controls and exit checks and will soon be able to count non-European economic area nationals in and out of the UK.
The Home Secretary may be surprised to know that this is intended to be a helpful intervention for her. There have been some stories in the press and on the radio this morning that the Government intend to insist on checks within country, requiring people to carry these ID cards in country so that the police can check them. Will she please scotch those rumours right now?
My first reaction was that when I need the right hon. Gentleman's help, I know that I am in really big trouble! However, he has been helpful and I am extremely happy to scotch the rumours, as he puts it, because the intention is to enable identity checks only at the border. I am sure that we will have future opportunities to make that even clearer than we have up to this point.
These are important matters and Liberal Democrats have always argued that we need a proper and clear immigration policy and proper controls. However, I do not understand why we need further legislation on matters that it seems to me could easily have been in the previous Bill, if not in the one before that. I still fail to see any common border force, which we have argued for, integrating the police, immigration and customs into one force at all our airports and seaports. Why are we not moving towards that rather than playing around and tinkering once again—for the third year in a row, I believe?
I am just coming on to explain what is in the Bill and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see that it is very far from tinkering; it is, in fact, a means of bringing about and making stick the largest reform in immigration—both at the border and in country—for many years. The border, immigration and citizenship Bill will give UK Border Agency officers the integrated immigration and customs powers that they need to deliver even greater protections at our borders. It is right that we have tough systems in place to ensure that people who come here have a right to do so and it is right to have tough but fair rules in place to make sure that only those with the skills we need can come here to work or study.
Last week, tiers 2 and 5 of the points-based system were introduced, allowing us to control immigration by raising and lowering the bar depending on the needs of the economy and the country as a whole. Last week, too, we issued the first ID cards for foreign nationals—opposed by Opposition Members—to protect against identity fraud and illegal working, as well as to make it easier for people to prove that they are who they say they are.
The Bill also sets out plans for major changes to what we expect of migrants before they can earn British citizenship. British citizenship, is a privilege. There will no longer be an automatic right to stay here after five years. From now on, newcomers will have to speak English, work hard and play by the rules if they want to stay and build a new life in Britain. As the Bill introduces those new responsibilities, we will also create a new duty for the UK Border Agency to take into account the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in its operations.
I really welcome the duty to safeguard the welfare of children, but will it have any impact on the detention of children?
The duty clearly relates to the detention of children. We are already working to ensure that the detention of children takes place only in extremely specific circumstances, usually when the detention of the child alongside the family for a few days prior to deportation is probably the most important way to keep the family together. Sometimes the detention is just overnight, simply to identify whether someone is a child in cases where there is some uncertainty about it. I agree with my hon. Friend that more work needs to be done and we will undertake it to ensure that children's interests are served, while also ensuring the interests of the country and maintaining the integrity of our immigration system.
The measures we are bringing forward, together with our commitment to strong enforcement of the law, including the doubling of the UK Border Agency's enforcement budget over three years, will deliver an immigration system that is fair but firm.
I have heard all sorts of stories over the last 12 months about people who are effectively buying certificates to demonstrate their knowledge of English, so I am wondering whether my right hon. Friend is satisfied that the people getting either indefinite leave to remain or citizenship who need English are actually acquiring the English language rather than just paying someone for a certificate to demonstrate the fact.
We certainly believe that the requirements for English and, of course, knowledge of life should be robust. Where allegations have been brought to our attention, we have investigated them. If my hon. Friend is concerned that the problem has become more systemic, I would be willing to look into it in further detail and to raise it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills.
As I said in my opening remarks, the motivating principle for these measures is that the law must be on the side of those who do the right thing and those who need the most protection. Just as important as the principle are the clear steps that I have set out today, which we are taking in those Bills to put principles into practice. The measures demonstrate again the Government's commitment to protecting the rights of the most vulnerable and the interests of the law-abiding majority, and I commend them to the House.
I listened with care to what the Home Secretary had to say and I am sorry that she sat down before I could ask her about an issue of some importance, which dovetails with the responsibilities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—that of piracy. I hope that we might hear something about it today. Piracy concerns an issue of law and order, and before moving on to the main part of my speech I must say that I have been increasingly mystified as to our apparent inability to take action when the law as I have always understood it, albeit rather ancient, is very clear.
There is confusion in the Navy and other parts of the armed forces as to where we stand with regard to piracy.
The Secretary of State shouts that the Government are against it, but perhaps that needs to be made clear to those who are doing their duty off the coast of Somalia, because they do not know what this Government really think. They do not know whether they are breaking the law if they arrest or indeed shoot somebody; nor do they know whether the person concerned will ask for asylum as soon as the arrest is made. That needs to be clear and it should not be a laughing matter for Government Front Benchers to giggle about.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. There is a need for clarification both of the law and our ability to prosecute pirates in this country, which is easy and perfectly clear-cut, and of the puzzlement that we seem to be confined to a policy of self-defence. My understanding of the state of the law is that it ought to be possible to take proactive steps to suppress piracy within international law. I very much hope that we will hear more about that.
On the substance of what the Home Secretary had to say, although I can welcome some aspects of her speech, there are many others that I cannot, because the Government's record on home affairs and justice is not a happy one and is at variance with the aspirations set out in the Queen's Speech.
The Government have presided over the virtual doubling of violent crime since they were elected, while their incessant red tape and regulation have tied the hands of the police. Indeed, some announcements that are now being made on the subject are merely rolling back red tape and bureaucracy that the Government previously introduced.
The Government's open-door immigration policy has led to a fivefold increase in immigration—straining public services, exacerbating community tensions and allowing drugs, guns and criminal gangs to flow with far too much ease into this country.
The hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the doubling of crime. He is right that recorded violent crime has doubled—his figures are correct in that respect—but when the Conservatives were in government they repeatedly said, as this Government say, that the British crime survey figures were better. Does he accept that that is contradictory and that a rather different picture is shown? What is his view on whether the British crime survey or the recorded crime figures is the more accurate in this respect?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. One problem at the moment is that there does not seem to be much confidence in either set of statistics. As a result, we have been calling repeatedly for independent statistical collation. That would be helpful.
Also, some maturity in the debate would be valuable. If we are considering crime rates merely on the basis of what has happened in the past six or 12 months, we might well be missing the point. We have to look at overall trends. I am the first to accept that on overall trends crime has been rising for a long time. That makes me suspicious when I hear the Government trumpeting that crime is going down. There are lots of mixed messages.
I am quite satisfied that the Government's own assessment is that violent crime is a growing problem. It was quite apparent from the internal briefing document for Ministers—we come back to these leaks—that the Home Office saw it as a priority issue, because it was a rising trend that showed no signs of diminishing. That undermines some of the assertions that have been made.
Beyond that, I agree entirely with Chris Huhne. It would be sensible to have some proper statistics and sensible in debate if all of us—I put that as a self-denying ordinance to myself as well—tried to take an overall view, rather than just jumping up and down about immediate statistics. That is for the Government to do as much as anyone else.
I would like to follow up, if I may, the point made by Chris Huhne. The Conservative party was clear in government. I have here its campaign guide for 1994, which says— [Interruption.] It is out of date to this extent: that was when the Conservatives were in government. That is the whole point. When the Conservatives were in government, they consistently said, and it is repeated here in the guide, that the BCS endeavours to build up an accurate picture of the number of crimes actually committed, and that the BCS showed that while recorded crime had doubled between 1981 and 1991, it also showed that the actual number of crimes committed rose by only 50 per cent. in that period. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman not accept, as the BCS was established by the Conservative party, that it is independently verified by the independent statistics authority, which was set up by the House, and that that is the best measure of consistent trends over time?
I am afraid that I do not share the right hon. Gentleman's view with the certainty that he puts forward. I am perfectly prepared to accept the BCS as a helpful indicator, but for the reasons that I have already given I take the view that all statistics should be approached with caution. We also need to review how all the statistical information is collated.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the acid test is what we hear as Members of Parliament, particularly in our weekly advice surgeries? Most residents seem to think that crime is going up, which rather confounds the statistics that are being bandied about. Is not that all the more remarkable given the fact that we live in an increasingly surveyed society, with more than 600 public bodies now able to intrude on e-mails, telephone calls and all the rest of it? If that was working, surely we would expect improved crime figures rather than the ones we see, which are being reported to us by our constituents.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Indeed, he will be aware that Louise Casey, who produced a report for the Government, indicated quite clearly that the public had no confidence in the statistics that were being produced. In fairness to the Government, they appear to be willing to consider that issue, and they jolly well should. My overall impression—I can give it only of my own constituency—is that violent crime and antisocial behaviour continue to get worse. Some categories of crime have gone down in recent years in my constituency, although they have shown some signs of going up again—burglary, for example.
The picture is very mixed, but there are examples from the past, which I think the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor would accept, of proper targeting of crime—such as was done in respect of burglary by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard when he was Home Secretary—achieving substantial reductions. However, sustaining that can be very difficult.
The Secretary of State says that the Government have done that, but I come back to where I started: in the category of violent crime, I do not see the improvements that the Government have been talking about .
So far as burglary is concerned, one target that I slightly reluctantly accepted; in fact, I was invited to accept it by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair—
No, he was right. My hesitation was not entirely justified as it turned out on that occasion. It was a substantial target of a 30 per cent. reduction in burglary from about 1998 onwards. In fact, that has been far exceeded on any measure.
I note what the Secretary of State says, but I stand by my comments, particularly in respect of violent crime. I must now make progress.
When it comes to defending our security, the Government have consistently opted for rhetoric over action and headlines over effectiveness. We have had, and we continue to face, proposals to extend detention without charge to 42 days, despite their being roundly rubbished as unjustified, unnecessary and unworkable by security experts and Members across the House and the other place. It still persists, however, as a sort of fig leaf for the Government's previous climbdown, which was forced on them because they entirely lost the arguments over the issue. The Home Secretary is introducing ID cards—at a cost that we believe, on an independent assessment, could rise as high as £19 billion at the worst of economic times—that will be incapable of stopping terrorists, illegal immigration or benefit fraud.
We are developing a database state and hoarding an increasing volume of data on our citizens, but the Prime Minister readily admits that he cannot promise that every single item of information will always be safe, which, on the record of the past year, is a gross understatement. There are real fears that Britain is turning into a surveillance society, with local councils stretching powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to monitor dustbins and dog fouling and to trail children home from school to check their catchment areas.
The thirst for headlines and the inflation of ineffective bureaucracy and legislative hyperactivity distract the Government and successive Home Secretaries from the real job at hand: getting more police on the street with the single imperative of cutting crime, and a dedicated border police force to reverse our current vulnerability, which has seen the street value of cocaine and heroin slashed by almost half, while estimates show that the numbers of young women and girls trafficked into prostitution have quadrupled.
I should say at this point that I entirely welcome the fact that the Government have signed the Council of Europe protocol on human trafficking. I am also delighted that they moved on this matter after we indicated to them very firmly that they should and that they would have our full support when they did so. I am slightly distressed by the fact that it has still taken quite a long time between that assurance being given to the Government and the piece of paper actually being signed.
We also believe that we need practical measures such as lifting the ban on using intercept evidence in court to prosecute terrorists to protect lives while protecting our way of life and preserving our liberty and our shared democracy. I am afraid that the consequences of the failures of the Government are plain at present. The Government are in fact very short of ideas, as is quite clear from a reading of the relevant sections of the Queen's Speech. They are scrambling to find answers to problems that are of their making and papering over cracks from 11 years of failure.
The proposals presented by the Home Secretary in the policing and crime Bill are particularly disappointing given the serious problems that Britain now faces. I know that Home Office officials do not always feel it necessary to keep the Home Secretary updated on what is going on, as we have discovered today, but does she accept the advice of Sir David Normington? I put this to her rather than to the Secretary of State for Justice. She claims that violence has dropped by 40 per cent. since 1997, which is contrary to Sir David's statement that recorded crime statistics indicate that levels of the most serious violence are higher than they were 10 years ago. I hope that we can get a response later from the Secretary of State for Justice on that. Is Sir David wrong? He and the Home Secretary cannot both be right.
The Flanagan report on police bureaucracy set out a whole series of ministerial failures: perverse incentives given to the police in the way in which they handle crime reporting; a raft of targets; and officers straitjacketed by process—the entire product of Labour's effort over the last 11 years to use the criminal justice legislation to achieve those targets. The consequences for the police have been dire, as the Home Secretary is now being obliged gradually to admit.
The Home Secretary has not listened, which is why the police, despite all her promises, spend more time filling in forms than out on patrol. She has become obsessed by making political noise and neglecting to take sound advice. As a result, a glaring omission from the policing and crime Bill is serious and concerted action to deliver on all those bold pledges to release officers from the burden of forms, targets and red tape.
It is left to the Conservatives to provide a serious alternative for police reform: cutting the stop and account and stop and search forms; removing the bureaucratic hoops to allow police officers to charge in less serious cases; saving 1 million police hours per year; slashing the targets, which as Sir David Normington noted, have distracted officers from dealing with the most serious crime; and consolidating the excess audit that led one police force to face 15 separate inspections in a year.
The only substantive proposal for police reform in this rag-bag of measures is the proposal for elected crime and policing representatives to sit on existing police authorities. That looks to me a half-baked idea—a pale imitation of our proposal for elected police commissioners who would be responsible for local policing, directly accountable to the communities they serve and taking over the functions of police authorities. As I speak to senior police officers, it becomes apparent that there are serious concerns that the elected representatives are far more likely to lead to politicisation— [ Interruption. ]
I find the growing consensus on both sides of the House on the need for some directly elected police authorities to be very welcome. However, I am worried about the Conservative party proposal for a sheriff, particularly in areas such as the west midlands, London, Merseyside and Greater Manchester with complex and diverse communities and substantial ethnic minorities. Is the hon. and learned Gentleman confident that his proposal can be sensitive enough to the needs of those communities, or will we see a repeat of the sort of policing that we had, and thought we had left behind at the beginning of the 1980s, which the last Conservative Government had to get out of?
First, our proposals do not touch on London, precisely because an existing arrangement in respect of the Mayor is bedding in. Outside London, we believe that our proposals will be markedly better than what the Government are putting forward. The size of the police areas with which we are dealing would mean that it is most unlikely that a directly elected police commissioner would be hijacked by any single interest group. The problem I have with the Home Secretary's proposals—although we have yet to see the detail—is that a system by which we have directly elected members of the police authority who are also, as I understand it, to be chairing the crime and disorder reduction partnerships in the areas that they represent strikes me as much more susceptible to the very politicisation that our proposals are designed to avoid.
I hope that we will have an opportunity for a reasoned debate on that issue, because I am always prepared to listen to the Home Secretary but its strikes me that the Government's system is much more likely to create the problems that the Home Secretary is raising her eyebrows about than our proposals. In due course I will seek to persuade the Home Secretary, and doubtless the hon. Member for Eastleigh, that the ideas that we are developing—I accept that they are not fully finished in their detail—will offer a much better model than what the Home Secretary has in mind.
We share a common aspiration, which is to improve local accountability. My fear is that I do not think local accountability will be improved. I think that there is a much greater risk that single-issue politics may intrude, which the Home Secretary and I share a desire to avoid at all cost. Subject to that, I will listen carefully to the Home Secretary, but it would be wrong of me not to highlight my concerns about this aspect of the policy.
One cannot be in favour both of increasing centralised Government control and of handing back accountability to local communities; that is the other point I would make. The Government still think that they can direct policing better than the police and still think that they know local priorities better than local communities. Our policy will be to release forces from the iron grip of Whitehall and to vest real control over law and order at a local level.
May I turn to what has been said about trying to take action to seize the assets of the Mr. Bigs in the criminal underworld? It is a laudable aim, but one is bound to make the following point to the Government. They set up the Assets Recovery Agency in 2003, vowing to put the fear of God into criminal gangs living the high life from the proceeds of crime. It cost £65 million to set it up, but it managed to recoup a mere third of that in criminal assets. In fact, it failed abysmally. The Government swept it into the Serious Organised Crime Agency, but that agency's record is equally poor, missing by a wide margin each of the targets set by Ministers for forfeitures, confiscation and restraint orders. So now the Government are yet again proposing to create new law to try to address basic failures in law enforcement.
We have already touched on the issue of 24-hour licensing. We believe that a large part of the binge-drinking problem comes from the introduction of that reckless policy. The Government announced a tough crackdown on retailers, pubs and clubs, and Ministers are right to be concerned. Last year there were 1 million victims of alcohol-related attacks. Alcohol-related admissions to accident and emergency wards are up by a quarter, and 24-hour drinking has resulted in a 25 per cent. increase in late-night violence. These are appalling statistics, and the Home Secretary would do well to take account of them.
We have for months been calling on the Government to reverse the 24-hour drinking policy and to replace it with local authority control over licensing. We have also called for a ban on loss-leader alcohol sales, and I am glad that there appears to be some movement on that. A rise in tax on high-strength lagers, beers, ciders and alcopops would enable us to lower tax on lower alcohol drinks associated with responsible drinking. We will look carefully at the Government's review of happy hours and promotions, but on its own that is an inadequate response to the social problems that antisocial and binge drinking are causing.
We will also take a constructive look at the Government's proposals to create new criminal offences relating to prostitution and to tighten controls around lap-dancing clubs. I share the Home Secretary's wish for decisive action to be taken against those profiting from prostitution and human trafficking. Why, however, has she cut the Metropolitan police's human trafficking unit, which was the most effective such unit in the country, and why have convictions for trafficking for sexual exploitation halved in the last year from what was an already low and declining rate? [Interruption.] Do Labour Front Benchers wish to intervene? A private conversation is taking place, but I am happy to give way. The current much-hyped proposals will do nothing to provide the unequivocal signal that we need to send to those engaged in human trafficking that they will not go unpunished.
We now have the seventh immigration Bill since the Government came into office. That is the surest admission that they keep getting it wrong, but we will look carefully at their new powers for the UK Border Agency, and I was very pleased to hear today the unequivocal commitment that they will not require individuals to prove at random and without cause their identity just because they have been out of the country for any period. We also think that further tinkering with the points system will be no substitute for an overall annual limit on economic migration. The immigration Minister has now made the position clear on several occasions. Will the Home Secretary join in the consensus?
My hon. Friend Mr. Gibb will address in further detail the Justice Secretary's proposals to reform coroners' procedures, strengthen victim and witness protection and reform the law on homicide. I am sure that there is much in those issues on which we can engage constructively, but I will just make two points. First, any attempt to reintroduce the power of Ministers to remove coroners and juries from inquests will be firmly resisted. Secondly, we are pleased that the Government have dropped plans to reform the Sentencing Guidelines Council so that criminal punishments depend on the levels of prison capacity—a proposal that would further weaken the justice system and undermine public confidence. We cannot support attempts to weaken criminal justice just because the Government have failed to provide enough prison places.
We had at one stage expected the Government to introduce proposals for a new communications data Bill to provide wide new powers for the collection, retention and sharing across Government of even more personal data. It was reported last month that the Home Secretary's officials had advised that the original proposals were
"impractical, disproportionate, politically unattractive and possibly unlawful".
Can the Home Secretary confirm whether that advice reached her, and whether she agreed with it? I assume that she did because of her sensible decision to consult, which we entirely welcome. I suspect that the Home Secretary and her Department will have the sympathy of many Members across the House about the Home Office's legitimate concerns in this area. We will look carefully at any proposals that she presents, and test the justification, proportionality and safeguards rigorously, robustly and with an open mind.
The Government, and in particular the Home Office, now have one of the most extensive and intrusive security powers available anywhere in the democratic world. It is noteworthy that today one aspect of that—the collection and retention of the DNA of those who have never been charged or convicted of offences—has fallen foul of the European Court of Human Rights. I am delighted to learn that, and I long believed it would be the outcome to the challenge to the Government's incoherent position on the subject. It would be nice to learn during the course of today's debate how the Government intend to move to put right this wrong that has been perpetrated and that has caused immense upset to large numbers of law-abiding people, as I have routinely found from the letters I have received in my mailbag.
There are also concerns about the national identity card register proposal and the further attempt to force through the measure of 42 days of detention without charge. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 has been stretched well beyond its original focus of dealing with serious crime and terrorism, and we have the onset of a surveillance society that has been outpaced only by the rise of the database state.
The Home Secretary is wrong about the repeated suggestions from Government that if Members do not agree with any particular security proposals they care less about tackling the threat of terrorism than she does. I wonder what way of life will be left for our children if we do not start to get the balance right on matters such as DNA and surveillance and start to restore some common sense into our arguments, and if we fail to question, and if necessary resist with all due vigour, incessant Government requests for more oppressive and intrusive state powers. This is not ultimately a question of balancing security and liberty, because we cannot defend our freedom by sacrificing it. Time and again the Government have proved that they cannot be trusted with the powers and authority enacted by Parliament. That is one of the key issues we will have to address.
If ever there was a time to question the powers of counter-terrorism police and to test ministerial accountability over, and responsibility for, the unwieldy security apparatus built up over the past 11 years, and to make the case for resisting the Government's periodic attacks on the right to trial by jury, it must be now, when a Member of this House has been arrested carrying out his work. Parliament itself—the heart of our democracy—suffers at the hands of what increasingly appears to be an unprecedented abuse of state power. It is an abuse of power that this Home Secretary says she knows nothing about and does not wish to take responsibility for. We need much better than that.
I am only modestly surprised to be called to speak so early in the debate, given that it is rather extraordinary that the—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, who has only just risen to speak, but is it possible to check whether the parliamentary Annunciators across the Estate are working? Judging by the numbers present on the Labour Benches, Members are unaware that this important debate is taking place, and perhaps they should be aware of it.
The hon. Gentleman was making, in a rather different way, the very point I was about to make about the extraordinary absence of Members from the Government Benches for a debate that is about an issue our constituents, and voters in general, feel extremely strongly about. The question of how to tackle crime is frequently the No. 1 or No. 2 issue of most concern to voters. It is therefore extraordinary that the Government Benches are so denuded.
Our reaction to the Home Secretary's speech and to the proposals is that this is another example of what the Home Office is extremely adept at: using legislation as a glorified press release. We are to have the 26th criminal justice Bill and the seventh immigration Bill from this Government since 1997. Various of those Bills have been shovelled through this House so hastily that whole sections and clauses have not been considered at all and have had to be reviewed in the other place. We now know from parliamentary answers to questions tabled by Liberal Democrats that no fewer than 3,600 new criminal offences have been introduced by this Government since 1997, yet extraordinarily, the Home Secretary—who, sadly, is no longer in her place—assures us that one of her key priorities is to reduce the need for police paperwork and bureaucracy. The extraordinary creation of offences by the Government is massively complicating the job of law enforcement and of the whole criminal justice system.
Some of these offences are completely bizarre—for example, the offence of causing a nuclear explosion. The idea that anyone might cause a nuclear explosion without killing anybody, and therefore being subject to a possible charge of murder, is extremely far-fetched. It is perhaps reassuring for some on the Government Benches that were there to be a nuclear explosion that did not kill anyone, the perpetrator could, indeed, be charged. Other of the new offences include: wilfully pretending to be a barrister; disturbing a pack of eggs when instructed not to by an authorised officer; obstructing workers carrying out repairs to the docklands light railway; offering for sale a game bird killed on a Sunday or Christmas day; attaching an ear tag to an animal where it has previously been used to identify another animal; landing at a harbour without permission a catch that includes unsorted fish. I could continue that extraordinary list of new offences.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned only one or two offences, from this list of 3,600, that he wishes to remove. On reflection, he may not really wish to remove the protections against the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, to which he made cavalier reference a moment ago. As he is so concerned, and as he has obviously done a huge amount of research on these 3,600 offences, he should make public a full list of all the ones that he would like repealed.
I am grateful to the Justice Secretary for intervening in that way. When he wrote to me in those terms, challenging me to come up with a complete list, I replied offering him the chance to repeal certain of the more absurd offences that have been put on the statute book. I have still not received a reply to that letter, in which I assured him that as soon as those offences, such as causing a nuclear explosion, had been repealed, I would provide him with a new list of further offences that he could then work on repealing.
The hon. Gentleman is either making a trivial debating point or a serious point. The point that he makes all the time is that there are 3,600 new offences. I may question him on a number of those, but he says that he has culled his information from various parliamentary answers. The only conclusion to be drawn from his making that point repeatedly is that he does not think that these 3,600 offences should be on the statute book. He has mentioned about five of the offences. As it is his point, he should be responsible for providing us with a full list of the offences that he thinks should be repealed.
The Justice Secretary accuses me of making a trivial point, but I just wish he knew the difficulties we had in getting Departments even to list the new criminal offences that they have created. If he can assure me that, when we follow up those questions by asking those Departments for a full list of every new criminal offence, he will instruct his colleagues not to rule our request out of order on the grounds that it involves disproportionate cost, I will be delighted to give him a full list. If the Government can be less obstructionist in how they answer parliamentary questions, perhaps Opposition parties will be able to do that. He knows perfectly well that I have given him very good clear examples of absolutely absurd offences that have been put on the statute book, and he has done nothing to repeal them. I can give him chapter and verse and can continue through this list. Frankly, it is not good enough for the Justice Secretary to ask the Opposition to do something that he, in government, ought to be able to do.
I very much welcome what the Home Secretary said, particularly about how the provisions in the draft legislation on identity checks, which it would seem have been misinterpreted, will be implemented. The key issue has always been the potential for extending legislation beyond its original intention when it is put into practice. We have seen that happen time and again, for example, in the application of counter-terrorism legislation to stifle the heckling of the Justice Secretary—as he now is—at a Labour party conference: Walter Wolfgang, a Labour activist, was arrested under counter-terrorism legislation. We must be very careful to ensure that legislation is not extended in this way.
I very much welcome what the Home Secretary said about the ratification of the protocol on human trafficking. Ratification is well overdue and I am delighted that it is to go ahead. One of the key issues for the Home Office must be implementing the legislation already on the statute book, given that most serious offences have been on the statute book or in common law for many decades, rather than indulging in this extraordinary exercise that we have every year of introducing yet another criminal justice Bill and yet another immigration Bill as a substitute for doing something about implementing the law that we have.
There is much to support on the police Bill, precisely because it represents a massive U-turn on the central targets that have been a key feature of the Home Office's attitude towards the police since 1997. The Green Paper, the consultation and the response are now saying exactly the right sort of things about local accountability and cutting red tape, but, of course, substantial differences remain between the parties on how that accountability should come about. I listened with interest to what Mr. Grieve said about the Conservatives' proposals, but I am not persuaded that their proposals for a single elected sheriff for a police force would avoid the problems of populist posturing, Robocop-style campaigning and confrontational politics that he says it will. The differences in this respect between the Government's proposals and the Conservatives' proposals are minimal, and bring to mind Dr. Johnson's quote that he would not debate
"the point of precedency between a louse and a flea."
The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. First, there is no question of having Robocops. The elected commissioner—he would not be called a sheriff—would not replace the chief constable, whose operational independence, which is a subject we have touched on earlier today, would be entirely preserved.
The elected commissioner would be able to do two things. First, he would be able to produce accountability through his contact with the chief constable, and the fact that he would be informed of what is going on and would be able to feed in his ideas and those on which he stood for election. Secondly, if he were doing his job properly, he would be able to provide leadership throughout the police area that he represents, in galvanising the councillors and the crime and disorder reduction partnerships into better co-operation with the police. That is a sensible way forward.
I am grateful for that clarification, but it does not reassure me in one key respect. The single elected commissioner, or the multiple mini-commissioners proposed by the Home Office, would be elected by the first-past-the-post system. That would be the first time that any new body had been elected under that system since 1997. We know from peer-reviewed academic literature that if elections are carried out under first past the post, the resulting body is substantially less representative in terms of both gender and ethnic minority than is the case with other electoral systems— [ Interruption. ] Well, the Justice Secretary uses unparliamentary language to say what he thinks of that particular point, but I would be happy to send him the references for the literature I mentioned.
If we were to go ahead with the Government's model for elected police authorities, there would be the most extraordinary results. I have asked the Electoral Reform Society to analyse the likely results of electing one person for each crime and disorder reduction partnership. On the basis of the 2007 election results, the Government—I am told they are a Labour Government—are proposing a system under which the Conservatives would win 65.2 per cent. of all the police authority seats in England outside London, despite polling only 38 per cent. of the vote.
The hon. Gentleman should not assume that we desire to introduce a system that would necessarily lead to individuals standing under political labels. I envisage a system that might even lead to cross-party support for individuals standing for such posts.
Given the knowledge that we share of how the British political system has developed over many decades, the hon. and learned Gentleman's point is a trivial one. Independents in local government are an endangered species: they are on the way out. We may regret that, but the likelihood of our being able to revive that endangered species is limited. We have to work with the world as it is, and I would have thought that that point would appeal to Conservative Members, who have traditionally regarded themselves as realists—but apparently it does not.
If the Government were to introduce legislation along the lines that they have suggested, the Labour party would lack any elected representatives on 10 police authorities, and it would have only 10 members out of 176 in the three southern regions—the east of England, the south-east and the south-west. That would mean the most extraordinary disproportionality in representation in various parts of the country. Inevitably, those elected would be badged by political party, and the Conservatives would have an overall majority of elected representatives on 26 police authorities—the majority of those in England—on a minority of the vote.
There are two really key issues. First, the bodies simply will not be representative of the complexity of the populations in police force areas. That may not matter so much in rural and homogenous areas, but it would matter in urban areas outside London. I take the point made by the hon. and learned Member that his proposal would not apply to London, although he does suggest that the Mayor should hold the police to account in London. The question then is whether the Metropolitan police authority would be able to hold the Mayor in check—
At present, we have no intention of changing the system presently in place in London. It is in its infancy, and doubtless all parties will wish to look at how it functions, but the present position is that we do not intend to touch it. It would be foolish to try to do so when it has only just come into existence.
I am glad that we have some agreement that the system in London, which appears to be quite a good system, should continue. However, I am slightly mystified why, if the Conservatives think that the system for London is relatively good—it involves the election of the GLA by proportional representation, followed by the selection of the MPA—they ignore those lessons for the rest of the country.
In complex urban areas, with substantial ethnic minorities, such as Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the west midlands, the Conservatives' proposal—and to a lesser but almost equal extent, the Government's proposal—would ensure that the people elected as commissioners and members of the police authorities would be white, middle-class, middle-aged men in suits. They would not represent the genuine differences, especially ethnic ones, in police force areas. That worries me, because it would set up exactly the sort of problems that led to the riots in Brixton and cities such as Bristol in the early 1980s. If a potentially confrontational system led to the populist election of a single commissioner or a single person in each crime and disorder reduction partnership, it is likely that the police authority would be insensitive to the rights and freedoms of minorities in that area. If that happened, policing by consent would be substantially undermined, and that is a serious danger.
When I have talked to senior police officers about this matter, they have been very concerned by the potential introduction of populist and confrontational politics into the system—as proposed by both the Government and the official Opposition.
I hold no particular brief for the Conservatives' proposals, but the hon. Gentleman's reference to the Brixton and Merseyside riots is complete tosh. If he scoured the Scarman report, he would be unable to find any suggestion that the causes of those riots included "populist policies" being followed by local politicians or, in the case of the Metropolitan police, by the late Willie Whitelaw, who was the antithesis of a populist.
The Justice Secretary deliberately confuses two things that I said. We had at that time serious concerns in ethnic minority communities about the use by the police of stop and search powers, which were clearly part of the lead-up to the riots, especially in Brixton. The only point that I am attempting to make—I am surprised that he finds it difficult to grasp—is that problems will arise if the political authority running a police force in an area with a substantial ethnic minority population is not sensitive to the sorts of issues that created major problems with public disorder in the early 1980s, including the insensitive exercising of police powers. The Government should take that point into account when they put forward their proposals, because in their present form they would mean the under-representation of ethnic minorities and women, leading to the consequences that I have outlined. I hope that the Government will have reconsidered their position by the time they actually introduce the legislation.
I have absolutely no suggestion that we should rig any system. I take a democratic view: if there is a system—as is the case in London, with the GLA—whereby BNP members are elected, they are elected. They do not get very far when they are elected, and are often revealed for what they are. All the rest of us who abhor their politics can then point out how useless they are. In a democracy, that is the correct way to deal with those people; it is not to try to sweep their views under a carpet and pretend they do not exist, but to introduce the best disinfectant of all in the political system—sunlight—to get some transparency and reveal them for the odious characters they are, and beat them.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman understands the damage the BNP can do in positions of democratic accountability—so-called. There were two BNP councillors in my constituency who were absolute poison and did great damage to inter-community relations. I am not sure that he takes that into account.
I fear that the hon. Lady and I will have to disagree on that point. I yield to no one in my abhorrence of BNP politics and I would be extremely supportive of any mainstream party that fought the BNP, but the correct way of doing that in a democratic system is openly. I am shocked that the hon. Lady implicitly suggests that we should introduce a ban on that party because we do not approve of its politics. We have a long and honourable tradition of giving vent to political views, including those of authoritarian and totalitarian traditions on the left and right, and the correct way of making sure that those people do not get a grip on our politics is by getting them out in the open and fighting their politics, and ensuring that their voters understand that the mainstream parties are addressing the issues voters care about. The main reason why a party such as the BNP grows in importance is precisely that so many of our voters feel alienated from a political system that is broken, because this place and other aspects of our political structures do not give adequate vent to people's views or deal adequately with their grievances. In a number of areas, the Liberal Democrats have shown that where we can campaign on the basis of community politics and ensure that people's local grievances are dealt with, the swamp that allows the BNP to fester is drained. That is the correct way to deal with the BNP—nothing else.
I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has been saying about the BNP, but when he talks about populist politics, does he not understand that it is precisely in the areas of law and order and immigration that PR systems along the lines that he recommends will give the BNP the oxygen of publicity?
I am far more worried about the possibility that a populist, who was not necessarily badged under the BNP logo but might be running as an independent or whatever, could secure election in some part of the country under the proposals of the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues, or could be running a crime and disorder reduction partnership under the Government's proposals. Those seem to be real risks, so if we want to avoid confrontational politics in holding our police forces to account, and if we want to make sure that police authorities are genuinely representative of all the strands of opinion and the different groups and minorities in their force areas, we must look again at what the Government propose, and we must not go the way that the Conservatives suggest.
There is much to be welcomed in the proposals for crime mapping. As I said, I welcome extra transparency, and if we can reach a situation whereby people, locally, where it really matters, understand what is happening to crime—and, by the way, to clear-up and detection rates in their area, which are not included in the Government's proposals—we can increase reassurance that crime is being adequately dealt with. That is important.
I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield that there are real doubts in the public mind about the integrity of crime statistics, in part because it is easy to point out contradictions between the recorded crime figures and the British crime survey figures. I have little doubt that the BCS data, for reasons that Conservative Ministers gave when they were last in government, are the best for assessing long-run trends, but I should like the Office for National Statistics not to have a mere tick-box regulatory role but to take direct, hands-on responsibility for the statistics. I can remember the 1980s, when the Conservative Government changed the definition of unemployment almost every other month. By the end of the decade, public faith in the unemployment figures had virtually disappeared, and it was necessary to re-establish public faith by ensuring that the figures were seen to be collated by an entirely independent body removed from those using the data to make political points. I very much hope that there will be broad consensus for the proposals.
We are very much in favour of many of the measures that the Home Secretary has announced in this place and elsewhere. Many of them were trailed in the press—not, I suspect, a leak but a brief: in government, "we" brief, but "they" leak. There were a number of briefings, which seemed highly orchestrated, about the advantages of ending binge drinking with measures to restrict promotions and super-cut-price deals. Much of that, however, is to use legislation as a press release rather than using existing legislation to increase the number of prosecutions of off-licences for selling to people who are under age.
That problem is extraordinarily prevalent. One survey suggested that 40 per cent. of establishments selling alcohol are prepared to sell to under-age drinkers, and do so—yet the existing law is poorly applied. There has been an increase in the number of prosecutions relating to the sale of alcohol to under 18-year-olds; in England and Wales, the figure has increased from 105 in 2002 to 854 in 2006—the latest figures available to me. However, in comparison with the scale of the problem—if it really is the case, as the survey suggests, that 40 per cent. of establishments are selling to under-age people—the number of prosecutions is still just scratching at the surface. We need to be much tougher in dealing with this issue.
The Home Secretary spoke about the immigration Bill. The Liberal Democrats will support the Government's commitment to the integration of ethnic minority communities, which is absolutely crucial and a vital part of ensuring that a proper immigration policy works, but why are the Government cutting funding for non-English speakers? There has been a 39 per cent. plunge in non-English speakers enrolling on English language courses: the number is down from nearly 550,000 to 335,000—the lowest since 2001-02— [ Interruption. ] The Minister for Borders and Immigration suggests that the figures are somehow false, but they come from the Government's answers to our parliamentary questions.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, and I am grateful for his support for English language courses, but we have to look at the totality of expenditure on English language courses, not just the particular figures he has cited. However, I take his point.
We asked for the total expenditure in this case, and the answer that we got was very clear. I am afraid that it does not bear out the suggestion that there has been any increase in Government funding. The budget for English language lessons for immigrants was cut by £9 million last year, from £298 million to £289 million. The figures show, as I said, a 39 per cent. reduction in non-English speakers enrolling on English language courses. Again, a theme, certainly a theme of everything that the Government have been doing in this respect, is one of good intentions carefully flagged up in the use of legislation as a press release—but where is the implementation? Where is the delivery?
I am very pleased that the communications data Bill has been dropped. I hope that that truly Orwellian proposal will not come back, as it would have created an expensive database of phone calls and e-mails, and, frankly, would have been an extraordinary intrusion into civil liberties. We have not heard—I hope that we will be told by the Justice Secretary in his winding-up speech—how the Government intend to react to the very firm decision today by the European Court of Human Rights about retaining the DNA samples of those who are innocent. Given the results, that is an extraordinarily firm decision. I cannot remember, in many years of observing the European Court, a 17-nil decision—completely unanimous—that the Government's position is contrary to the European convention on human rights.
If the Government want a sensible policy on what samples should be held on a DNA database, they should get rid of all samples from innocent people—as they must now do, I believe, as a result of the European Court ruling—and they should start a programme to collect samples from people who were convicted before 2001. We now know that more than 2 million people who have been convicted of a criminal offence are not on the DNA database, because they were convicted of committing a crime before 2001. So we have a ridiculous topsy-turvy Government policy of accreting samples from innocent people, children and others who are under age. That is absolutely useless in improving the conviction rate, as we now know, yet we have not been collecting data samples from people who were convicted, although that would be much more effective. Again, I am pleased that the Home Secretary has made it clear that there will be no question, other than at our borders, of having police and other official powers to check for identity cards.
I have been talking for rather longer than I wanted to, because of the interventions, but let me say something about the coroners and justice Bill. I am still suspicious of what may be the Government's intentions on that Bill. There is no doubt that we need reform, that speed and timeliness in coroners' inquests are a real issue, and that it is crucial that bereaved families can get an inquest rapidly. However, the Government's proposals in the counter-terrorism Bill, now dropped, were horrendous, and they must not be resuscitated. Coroners' inquests are an essential bulwark against the abuse of state power, as they establish what happened if a death occurs, particularly in custody at the hands of an agent of the state. They were initiated precisely because we could not trust the Tudor secret service to perform its duties unless deaths in custody were properly investigated.
On a specific and important point, in the wake of the inquest into the tragic death of my constituent, Imogen D'Arcy, who committed suicide at the age of 13, having accessed suicide websites, campaigners on the issue, including the all-party parliamentary group, Papyrus, the Samaritans and the D'Arcy family, warmly welcome the announcement that the Government will tighten the law on suicides in connection with websites, but that needs to be explained properly. We believed originally that that would come under the Suicide Act 1961, rather than the coroners and justice Bill. Will the Government give us more clarification, particularly a timetable? People want to see change as soon as possible.
Before I finish making the point about coroners playing a crucial part in holding to account the abuse of state power, let me say that we welcome and will support many other aspects of the proposals. We do not, however, feel that the police reform proposals go far enough. We have argued—on police pay review, for example—for a complete review of the police contract. For example, an issue that we do not hear about from either Conservative or Labour Members, despite its pertinence in current circumstances, is the very restrictive nature of the single point of entry for chief constables.
Broadly, people should come into the police force from the bottom, and there is an honourable tradition, as in the French army at one stage, of every corporal carrying a field marshal's baton in their knapsack. However, with complex issues such as the prosecution of fraud, for example, where a degree in accountancy and some experience as a forensic accountant might be of considerable use to someone leading an investigation, there must be enough exceptions to bring in people if they have particular expertise. We would like to open up the issues regarding the police contract such as lifetime employment, pay linked to seniority, pensions and the effectiveness of the incapability procedure.
We must also touch on the subject of prostitution. I am sure that every hon. Member wants to protect women from exploitation, but the sort of proposals that the Government have made for a Finnish system of criminalising clients indirectly has a very poor record of successful prosecutions, and I do not believe that that is the way forward.
Overall, there will be elements that we welcome and others that we criticise. I hope increasingly that we can find some consensus about what works in criminal justice, rather than finding ourselves locked in populist battles about retribution and vengeance—which the Secretary of State for Justice is quite keen on, as a political theme. Surely, the key issue for any hon. Member who is concerned about cutting crime should be what works. In that context, we are a very long way from taking on board the evidence from the United States—nor do we spend as much as we should on research to find out what works here. If we did, the Government would be much less disposed to be a threat to our civil liberties than they have proved to be since they were first elected in 1997, and the essential conflicts that inevitably exist between the use of state power in going after criminal activity and the defence of our civil liberties would be less acute if we could anchor the criminal justice debate rather more firmly in real evidence of which interventions work, and at what stage.
For what I fear will be the first of many years to come, the Queen's Speech unashamedly focuses first and foremost on economic issues. Long before the nation was firmly awoken from its slumber to the magnitude of our collective debt crisis by the frightening figures contained in the Chancellor's pre-Budget report last week, some of us had repeatedly warned in the House that, instead of building a secure future, we have been borrowing from it. In truth, the state of the public finances has been a national disgrace for some time. Now, already unsustainable debt levels look set to soar for years to come.
I make few apologies, as the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, for focusing on economic matters, but they will inevitably have an impact on home affairs and justice going forward. Over 11 years of Labour administration, too much Government borrowing has been funding current consumption. Now, in this time of economic crisis, we seem intent on continuing that approach; but as a strategy, it is neither prudent nor sustainable.
Our nation stands at a crossroads. I fear that by blindly following the Government's path, with the many bits of legislation that have been announced in the Gracious Speech and in the past 24 hours, we are condemning future generations of Britons, including those still to be born, to pick up the bill for current welfare, health care and pensions provision, as well as for all the other expenditure on various Home Office experiments in the past decade or so and in years to come. In that way, we risk our nation's permanent demotion from being a global economic player as the financial crisis allows commercial and financial power to move firmly eastwards, particularly to the emerging economic superpowers of India and China.
Far from encouraging the unchecked growth of the state in these times of trouble, for the electorate, we must tell it as it is: the apparently limitless era of cheap and easy money is firmly behind us. An increase in state intervention, as we have seen in recent weeks, may soften the financial blow in the immediate term, but the looming level of interest payments alone on our rising debt risks lowering living standards for decades to come. That will have quite an impact on a range of social issues and social divisions within our society.
Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed what many of us have long suspected: this year's overspend will far exceed the £43 billion that was predicted as recently as the March Budget, and will rise to £78 billion. It will then reach a colossal £118 billion in 2009-10, always assuming that the Government can, for the first time this century, not overshoot their projected public sector deficit. By 2012-13, the nation will be battling with a net debt that will account for 57 per cent. of gross domestic product, with £350 million being spent in excess of tax receipts every day of the year. That prediction is based on the Government's own figures, which have been shown to be selective and perhaps hopelessly optimistic in the past. It takes no account of expenditure on Network Rail, the cost of bailing out Northern Rock, Bradford & Bingley, Halifax Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland, or of the off-balance sheet financing of public infrastructure projects.
The figures are now so unfeasibly vast that I fear the general public remain blissfully unaware of the seismic implications of the unprecedented level of Government debt that is now locked into the system. The recent banking bail-out, following the credit crisis, has provided the Government with an alibi for the exorbitant levels of public debt, which were already spiralling dangerously out of control. We must ring-fence the billions accrued for the bail-out and the Government's recently announced £20 billion fiscal stimulus plan from the enormous sums that were already on and, indeed, off the public balance sheet.
If this Queen's Speech is to mark a departure from the past, the new spirit of the age should be for value for money out of the public purse. I fear instead, however, that the idea of big Government as an ever-benevolent cash cow is entrenching even further. The notion that however bad things get financially for the individual, the state will move to soften the blow, has only been increased by the Government's intervention to protect depositors in Northern Rock, Icesave and others, as well as by the Prime Minister's latest announcement, only yesterday, of a two-year benefit, in relation to mortgage payments, to families with children and to pensioners. The Government are returning to their comfort zone, with an economic narrative of interference in the name of protecting the public through continued high spending.
For sure, no Government can sit idly by; I accept that current events are epoch-changing, and that in decades to come people will look back on these months when they consider economic history and important decisions that have to be made. We should not be immune to the pleadings of those who bear the economic brunt of these hard times. In many ways, those pleadings will become ever stronger in the next year, as we all know, as the apparent economic crisis becomes much more evident to many of our electors. Equally, however, it is important that any action that is taken to soothe our financial troubles is taken responsibly—I might even say prudently—and with a firm eye on our long-term economic future.
It is imperative that the public are given a reality check. The servicing of the colossal debt that we have already racked up, let alone the somewhat irresponsible spending that is still to come, risks lowering living standards for many years to come. Above all, it will soon dawn on a new generation of younger voters that the unspoken message of the political class, across political parties, to anyone under 30 is that their generation will need not only to fund the cost of pensions for those who are older now, but to lower significantly their own financial expectations when the time comes for them to retire.
The availability of cheap goods such as clothes, technology and alcohol has created a false sense of material wealth in the young. The longer-term prospect of paying off huge student debts is something that, I am thankful to say, my generation—I am only 20 years out of university—has never had to be concerned about. The rosy future that is envisaged of enjoying a standard of living as good as one's parents, experiencing a decent pension in a retirement that is likely to last for decades and expecting the generous range of state benefits that those in retirement currently take for granted will be unsustainable for the younger generation that is growing up.
Any failure by the Government rapidly to grasp that nettle risks bringing about serious social unrest in the years ahead. Our society will become economically divided as never before between old and young, as I have pointed out, between those who work in the comparatively secure and well-pensioned public sector and those in the private sector who are reliant on private wealth creation, and between those with globally transferable opportunities and skills, such as Members of the House, and those in an increasingly large tail of low-skilled, chaotic lifestyles.
I have seen such divides even in my constituency. Labour Members are often sceptical about what life must be like in Westminster, but the community is very polarised. Of course, there are tremendous pockets of wealth in places such as Belgravia, Knightsbridge, Mayfair and Marylebone, but in parts of my constituency, in Pimlico and Bayswater, many people live chaotic lifestyles. They live the sort of lifestyles that probably horrified people when they heard about what happened to baby P only a few miles to the north in Haringey. I, as a Member of Parliament, and my local councillors, can understand that although that sort of thing is not exactly a norm, it is not entirely out of the ordinary. Such events are worrying signs of the polarised society in which we live. That level of polarisation has always been fairly apparent in our capital city, certainly in central London, but I fear that it is becoming even stronger in many other parts of the country, and that it will have profound impacts on the whole issue of justice and the way in which we tackle law and order in the years ahead.
In addition, we must ensure that the public understand the international implications of our country's continued indebtedness and severely weakened economic clout. We are witnessing the first signs of a seismic and rapid shift of power from the United States and Europe to China, India, Russia and even the Gulf states. The near collapse of the global banking industry is not just an issue of restoring confidence, important though that is, and the Government have tried to take important steps in that direction; it is also about the trust of our electors and of those who use the financial services industry. However, those issues will only accelerate trends that are already in play. The US economy may never recover its dominant position in global markets, and we have to accept that the City of London's position as a leader in the provision of financial and business services will be sorely tested in the years ahead.
In the midst of all the damage and destruction to the value of the west's financial resources, we face a major loss of economic power and international prestige. Put simply, money is power, and such financial means go hand in hand with global political leadership. The bail-out of US and European banks will be underwritten by the flooding, in the global capital markets, of US and European Government bonds, which will be mopped up by cash-rich sovereign wealth funds, particularly in China, the Gulf and Russia. The power that this money buys will allow them to exert far more political influence, and I believe that in places such as China and Russia, that will be backed up by military force around their borders. I fear that the model of democracy, open societies and free markets supported by the G7 will be sorely put to the test in the years to come.
In recent months, we have seen that one of the few impediments to Russia exercising military power beyond its borders is the influence of an educated, wealthy and fast-growing domestic middle class. To date, India and China—beyond their problems in Kashmir, Burma and Tibet—have shown relatively little interest in exercising their own military muscle. I believe, however, that as their global financial clout becomes more apparent, so too will their appetite for interference in world affairs. I also fear that some elements of the Islamic world will have regard to the west's ongoing economic crisis. In spite of the Government's projected figures, this crisis will not have gone away by the end of 2009. It is a crisis of economic confidence that will take up the rest of this decade and continue well into the 2020s. We have to ask who in the west will have the financial clout, let alone the political will, to spend money on policing any new flashpoints in the middle east or in parts of Asia.
I have visited China three times in the past five years, and I have been blown away by the pace of development there. If the US and Europe lose their moral leadership in the management of global financial markets, there is little doubt that, within a decade, the west will be forced to accept China as an economic and political equal.
I have also visited India twice since 2004. It is a nation under the international spotlight, as the monstrous hand of terrorism visited the great commercial city of Bombay last week. I am pleased that my own police force in the City of London and many other institutions under the Home Office have played a role in assisting India with aspects of terrorism in the past, and I hope that they will give it a great deal of co-operation in the future.
India has been sadly familiar with terror attacks, but the scale of the assault on Bombay, and the western targets involved, bestow on that city the dubious honour of being considered a global financial centre worthy of such an intricately planned outrage. As appalling as recent events have been, I also believe that they have exposed India for the first time in the eyes of many westerners as a real force to be reckoned with as a country. Bombay's debut as a prominent item on global news bulletins might be viewed in retrospect as the formal recognition of its growing prominence in the international financial system. There is no doubt that that outward-looking, cosmopolitan, dynamic city will bounce back with resilience and confidence, as it services an ever stronger internal market and continues its search for global trading partners.
Let us make no mistake: a formal shift of power eastwards will present opportunities as well as challenges. Our nation must be ready to exploit those opportunities, but I am increasingly concerned that the twin burden of high levels of public and private debt, along with a rudderless, untrusted financial sector, risks the movement of global business away from our shores. No doubt we will also face the emergence of deep social divides, should we continue down the dangerous path of consuming today and making future generations pay tomorrow for what we consume.
As a great defender of free markets, free trade and global capitalism, I am willing to bet that, while the Government currently have an important role in stabilising and revitalising our confidence-battered economy, it will eventually be hard work, enterprise and freedom in the marketplace that will ensure that our economy thrives again. If the best of economic times are to lie ahead, the moral and economic case must also be made for a smaller, more efficient state, and the untapped appetite among our fellow Britons for financial discipline and prudence must be encouraged.
We face letting down a whole generation, but the Conservative party already has a wide range of solutions to our declining competitiveness through our education and social affairs agenda. Long term, we must focus on promoting diverse and versatile skills, aspiration and mobility among our population. Yes, there is no doubt that the state must offer some security in these times of extreme need, but that aspect of its function should not overshadow the long-term importance of promoting flair, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. It is only through those three factors that we can ensure prosperous times ahead.
I am sorry that my message is slightly negative and depressing, but we are living in difficult times. I hope that the Government will take on board many of these issues, including the many long-term concerns that should be in the forefront of our minds as we look in the short term at the proposals in the Queen's Speech. I look forward to hearing other Members' contributions, even if they stick rather more closely to the home affairs and justice agenda.
I shall be extremely brief, lest I lose this enormous audience. I want to focus on the famous, and regular, line in the Queen's Speech:
"Other measures will be laid before you."
A number of measures are not in the Queen's Speech. One has been promised in the long run by the Government, and I shall make an argument for accelerating it. Another was promised in the draft Queen's Speech, but has been deferred. A third has been made necessary by this morning's judgment by the European Court of Human Rights.
During the course of this year, we have had serious intellectual battles over the counter-terrorism strategy. Much of that has been about freedom and individual rights, but a good deal has also been about how successful the strategy is, and how successful it needs to be. The Government have rightly said that the threats to our people are increasing on a day-by-day basis, that they are growing by about 25 per cent. per annum, and that they are difficult for the police and the other agencies to deal with. That is an argument that the Government have put forward to support repressive measures, including the proposed increase in detention without charge from 28 days to 42.
The first missing Bill that I want to discuss is the Bill to allow the use of intercept evidence in court. If we had such a Bill, we would not face the problems that we are facing today, with a provision for 28 days' detention, let alone 42. In our debates, we have often raised the issue of the United States. After 9/11, the US faces at least as great a terrorist threat as we do, yet it seems to cope with it much better than we do. It is able to bring charges within two days of arrest, and full indictment within 10 days. It can do that because it has a combination of laws that allows it to act without visiting injustice or oppression on its people. Among the most important is its ability to use intercept evidence.
Earlier this year, I visited Washington and talked to representatives of all the counter-terrorism agencies and of the Department of Justice. I had the advantage of being able to talk to the Deputy Secretary of State for Justice who dealt with terrorism. He told me in some detail about how intercept worked. He made it clear that the use of intercept evidence in court was fundamental to two types of judicial success. One was in dealing with terrorism, and the other was in dealing with gangsterism—the mafia and organised crime. They are similar targets in many ways, and it is true to say that the American judicial system has had fantastic success in dealing with gangsterism and considerable success in dealing with terrorism. It all hangs on intercept.
The Deputy Secretary of State for Justice talked us through a case. The first thing he said was, "If we have any of these cases, the jury wonder where the juicy tapes are"—his words—"if they do not hear them in court." Juries have come to depend on the intercept evidence as a central part of the judicial process. The US process involves a two-stage approach. The first is a so-called CIPA—Classified Information Procedures Act—hearing, at which it is decided what can be presented to the court. In his words, "If we win the CIPA hearing, the case goes straight to plea bargaining." There is almost never a full case thereafter.
That is very different from our major terrorism trials. In the past couple of years we have had enormous trials at huge cost. I am thinking not just of the cost in money terms. The cost of the paralysis of our agencies in supporting those court cases is incalculable. It is extremely important that we understand the power of the intercept evidence usable in court, particularly in conjunction with a reasonably aggressive approach to plea bargaining, especially with the minor players. If we succeed in that, we will achieve a number of things. We will make it possible to try more people, to convict more people, to convict them with greater safety, and to convict them faster and more cheaply than we do at present. There are enormous benefits to be had for us, and we are probably the country in the world that would gain most from the use of intercept evidence, so it is rather surprising that we do not have that already.
The Government have, quite properly, set up an advisory committee that is working on the matter. My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard is a member of the committee. I spoke to him before the debate. He said that the committee was working hard on extremely complex matters. I will not be present for the winding-up speeches, unfortunately, but I hope that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor will be able to tell us that the committee will not be short of resources. If it were inadequately resourced, that would be a considerable false economy. I should like to see the relevant Bill brought forward.
The Bill that was missing, which was mentioned by the Liberal spokesman and by my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, is the communications and data Bill. It was in the draft Queen's Speech, but not in the most recent version. The Bill has gone for consultation in early 2009, and I understand that we will get a published Bill thereafter. I suspect that it was pulled because the central component of it, the idea of an enormous database of, effectively, intercept data—data showing e-mail addresses, phone calls and internet accesses—was seen as horrifically unpopular when it eventually became widely known that that would happen. It would make the argument over 42 days look like a picnic. In the public view, unlike a 42-days measure, it would appear to impinge on everybody's privacy and therefore be enormously unpopular.
As in the case of 42 days, I talked through these issues with the agencies and the police forces. I had all sorts of secret briefings. I hope nobody will go to prison for it. The outcome was pretty straightforward. Telephone and internet data are already retained by the companies as a result of European directive 2006/24, from memory, so there is no question of the data being there or not being there. The simple question is whether the data should be held in a huge database by the state. That has all sorts of enormous disadvantages. There will inevitably be suspicion about why it must be held there, as it does not add a jot to the available information.
The only worry one might have in that respect is that although getting such data out of the companies requires an explicit warrantry process—rather relevant in the House today—and therefore requires our agencies to be under proper control and under the law, one could not be quite so confident about a central database. There is also a fear that we might see attempts at data mining—trying to spot suspicious characters through their telephone and e-mail records. Such an ambition, if it exists, would be daft. Most of the evidence on data mining shows that it is pretty ineffective. Nevertheless, it would be a massive intrusion on people's privacy.
I hope that if and when the measure comes back, it comes back without that database. If it provides for such a database, the Government can guarantee themselves an interesting year of battles on the matter. Indeed, I can guarantee the Government an interesting year of battles on the matter. I want to see the ability to intercept, as I said in my opening argument. I want to see the agencies able to do what they need to do. What I do not want to do is to give any agency of Government the ability to go on a fishing expedition without proper warrantry control. It is very simple. My understanding is that most of the agencies and the police forces agree with that, and that only one or two agencies have a different view. The Government and the Home Office must be firm with them and make it clear to them that that is not acceptable to the British public.
Both Opposition Front-Bench speakers have also touched on the last issue that I want to mention: today's excellent judgment—I never thought that I would ever say this—from the European Court of Human Rights. I would have been much happier if we had made the decision ourselves. I do not think that the main Opposition parties differ much on human rights; the issue is about who should make the decision about them. However, the ECHR judgment is excellent—and, as Chris Huhne said, its unanimity is outstanding. I thought that the decision would be split, because it was taking so long to come out, but it was not.
Yes, it could have been the time taken to count the votes, although I sort of doubt it.
Where are we now? As it stands, the law is that police guidelines allow deletion only in exceptional circumstances. As far as I can see, the first applications for deletion receive mandatory, compulsory refusal. That has given us the biggest database in the world. The numbers are astounding—4.2 million people, of whom 1 million are innocent.; that is 7 per cent. of our population. The nearest comparator is Austria, with a figure of 1 per cent., which gives a clear idea of how heavy-handed we are on this issue. The Government had intended the numbers to match those on the national fingerprint database—that is, 7.3 million—and had they carried on, they would have got there by 2012.
The interesting point is that I think that the Government are deceiving themselves, rather than setting out to deceive us. The Prime Minister said that 114 murders had been resolved on the back of the database. When we asked for one example—I have asked several times—the Government have never been able to provide it, as a statistical analysis is involved. It is based on a series of errors. I will not take the House through the whole GeneWatch analysis, but suffice it to say that not every DNA sample found in a location even shows that a person was there; these days, such samples can be transferred by other people as a result of handshakes, sweat being carried across and so on. Secondly, if the person was at the location, they will not necessarily be the criminal. Thirdly, even if they are the criminal, they will not necessarily be convicted on the basis of the data, for other reasons.
There has been a massive overestimate of the importance of such samples. The hon. Member for Eastleigh made a very important point when he said that the Government have casually gone along sweeping up the 1 million innocent people while ignoring the couple of million guilty people from pre-2001. Actually, I should say to the hon. Gentleman that I think that the date was a little earlier than that; some people were in prison at the time and there is an overlap. Nevertheless, the people essentially from pre-2001 have been ignored.
I urge the Government to consider the example of Scotland, which has a better system and a better outcome in terms of criminal convictions. The issue should not be a dividing line across the House; we should be able to arrive at a practical solution that protects the privacy of individuals—most particularly, the 100,000 innocent children who should not be on the database—but gives the police the ammunition and mechanisms that they need to carry things through.
The issue worries me in one other respect. I do not mean this in any pejorative way, but in the past few years the Government have been a little naive about their use of technology. Whether in respect of databases, DNA or surveillance, they have put an awful lot of weight on technology. The problem is that although a large number of people think that DNA technology is absolutely infallible, even a cursory look at low copy number techniques shows that it is anything but that. However, put in front of a jury, the technology has a power much greater than it deserves. I do not want us to build an anti-crime or anti-terrorism strategy on that technology-plus-database approach.
I will finish by saying that many of these issues will not necessarily be for dispute unless the Government want to pick a fight yet again. As they know, we are always happy to give them the fight, but the raw truth is that there is a way through that should be to the advantage of our country, without any of us having to have a serious dispute over it.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the 12th Queen's Speech debate under the current Government. I imagine that there will be one more—unlucky No. 13. I sincerely hope that is unlucky for this Labour Government, not for the Conservative party, in that the 13th Queen's Speech will be the last one that we get from them for some years to come.
I will try to stick to the Home Office brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am sure that you will forgive me if I stray slightly. I do not think that a huge number of Members are waiting to speak, so I should not be putting too many noses out of joint, but if I do, I am sure that you will point it out to me.
Before I move on to the substantive part of my speech, I should like to focus on the operational independence of the police, about which a lot has been said over the past two or three days. Let me point out that the operational independence of the police was compromised about three years ago, during the debate over 90 days' detention, when chief constables from around the country were urged by the Government to write to Members of Parliament asking them to support 90 days. That seemed to break a long-held convention that chief constables did not involve themselves in the day-to-day business of Parliament. From that moment on, the rot set in.
The rot has been particularly noticeable in the Metropolitan police, whose problems have been well documented. The commissioner has just retired early, and of course there are the ongoing problems with last week's raid on the offices of my hon. Friend Damian Green here, in his constituency and at his home. I hope that the Home Office takes a good long look at the operations of the Metropolitan police, because it seems to be becoming dysfunctional as an organisation, with a group of fiefdoms not talking to one another and pursuing their own different agendas. The public in London are beginning to lose confidence in the Metropolitan police, and we cannot afford for that to happen at the moment, with the Olympics just around the corner, in a little over three years' time, and the daily threat posed by terrorists.
As regards counter-terrorism and legislation on counter-terrorism, I remain concerned about the erosion of civil liberties. Our democracy, which we have treasured over the past 400 years, has made this country what it is today, as my hon. Friend Mr. Field pointed out. We remain one of the richest economies in the world, despite the current difficulties in the financial markets. We have wonderful things that have been brought about by democracy. We have, still, a thriving trade union movement. We have an NHS. We have wealth creation. We have vibrant and open debate. Those things, collectively, have made this country what it is.
I am concerned that over the past few years we have taken many of our traditions for granted and cast some of them aside. We have put aside trial by jury in certain cases—complex cases, admittedly, but our legal system should be capable of rising to the challenge of being put to the test through complex cases. We have seen the introduction of double jeopardy, whereby someone can be tried twice for the same crime. Those sorts of powers have been used by dictatorships through the ages and across the world in order finally to find a jury or judge who will give them the result that they want. Double jeopardy has been used to restrict people's liberties and to corrupt the legal system.
There have been restrictions on our free speech. This is a well worn example, but it is still highly relevant. A few years ago, a woman stood at the Cenotaph and read out, very gently and quietly, the names of our war dead—the young men and women who had fallen in Iraq and, I believe, Afghanistan, serving their country. She was arrested and detained. That is not a Great British thing to do. It is not the British way, and we should rightly remain concerned about it.
We talk continually, still, about the merits of ID cards. I am implacably opposed to ID cards, as I believe many of my constituents are. This country belongs to me. I was born here. I have a right to be here. I do not have to prove myself to anyone, nor should I have to. Yes, there are problems with the immigration system, problems that I feel the Government are largely responsible for, but the citizens of this country should not pay for the Government's failings by sacrificing more of their freedoms.
My hon. Friend referred to the British way, something which many of us feel strongly in our hearts. It has been the tradition in this country that we have an unwritten constitution. Does he now feel that the time is ripe for a codified constitution to be put in place to protect the liberties that all of us have perhaps taken for granted, but feel at this stage— [ Interruption. ] I am not passing a judgment either way on this matter, but given the concerns that my hon. Friend expressed, does he feel that it would be the right way forward?
I hope that we have not yet reached that stage, but if we are to avoid reaching it, now is the time for Members of Parliament to be big, to stand up and be counted and to fight for the freedoms that we treasure. It does not matter whether we are in the Labour party, the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrat party. We love this country, we love our democracy and it is up to us to stand up and fight for it and to challenge those forces that would diminish and traduce it.
Today, we have had some welcome news on the DNA database. I cannot believe that the records of perhaps 6 million innocent people are kept on that database. They are people arrested or detained by the police who are not guilty of any crime beyond perhaps being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but their records are retained on the database. We hear this rubbish, this Orwellian nonsense: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." That is something we would expect to hear from the Stasi in eastern Europe. It is a nonsensical statement.
I have a constituent who has committed not a single crime in his life, but on his advanced Criminal Records Bureau check he carries details of a wicked and violent crime committed against a member of his family by a totally unconnected third party. He has nothing to hide, but he has everything to fear. I have taken up his case with the Information Commissioner, the Home Office and the police, and nobody will act to right this wrong. It is an act that would be more at home in Stalinist Russia than in this country.
My hon. Friend makes his point with great passion. I very much agree with it, and the contribution made earlier on the matter of the DNA database by my right hon. Friend David Davis. Does my hon. Friend accept—and I hope that the Minister will take this point on board—that DNA technology is important, but that in 40 or 50 years' time we will have DNA mark 2 or mark 3 technology that will be considerably superior to what we have now? It will show up many of the deficiencies that my right hon. and hon. Friends have pointed out.
My hon. Friend is right; we are in the early stages of this technology. My concerns about the DNA database rest on the fact that the details of people who have not committed any crime are retained on that database. Whether it is a database operating today or in 30 years' time, that is wrong, and it must be stopped.
Finally, as we are talking about Home Office Bills, I return to the role of Parliament in scrutinising Bills. Parliament has undoubtedly been diminished over the past decade. We have less time for debate. We have less time to discuss Bills on Second Reading, and to consider them on Report and in Committee. It is important that we get that time back; so often a brief Second Reading debate is truncated because we have one or two statements beforehand. The Bill then goes into Committee, which may meet for six or eight sittings, where whole areas of the Bill remain undiscussed. Then it comes back to this place on Report, and the Government table a raft of new clauses and amendments that no one has had a chance to consider beforehand. So the Bill goes through almost unscrutinised, and again we are left to rely on those in the other place to make up for our deficiencies.
Of course, Members of Parliament are not blameless. A few committed Members of Parliament are in the Chamber, taking part in and listening to the debate. However, too many of us perceive a one-line Whip as an opportunity to go home—yes, to do worthy things, such as spending time in our constituencies on constituency engagements, but our constituents send us here to make their concerns known in this place and to give them a voice in the mother of Parliaments and the cockpit of the country. We must take that responsibility seriously. I hope that I am not getting too many dirty looks from colleagues—they are excluded from my criticisms because they are here and should be congratulated on that. If they would like me to name them for the benefit of Hansard, I am happy to do that.
Our freedoms are important and we need to protect them. Last week, a Conservative Member of Parliament was arrested and his House of Commons office was searched. Next week, that could happen to a Labour Member of Parliament—we hope to God that it will not. Let us remember that only a few months ago Mr. Khan had his conversations and private discussions with a constituent who was in prison recorded. The police have form and we need to ensure that proper safeguards are in place so that our constituents, wherever they are, have confidence when they talk to us that those discussions are private.
I will not detain the House any longer. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make a short contribution.
I want to consider the Gracious Speech from the standpoint of the Justice Committee and its predecessor, the Constitutional Affairs Committee. Some of its contents relate to our work.
I am not one to complain when a Queen's Speech is short and there is less legislation. The Government may be beginning to recognise that the ills of the world and the country sometimes require action in forms other than legislation. The thirst for legislation, especially on justice and home affairs, has produced legislative indigestion and many Bills that are not fully implemented, not capable of being implemented or should never have been introduced.
I welcome the Bill that was first regarded as the coroners Bill, but has become a combination of that draft measure and other justice provisions. In 2005-06, the Constitutional Affairs Committee severely criticised the Government's original coroners Bill and we need to ascertain the extent to which the clauses of the new Bill tackle our concerns, those of families and those of people experienced in the system, as well as the anxieties that were expressed in the two inquiries that followed the appalling Harold Shipman case. I should say "cases" because he murdered more than 200 people and the system failed to identify him, despite his certifying numerous deaths, which he caused.
Let me outline the key points about the coroner's element of the coroners and justice Bill. First, death certification must be effectively reformed and I am glad that it will be included in the measure. However, we want to be satisfied that the reform is sufficient to achieve its purpose. Secondly, medical examiners, which the Bill will introduce, should not be part of the same NHS trust that runs the hospital where a death has occurred. The medical examiner certification should not be done by an employee of the very NHS trust about which relatives are concerned.
Thirdly, funding for coroners, their staff and training needs to be more consistent. If people had not read our report or did not know the system they would be amazed by the extent of its diversity. In some areas, the local authority pays for coroners' offices; in others, the police pay for them; and in others, coroners are serving police officers—an arrangement that is sometimes pragmatically convenient—and there is no real consistency. There is also little consistency about providing and paying for training so that coroners' officers and other staff can fulfil the needs of the families with whom they deal. Some of them do a superb job—indeed, I have heard much testimony to the quality of the work that some coroner's officers do—but the system is inconsistent and sporadic.
Having a chief coroner is a good thing, but we do not want over-centralisation. The Committee pointed out that there will still be a need for some part-time coroners, if remote areas are not to be completely cut off from the coroner service and if relatives are not going to have to travel long distances even to discuss with the coroner's office how their inquest will be handled. In that context, the other key point in the Bill is how far the rights of the bereaved will be dealt with.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent: we do not want an over-centralised system, but we need some central management of the system. Whereas many coroners do a good job, some have not managed their work very well at all. There are examples in some parts of the country of terrible delays in holding inquests. I am not thinking of the serious delays in inquests relating to service in Iraq or Afghanistan, which have raised separate problems; I am thinking of areas where inquests have built up because the service was not properly managed or resourced. It is therefore necessary, as the Government maintain, to have a chief coroner, who will need the power to ensure a certain level of approved standards. At the same time, however, we do not want areas to be dependent on a distant service that does not recognise, for example, that life in rural communities is different from life in urban communities.
I have referred to that part of the coroners and justice Bill that relates to coroners, but it is not yet clear what else will be in the Bill. There will be data protection provisions, which I hope will include strengthening the Information Commissioner's independence and giving him the powers necessary to fine organisations that breach data protection provisions. The commissioner has been left with only the nuclear button to press. He needs wider powers, as we have argued, and the Government seem to recognise that.
In the longer term, it would be better if the commissioner had the independence that comes from being a creature of Parliament, not of the Government. That is the position for the Scottish Information Commissioner, our Comptroller and Auditor General, the parliamentary ombudsman and the chairman of the Electoral Commission, who all relate to Parliament, not to the Government. We understand that there will also be provisions in the Bill relating to homicide and the Sentencing Guidelines Council. We intend to look into those carefully.
The Queen's Speech prompts the question whether, as a result of the coroners and justice Bill and the Government's other activities, there will be, in the words of the Government's declared objective, an
"effective, transparent and responsive justice system for victims, witnesses and the wider public."
There will not be an effective justice system if money continues to be spent without regard to the effectiveness with which it is spent. The background to that point is the Carter report on prisons, which had no evidential base at all, but which led to far-reaching conclusions, including the plan to create massive, Titan prisons, into which no cost-benefit analysis has been conducted.
Interestingly, having reported that the consultation was over, the Government have now told our Committee that it is not really over, as they intend to do some further work, owing to the fact that so many of the people who were consulted pointed to the lack of a cost-benefit analysis. I am glad that the Government have changed tack, at least to the extent of giving the issue some further thought, and I would be the last person to complain if they changed their mind. I hope that they will now look much more carefully into the cost-effectiveness of the proposal, which has never been examined on any research or evidence base at all.
If we spend lots of money on creating more prisons, but at the same time send out unrehabilitated, unsupervised or unsupported prisoners, there will be more crimes and more victims of crime. If we spend on prisons money that is needed for early-years intervention, youth work or community sentences, there will be more criminals and more victims. We therefore need to look at all the money that we spend in the criminal justice system and at whether it is being spent effectively.
Our report "Towards Effective Sentencing", from the 2007-08 Session, deals with some of those issues and demonstrates the ways in which money was wasted when sentences were introduced without any proper mechanism for carrying them out and without any certainty that they would meet the requirements of the justice system. We are now doing further work on the much wider concept of justice reinvestment: are we spending the money in the right places; if we spent it differently, would there be fewer crimes and fewer victims?
We are very conscious of the need for an informed public and media debate that is not just based around a few cases. The Front Benchers of all parties need to help in bringing about such a debate. Instead of chasing "tough on crime" headlines, we should ensure that the public are able to debate in an informed way what methods will ensure that they are least likely to be the victims of crime. We should not be misleading the public into thinking that we have a solution if all we propose is simply putting more people in prison and keeping them there for longer.
There are many public misconceptions about crime. All the evidence shows that the public believe that crimes are more frequent than they actually are and that sentences are more lenient than they actually are. As long as that is the case, the public will be prey to both newspaper headlines and populist rhetoric suggesting that there is an easy solution to a massive problem of increasing crime in the form of opening more prisons and cramming more people into them—when that is clearly not the case.
We have the highest prison rate among any of the major countries of western Europe—and not just marginally higher, but by far. Yet that has not enabled us to have a different and more successful record on crime and the prevention of crime than those countries have had. We see a strong need for a much more informed public debate and we look to the leaders of all the parties to contribute to it and to resist the temptation to grab a current case and the public fears generated by it and say, "Ah, this proves that we must have more prisons or longer sentences." Although long sentences are necessary and appropriate in a few cases, they are not the answer to general crime problems.
Is the justice reinvestment inquiry that the Select Committee is undertaking, in which I take a particular interest, relevant not just to an informed debate among politicians but to the lack of local community involvement and ownership of issues such as youth justice and, indeed, financial decision-making, not least in the area of commissioning of prison places?
The hon. Gentleman is on to a very important point. Our system does not locate in one place, either nationally or locally, decisions about how money is spent. The decisions are taken by different people: some take decisions that result in more prisons, but others are taking decisions on where the money is spent—on youth work, early intervention or community sentences in particular areas, for example. The structure of financial decision making is an absolutely essential issue and the Committee is taking a close interest in it.
Some things are, of course, missing from the Queen's Speech: some I am sorry are not in it; others I am pleased are not in it. I shall take an example of each. The Queen's Speech lacks the announcement of an effective Bill on party funding. What we have instead is a trundling on with the wholly inadequate Bill that we started considering in the previous Session. What we need is a Bill based on the lines of the Hayden Phillips report and the work of the Select Committee in bringing Members of all parties together to reach a common conclusion that we must get the big money out of politics and accept that all parties would have to make some sacrifices to reach that point. We would then need to create a system to incentivise the giving of money to political parties in small amounts by larger numbers of people as part of their ownership of the political system. That is, of course, precisely what Barack Obama succeeded in doing in the United States. Much of the vast amount of money raised for his campaign came in small donations from very large numbers of people. Unless we do that, we will not be able to deliver what we said was necessary: to offer the taxpayer visibly cleaner and healthier politics. That will not even be begun by the Government's proposed legislation. The Government have surrendered to a veto by one party, and the Bill that was reintroduced this week will do nothing to change the dependence of the system on big donors.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about party fundraising. Why does politics excite people in the United States of America in a way that it is simply not exciting people in this country?
It is probably mainly to do with a perception that there was a need for change and a means to bring it about. We must all hope that the election of Barack Obama and his Administration satisfies some of those aspirations, which led people to take part. It may not so fully do so, as that is difficult to achieve. In our system, many people assume that nothing they do will make any difference. They have seen the two main parties grow rather more similar in recent years in the ideas and prescriptions that they put forward. That might change again—who knows?
People have seen a system in which their votes do not seem to count—that point was referred to by my hon. Friend Chris Huhne—because of the electoral system that we have, but the crucial difference is that when people see that their votes make a difference, they are more likely to vote.
I was elected to the House in a by-election 35 years ago last month. The turnout was 84 per cent. and the poll took place well on in the year, when the register was quite old. My majority was 57 votes. People knew that the by-election was close. They could see that their vote was crucial to achieving change. Unless we can get more of our electorate to feel that their vote will change not just perhaps the personnel but the direction of government, we will continue to have low participation.
The next thing that is missing but might have been expected in the Gracious Speech is any reference to legislation on the Bill of Rights and responsibilities. Instead, we have, in that time-honoured phrase, the Government taking a step back from what they originally intended to do:
"My Government will continue to take forward proposals on constitutional renewal".
So no Bill on rights and responsibilities. I am quite pleased about that, because there is a deal of confusion around that subject in Government circles, and some other circles as well.
There is the idea that we can somehow change our corpus of rights by introducing a separate British Bill of Rights. I am very sceptical of that notion. We are signatories to the European convention on human rights, and even if we repealed the Human Rights Act 1998 and stopped our access to it in our own courts, we would still be signatories to that convention and the process involving the DNA database case—which everybody, certainly on the Opposition Benches, is celebrating today and which has led to a decision that the Government's position is not lawful—would still be available to us. Although it is advantageous that we can access the convention in the British courts, the European convention will determine our rights for many years to come. I see danger in any pretence that we can subtract from those rights. Some Conservatives seem to think that we can do so—although we cannot unless we withdraw from the convention—or that we can usefully start tinkering around, adding a few extra rights and giving them the same force. I am not even comfortable with that, either.
At the same time, the Government confuse the notion of responsibilities with rights. In making what is, on the face of it, a reasonable proposition that people should care about their responsibilities as well as their rights—a proposition that we could all agree to—they go on to imply that all of that could be put into a piece of legislation or a charter so that rights and responsibilities had the same status. That is nonsense, and quite dangerous nonsense too.
There are certain responsibilities to keep the law, which if we do not carry out we lose rights. We may be sent to prison because we have broken the criminal law, but we cannot have a process whereby we start taking people's rights away if they do not exercise as much social responsibility as is desirable or because, on some subjective measure, they are not behaving as responsibly as we would like.
I want people to do socially responsible things—not just in the negative sense of not doing bad things, but in the positive sense of taking an active part in their community, helping community organisations and being involved in all sorts of good things such as charitable work. I am absolutely delighted that so much of that goes on in our country, but I simply cannot get my head around the idea that if people do not behave to the fullest extent of responsibility that they could achieve, we may somehow treat that as a rights issue, saying, "You haven't helped with the scout troop, so you will lose a bit of freedom of speech. You haven't stood for the parish council, so you will lose some of your freedom of association." Those two things are very different. Social responsibility is something that we can encourage and try to develop in society. Rights are something that we make subject to a framework of law and justiciable, and one cannot mix up the two concepts as the Government are doing. I am quite pleased that we will not see that in the Queen's Speech.
Instead we have a vague and, from this Government, unlikely notion of "strengthening Parliament." There is one specific measure that the Government can cite as likely to achieve that: the powers in relation to war and peace—the parliamentary process when this country goes to war. That is right in principle and, in the case of Iraq, actually happened. As one of those who voted against the Iraq war, I must recognise that we did have a vote in this House about it, but the idea that that will strengthen Parliament is a bit fanciful. As we all know from that and other experiences, many Members feel pressured by the fact that our troops are stationed and ready to take action into not voting against what the Government are doing. Others feel that if they vote against their Government in those circumstances they are effectively calling on them to resign at the most difficult period for the country for any Government to resign. The measure is right in principle but it does not really add to the corpus of real parliamentary power.
Among the things that would change Parliament is a reformed electoral system that did not give Governments automatic majorities and made it much less likely that Governments had the kind of majority that enabled them to ignore Parliament, and that stopped the Government's stranglehold on the House. We now have more Ministers than ever before. We have lots of unpaid Ministers. We used to talk about the payroll but we now have Ministers who are prepared to take on the loyalty and limitations of being in government without even being paid a ministerial salary for doing so. There are now quite a lot of them, but the total effect is to add to the number of people on the Government side of the House who are automatically committed to supporting the Government unless they resign their office.
The right hon. Gentleman has been in the House for 35 years. Was it not the case that, 35 years ago, being a Parliamentary Private Secretary did not put a Member on the payroll vote, and there were occasions when PPSs from both sides of the House voted against the Government and retained their positions?
I still think and hope that PPSs will vote against the Government from time to time and might survive in office for doing so, but throughout that 35-year period, the size of Government within the Chamber has increased—an undesirable development. I think it fairly unlikely that the Government will achieve much in the way of strengthening Parliament for the reasons that I have set out.
The Government should also bear in mind the importance of supporting the role of MPs. If the Government are worried about leaks, they have themselves to blame. First, they have failed to bring in a civil service Bill which could strengthen the civil service code, and secondly, they have set the tone with their own leaks. The very Government who complain about leaks are filling the newspapers with things that in my early days in Parliament were practically hanging offences. Revealing the contents of the Queen's Speech before the Queen uttered it was regarded as a very serious matter indeed in my earlier years. As for the contents of a Budget, for those to be revealed was a resigning matter for the Chancellor.
I do not think we can be criticised on the Queen's Speech because one of the reforms introduced by the Prime Minister was a draft Queen's Speech, which could be the subject of proper scrutiny.
I accept that reform and supported it at the time, but we are seeing the playing around with the Gracious Speech itself. Once the Government have made their undisclosed decisions about what they are taking forward and what they are not, following the consultation process that the Prime Minister rightly introduced, the newspapers on Tuesday and Wednesday tell us what the Queen will say, Her Majesty delivers the speech and then, on the middle of Wednesday, the Government set about another kind of leaking: they indicate that what the Queen said was not terribly important, and that what was really important was the repossessions initiative, which was announced to the press before Parliament, and certainly in more detail than it was announced to Parliament by the Prime Minister.
My right hon. Friend will remember that when in opposition the Prime Minister was very proud of using leaked documents from the civil service to hold the Government to account. In fact, on "Newsnight" earlier this week there was a rather glorious clip—dating back to July 1985, I think—of a very young Gordon Brown claiming the credit for doing exactly that.
Yes; what a young figure the Prime Minister cut, but we all remember him in those days.
Clearly, all Governments have to ensure that they can conduct their business, but they now do so within a framework of freedom of information, where they need to be a little less sensitive about information, much of which could be claimed as public under the Freedom of Information Act in any case. When situations arise that are to do with the leaking of confidential information, the basis for dealing with them should be the civil service code, buttressed by a civil service Act.
While making no comment on the current case, it is my view that if a Member were to take action that seemed to be designed to extract information from a civil servant by putting pressure on them, that would be a matter for parliamentary standards. That would be the appropriate way to deal with that, rather than through the criminal code. When Douglas Hurd was Home Secretary, he introduced substantial changes so that the criminal code was more properly confined to official secrets in the area of national security, and disciplinary processes other than the criminal law were thought appropriate for the rest of Government business. That was an important change which was enshrined in a revised Official Secrets Act. Having served on the Intelligence and Security Committee for more than a decade, I am well aware of the importance of safeguarding national security and of rigorous protection of the secrecy on which it depends, but that has also reinforced in my mind the importance of distinguishing between that and the protection of the Government's ability to hold discussions. That is a significant point, and it involves issues such as freedom of information and the sort of processes that have occasionally brought to light matters that needed to be brought to light, embarrassing as they were to the Government.
Let me make one last comment on the current situation, since it is germane to the justice and home affairs section of the Queen's Speech debate and to the issues that occupied us yesterday and earlier today in relation to the rights of Members of Parliament and their constituents. We will do ourselves a considerable disservice if we politicise the discussion of how we protect the privileges of Members and their constituents, and of Members and those who bring important information to them. I have detected several dangers in that regard. I have seen no evidence suggesting that Ministers did anything more than press the button of complaint that there were too many leaks going on in their Department, and once that button was pressed processes began, leading ultimately to arrest and a search in this place, which are causing us a great deal of anxiety. If there is evidence to the contrary, that may be disproved, but my initial perception is that, despite what some have speculated, Ministers have not engaged in any more detailed involvement than to say, "Can nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?" To concentrate on actions that Ministers probably did not take unwisely politicises the issue.
Similarly, however, the Government must look very carefully at how they are handling the matter, including the motion that the House will debate on Monday, because if they move to the kind of defensive position I have heard in some of the comments from the Labour Benches and seek to narrow the ability of this House to assert, within proper limits, the privileges and rights on which our constituents depend, we will do a great disservice to Parliament. The House needs to find a way of acting together to assert and protect the right of constituents and others to bring before Parliament matters which Parliament needs to know.
I have an agreement to look after grandchildren from 6 o'clock, so I did not prepare a speech for this debate because I did not think I would be able to be present for the wind-ups, which I know we should be. However, it appears likely that the debate might not last the full course, so I will be able to do my duty both to this House and to the grandchildren.
I would like to discuss certain aspects of the Gracious Speech. The borders, immigration and citizenship Bill will touch on changes to nationality law to implement the new paths to citizenship. I noticed that this morning, The Times mentioned that those who did not achieve citizenship might be sent back. I think that the journalist got it wrong, because he does not seem to understand that once someone has obtained indefinite leave to remain, they cannot just be shoved back to wherever they came from.
I am very committed to the need for immigrants, particularly those who have indefinite leave to remain and those who have not yet reached that stage, to have a grasp of, and ability to use, English. As Chris Huhne, who has now left the Chamber, has said, the best way to provide English for speakers of other languages—ESOL—is through colleges of further education. Unfortunately—I can understand why this happened—various Ministers in the relevant Department decided that the cost of teaching English as a second language was going through the ceiling, and as they were afraid that it might take over the Department, and cuts would have to be made in other areas, they put a cap on ESOL spending.
I accepted that at the time, but I am becoming increasingly anxious about it, because now that people have to have English in order to obtain indefinite leave to remain—and, further down the line, citizenship—there is a growing cottage industry providing certificates so that people can obtain those things. I am not knocking private provision, because some of the private providers of ESOL are perfectly good, charge reasonable amounts and give a good service. Such providers are well organised and give a number of lessons to people, mainly women, who have no English.
Unfortunately, an increasing number of rogue operators are just giving a one-day course. The idea that someone can learn how to use English and obtain knowledge of it in one day is absurd. These rogue operators are charging knock-down prices, and that is putting some of the adequate providers out of business, and putting many of our immigrant communities at risk. People are not learning English on these courses; they are just getting a certificate to say that they have English. That means that young women who live in some communities in my constituency do not know their rights, because they do not know English, and they cannot pass on English to their children before they go to school.
This situation has all sorts of negative aspects, so I am as keen as I always have been for communities to have a good grasp of English. Sadly, many women in my constituency who have been in this country for 30-odd years do not have a word of English. We will never reach any form of integration or cohesion in our northern towns and cities until we have a common language. We should therefore examine the provision of ESOL if we are still going to insist on English for citizenship and indefinite leave to remain.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept, because she knows this only too well, that one of the saddest aspects of this is the fact that some effective courses put on by the trade union movement were the ones that were peremptorily cut. Surely they should be reintroduced, because they are an effective way of reaching people when they most need it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent contribution. As he says, the trade unions were helping a great deal in that respect.
May I touch on the coroners and justice Bill, which Sir Alan Beith has just discussed in great detail? I want to discuss an idea that I have had. I visited Canada with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association about 18 months ago. We met the chief of police for Toronto, who has a great belief in restorative justice, and I believe that, with our prisons bursting, perhaps we ought to consider that idea.
I know that there are existing systems of restorative justice in this country, but I wonder whether we could extend them, because of what we heard from the Toronto police chief. He is very keen on the idea. Restorative justice does not come cheap—it is expensive—but he said that reoffending rates for those who had gone through the restorative justice system were down to 30 or 35 per cent., which is wonderful. That example can be compared with the reoffending rates for those who go to prison, which I think are at about 80 per cent., although I stand to be corrected.
The policing and crime Bill will protect particularly vulnerable members of our society, including women and children. We must start to look at the provision of madrassahs. Anyone can teach in a madrassah without a criminal records check. I have a personal interest, because about a year ago I was invited to join a trust attached to Keighley Cougars rugby league club. The trust provides out-of-school sporting activities, particularly in rugby league, for children, including girls. It makes money and then spends it on the children. I was invited to be a member of that trust, and because it deals with the provision of facilities for children, I had to have a criminal records vetting—and I had to pay for it—even though I never see those children. The Criminal Records Bureau did a check on me and found that I was perfectly all right, but I had to pay for that.
I never come across those children, yet when it comes to the madrassahs in Keighley—some are perfectly satisfactory, some are less so—the people who work in them, who have day-on-day contact with children, because madrassahs usually run six days a week, do not have to undergo a CRB check. We will have to look into that. The madrassahs are growing in number and influence and we must be careful. At the moment, we, as a Government, are discriminating against Muslim children. They do not have the same level of protection as children who go to Brownies, Cubs or Sunday school—in those cases, the people who look after the children must have CRB checks.
Finally, may I just mention the Political Parties and Elections Bill? I am rather concerned because canvassing by local authorities to put people on to electoral registers seems to be really patchy. In some areas, canvassers go knocking door-to-door, people are asked to fill in the form and they are put on the register. Then there are the other areas, such as Bradford. I have never come across a canvasser for the electoral register in the Bradford area. The most basic aspect of our democracy is to get people on to the register. Perhaps the Government ought to encourage local authorities to spend a bit more money on employing canvassers at this time of year, when we are compiling new registers, to ensure that everyone is registered.
The recently introduced system of making postal votes available to everyone is not doing much service for many women in my constituency. Postal votes are obtained for the household and—certainly in my local Pakistani community—Dad fills in the form without reference to his daughters. I have had complaints from such women that they are being excluded from voting because of that system. They have asked me to make the point that the provision of postal votes has become too widespread, and is discriminating against them. We should consider individual registration, which may address many of those problems.
I am sorry that this has been a speech of bits and bobs, but as I said, I had not intended to speak in this debate.
I agree with my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer and her concerns about electoral registration. I have the same problem in my constituency, with postal votes meaning that that ballot is not private in some families, and the people who lose their independence as a result are usually women. In my constituency, we have also seen a corruption of the electoral register, which has been exposed in a legal case and reflects fundamental flaws in the system. The Bill now before Parliament does not take such matters sufficiently seriously.
The main issues that I wish to address have been influenced by what has happened in my constituency in the past 10 days as a series of incidents has shocked the people of Slough. About 100 yds from a poster saying "Slough against knife crime"—the day before I had had my photograph taken in front of it—a woman was murdered and another person seriously wounded with a knife. That was probably related to a domestic incident. A couple of days later, the deputy mayor of Slough was shot, probably with a crossbow. Just a couple of days ago, a woman who was clearing the ice off her car was run over by someone who was trying to steal it.
All those incidents happened within days of each other in my constituency. I can tell my constituents that their chances of being the victim of crime is lower now than at any time in the last 20 years, and that is true—but such incidents make them profoundly fearful about the rarest of crimes. Neighbourhood action groups are an important way for the community to express their concerns about crime to the police, and they are most worried about parking, criminal damage, graffiti and kids hanging about the streets, not the sort of incidents I have described. Those are the issues that get brought up, because they are more common in a community than the more violent ones that I have described, but the latter can create profound fear, and it is important to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to deal with that.
One of the things that would help—this is not a matter for legislation—is faster progress on the outer London allowance for police officers, so that the Metropolitan police stop stealing our officers. I have become a bore about that issue, but it is a serious matter for my constituency.
Another thing that would help is effective punishment when people are convicted of crimes. I was glad to welcome the Justice Secretary and the Home Secretary to my constituency earlier this week. My right hon. Friends came as part of the relaunch of the scheme that means that people who are sentenced to serve community sentences can be seen to be serving them. I am confident that that will mean that instead of 12 young lads leaning on rakes and not doing very much in the local park—I know why they are there, but most of the general public probably think that their taxes are paying for them to be there—they can be made to do something other than lean on their rakes. Effective community sentencing is absolutely critical, but we need to deal with other kinds of sentence too.
I am depressed about the slow progress being made on the Corston report. Women are, overwhelmingly, not violent offenders, yet they are disproportionately sentenced to jail, which is very ineffective in changing their behaviour and rehabilitating them. Jailing a mother is likely to create a future generation of criminals, so I hope that there will be faster progress on that matter in future.
Another crime that we have experienced in Slough over the past year is people trafficking. One of the few convictions in Britain for child trafficking was in my constituency. I am glad that the police and the prosecution authorities took the matter seriously. When I talked to those involved it was clear to me that people trafficking has become the preferred profiteering mechanism for organised crime, over and above drug trafficking. It is more profitable. It is horrifying that a child is worth £100,000 a year to their trafficker for doing nothing more than begging and selling The Big Issue. I am referring to a real case. In a year, the controller of the child made that amount of profit from the child.
We have to bear down more comprehensively and effectively on people trafficking, which is one of the reasons why I was glad to hear of the Home Secretary's commitment to sign the convention very soon. However, we need more effective policing, so I was disappointed to learn that the Metropolitan police, having taken taxpayers' money to open a trafficking policing centre, decided to pocket the money—as far as I could see—and close it again. How were the Metropolitan police able to get away with that? A real issue of accountability is involved. The Queen's Speech talked of improving the accountability of policing, but on a matter on which I believe the whole House is united—
It may help my hon. Friend if I deal with that issue, which was also raised by an Opposition speaker. There was a funding issue in connection with the continuation of the human trafficking unit in the Metropolitan police. However, I am happy to report to the House that it has been resolved for the forthcoming financial year, by agreement, to fund the unit jointly between the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police Service. Meanwhile, an urgent review is being carried out so that future funding is assured.
I am glad to hear that. None the less, the matter raises the issue of the accountability of the Metropolitan police. I shall say more about police accountability because, with respect to the Justice Secretary, it sounds to me as though we have just been experiencing a bit of brinkmanship. The Metropolitan police decided they wanted to up the ante and get a bit more money from the Home Office, so they did what people do when they want more money from their paymasters, and threatened to shut something they really cared about. It sounds to me as if that is what happened, and I am concerned about some of the police accountability proposals in the Queen's Speech, because I think we shall see more of that kind of stuff.
Under the proposed new methods for police accountability, there will be real concern and argument about operational matters—as we saw in the House today—and the police will be constantly looking over their shoulder. There will also be more of the brinkmanship that I described—and I should be grateful for reassurance that that will not happen.
On the general issue of people trafficking, the other group who are most at risk are women trafficked for sexual purposes. One of the reasons why that becomes more possible is the commodification of sex, which has become quite common in a number of areas, two of which the Queen's Speech proposes to deal with—and both of which I profoundly welcome.
The first area is lap dancing. It is extraordinary that the lap-dancing industry can claim that it does not represent sexual-encounter establishments. In my understanding, there is more sexual encounter in a lap-dancing club than in any of the bookshops and sex toy shops that require such a licence. I am very glad indeed that—this is rather late, but it is very welcome—it is proposed to require such premises to be licensed as sexual-encounter establishments. Although quite legal, those establishments profoundly exploit young women, who usually have to pay for the right to work in them, pay for their uniforms and pay for their drinks. As a result, they can end up out of pocket after an evening's work, and their managers deliberately ensure that there are more dancers than customers, in a way that creates gross exploitation of women.
The same kind of context creates the exploitation of women who are being sold for sexual services through prostitution. I am glad that the proposal in the Queen's Speech is to focus not on those women, who are so often victimised, but much more on their customers, and to create a strict liability offence that is parallel to a number of other offences in Britain. If someone is driving with bald tyres, they are committing a strict liability offence. Even if someone did not know that their tyres were bald, it need only be proved that they were driving the car, and that the tyres were bald, to show that they were responsible. Again, if someone employs someone who does not have the right to work, the employer is committing a strict liability offence. In my view, it should be exactly the same, at the least, for prostitution.
I hope that in this case, we do not fall into the trap that some other European countries, such as Finland, have fallen into, where prosecutions have not taken place. I feel that targeting the purchaser is the best way to protect women. I hold that view not because of any piousness about selling sexual services, but because I believe that prostitution, as it is practised, represents a gross example of violence against women. Between 1996 and 2003, 72 women prostitutes were murdered in Britain. Most of them were selling themselves on the street. More have been murdered since. If we enforce the new proposals, it will be a fitting memorial to Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls and Paula Clennell, all of whom were murdered so recently in Ipswich.
We should follow those other countries that have ensured that the target is the purchaser. That is the trend now. Some Opposition Members would suggest that we need to regularise and legalise the whole trade. But in countries that have done that, such as the Netherlands, the trade has grown, and more women are subjected to violence as a consequence. It is no accident that Nevada, which has the most legal prostitution of any state in the United States of America, also has the highest homicide rate for women. But I urge the Home Office, while targeting the punter, to remove the legal offences that women who are in prostitution are prosecuted for. The Government should get rid of the term, "common prostitute". They should get rid of criminal sanctions for soliciting. Women should not be fined or jailed for soliciting, because many of them are controlled. Arguably, they should get rid of the practice of prosecuting two women who work together for brothel-keeping, because in those circumstances, we could put the responsibility where it truly lies. If the logic of the Home Secretary's position is that the responsibility is the client's, exploited women should not be criminalised. If they were not, they would be much more likely to report the violent punters who are every day, in every town, raping, hitting and damaging women in prostitution. Until we can make those women safe, the steps that have been announced are insufficient.
Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a danger that if the Government pass the law on strict liability for the customers of sex workers, that will be all that is done? If the law is not enforced, the whole thing will fail. The lessons to be learned from the police and social services operation in Ipswich, from Pentameter 1 and 2 and from the Met's special unit on trafficking, are that if we put the resources and effort into enforcing the existing laws that make trafficking illegal, we can have an effect. If we simply pass more laws—several speakers this afternoon have talked about the legislative diarrhoea of passing more and more laws but not enforcing them—we will not achieve anything.
If we put effort behind any law, it will work better. That is obvious. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we could do that, but I have spoken to people who are involved in the prostitution scene in Ipswich, and although they have managed effectively to end street prostitution in Ipswich using current laws, and with superhuman effort, they would generally welcome the kind of initiative proposed. They would also welcome greater clarity concerning their ability to target demand, because they have been able to protect women in Ipswich more effectively by focusing on demand.
Those people provided exit support and better nurturing to women who were in prostitution, and helped them to leave prostitution. They used some of the pressure mechanisms that still exist for women who were trying hard to stay in prostitution, but they could have done with more effective powers. That is exactly why countries such as Lithuania, Finland and South Korea have introduced such legislation. In almost every case, the trigger point was women's deaths. In South Korea, 14 women died in a fire in a brothel because the brothel-keeper had locked the doors so that people could not get out from inside, but could get in from outside. The Swedish law that prohibits the purchase of sexual services was introduced following the murder of a woman prostitute. If we followed our partner countries, we could make women safer.
On the immigration proposals in the Bill, I am anxious that the probationary citizenship proposals and the permanent residence proposals that will substitute for the current, fairly clear, route to indefinite leave to remain are much more contingent on certain issues. As a consequence, people might have insecure status for longer, which might allow them to be exploited. I am concerned about that lack of clarity, as clarity has always been a good part of Britain's immigration law compared with other European countries, where people's status might be a bit insecure for rather a long time.
In Britain, it has been fairly clear where such people are on the ladder, and when they have reached a particular point, they have known that they had indefinite leave to remain and that they could apply for citizenship. The new law is much less clear and depends much more on short-term changes in the immigration rules. That will create the kind of insecurity, for communities, that we have previously avoided by the clarity in our immigration law. That would be unwelcome. I would be glad if my anxiety about that could be proved unfounded, and I would like to know what proposals are in train to ensure that people are clear and confident about their status.
I want to finish by making another complaint—I am sorry about that. I welcome the things that we are doing; it is just the details that make me frustrated. My final complaint is about the proposals for the cohesion fund, or whatever it is to be called. It is a surcharge on immigration fees in order to help local communities to deal with the consequences of migration. The local community in Slough is an obvious example of a place that needs such help. We have had a 10 per cent. increase in the birth rate, and we are expecting 11 new primary classes, but we only have the money for two. We could use the whole of the fund, and still need more. That is part of the problem with the fund: it will raise expectations but fail to fulfil them.
There is worse, however. The people who cannot be charged under the proposals are EU citizens, and many of the recent arrivals have been from the EU. Those who will be eligible for the charge are therefore the wives, husbands and children of long-term residents, many of whom are British citizens, who are already paying hundreds of pounds for their visas. A wife will pay more than £1,000 for her visa and application for permanent residence; a child will pay £515. On top of that, there is now to be a surcharge. That action in itself will damage race relations. It will place an unfair burden on our ethnic minority communities, and the tension that already exists between different minorities in Britain will be exacerbated by the charge. I urge the Home Office to think again. I believe that the proposal is well meant, and that it is designed to help places such as Slough to deal with the real challenges that they face, but I do not believe that people have researched its consequences, which could be profoundly damaging to race relations in the town that I represent.
I appreciate having the opportunity to speak at this relatively late hour. Not having heard all the introductory Front-Bench speeches, I shall be circumspect, but I want to make a couple of points nevertheless.
My hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart talked about the trafficking of women for sexual services. I remember having some quite acrimonious correspondence about that with one of my constituents recently. His view was that the proposals were unnecessary, that they represented more ineffective law and that it was wrong to go after the men. I am tempted to send a copy of my hon. Friend's speech to him, so that he can understand the gravity of the situation and the need to do something about this heinous crime, as I described it in my letter to him; that did not go down terribly well, but it was nevertheless my opinion. These activities are too hidden and out of the way, so far as people's general understanding is concerned. Some people think that they do not need to be dealt with, but of course they do.
I want to make a couple of quick observations on the overall perspective of the Queen's Speech, followed by some comments that are pertinent to home affairs and justice. There are some appealing Bills in the Queen's Speech. I very much welcome our attempt to put into a legislative framework our desire to remove child poverty. I am also pleased to see the ongoing rationale for local economic development and community regeneration. I am particularly pleased, as I said to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House in business questions earlier, to see that the marine Bill and the new coastal access arrangements are to be brought into statute. There were those who said that that was never going to happen, and that every Government put such measures on the back burner where they would never see the light of day. I am pleased to see that they are going to see the light of day, and I congratulate the Government in that regard.
It would be helpful if we could make rapid progress on the floods and water Bill, which was the subject of the second part of my question to my right hon. and learned Friend. The Bill should receive early pre-legislative scrutiny so that it does not have to wait the full parliamentary cycle. Some of us have constituents who cannot afford to wait that long.
On home affairs and justice, one is tempted to say, "Here we go again." The Government have legislated regularly on these topics. I shall examine some aspects of the criminal justice system, rather than the legislation per se. Next week is justice week and a number of us will address various justice trade unions on Wednesday to talk about some of the issues that they raise with us. I make no apology for using that as the backcloth for a discussion about where we have got to and some of the concerns that will be expressed to us next week in the context of the trade union approach to justice.
The Police Federation, the National Association of Probation Officers and the Prison Officers Association are important representative bodies that we must take along with us when we make changes. I have been lobbied by a number of them. I would have been lobbied last Friday by Unison about some of the changes to the probation service, but unfortunately it was unable to make the meeting.
My starting point is that there is at least concern across the terrain about some of the budgetary arrangements affecting probation in particular and other aspects of justice. The probation service's budget has stood still for at least a couple of years. There are those who would say, and I cannot disclaim these figures, that there is effectively a 25 per cent. cut. It is good to hear that we still want to use community payback. I may have my views on whether wearing nice DayGlo-coloured uniforms is the best way to get people to behave, but it is important that we recognise that those people are demonstrably working in the community in a way that brings it home to our constituents that there are different forms of justice, besides sending people to prison.
If there are substantial cuts in the probation service budget, one must ask who will supervise community payback and who will ensure that the work undertaken by offenders is properly constituted, measured and scrutinised and that proper outcomes are achieved. This is not to do with legislation per se, but if we do not have the structure of the justice system right, and we do not provide an appropriate budget, it is impossible to pretend that that system can work properly. I raise the issue of the budget and how much money we are spending, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice may want to say something about how the new legislation will pan out if the money is not available to invest properly in that area.
Most of that budget goes on people, because of course it is people who supervise offenders and who work in prisons to keep offenders in prison. Anyone who knows anything about the probation service knows that it is an ageing service. I am told that over the next three years a substantial number of probation officers will retire, which means that even if we are spending money on recruitment, we must spend considerably more to have an impact on the service. We need to recruit appropriately in order to have skilled people to take on the work of those who have retired.
I am talking about the future. We go on about restorative justice and some of the ideas such as community payback. However, those ideas cannot come to fruition if there are not sufficient people to run the services. I take an interest in this issue, and the probation service in my area has been through some turmoil of late. Our acting chief probation officer has just left, and I wish every success to the new one, who starts in January. As I say, there has been turmoil in the service in respect of knowing who is running it.
Again, that is against the background of the National Offender Management Service, and some Labour Members have yet to be convinced that NOMS is the great salvation of the probation service. There is no secret about the fact that most in the probation service still feel belittled at being lumped in with NOMS. Perhaps that was a whizzo managerial idea, but at the end of the day it is the probation officers working on the ground who really make the difference. If there is unhappiness among those staff about NOMS and its structures, we must at least listen to them.
My concluding point is about legislation, budgets and people, and how they can make the future of the criminal justice system even more difficult. It would be good to hear that we are giving a period of stability to the justice system so that at least some of the wider questions had time to be answered and some of the changes that took place in yesteryear could be properly evaluated to see whether they were working. However, the changes can work only if the budgets are in place. I make a plaintive plea—not surprisingly, it is universally welcomed by unions that work in this area—not only for stability, but for a budget to ensure that the changes introduced in the past have time to work through.
As I said, there are difficulties in getting to the bottom of the figures in respect of what we really know about the budgetary expenditure. It would help if there were a debate—an Adjournment debate, perhaps—to look at how the probation service is working within the wider criminal justice system. I hope that we will get clarity. I am not necessarily against change, which may be for the better, but I am against change that cannot work because it does not have the allied expenditure to ensure that there is forward movement, so that there is better provision and offenders are properly treated and so that our constituents know that the criminal justice system is getting better. We have to invest in the service to ensure that that is the case.
I shall not keep the House for too long, but I would like to comment on a number of aspects relating to this afternoon's theme and the Gracious Speech.
I estimate that 55 to 60 per cent. of my casework relates to asylum, refugee and immigration issues. That is quite a heavy burden. My assistant, who has been with me since I was elected to this House nearly 17 years ago, has worked miracles with the Home Office on behalf of many constituents. I pay tribute to him, because it has been a big burden and our successes in breaking through red tape and so on are often rewarding. Like so many other hon. Members' assistants, my assistant Carl Morris does much of the nitty-gritty work, and I acknowledge that now in the House.
It frustrates those of us with a high ratio of such work when we still see the bureaucracy, inertia and inefficiency of the Border and Immigration Agency on a number of issues. For balance, I want to say that things have improved. I welcome the fact that for some time now we have had a uniformed border and immigration service. That has had an enormous impact. I still think that we should beef it up into a proper border police force, but I am grateful for the current position, which is a marked improvement.
However, there is still a long way to go. I urge the Justice Secretary to use his good offices to put pressure on Whitehall for better performance, because there is room for enormous improvement in several respects. Earlier today, my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart put in a bid, which I would like to endorse, in relation to one particular group—Zimbabwean refugees. It is plain common sense and in the interests of everyone that this group should be allowed to work—I would go on to say that other groups should be given that right—and I would have thought that that could be done with the stroke of a pen. No doubt somebody in Whitehall would find 1,000 reasons why it should not be done, but the Justice Secretary has been in office for long enough to say, "Thank you very much, Sir Humphrey. I hear what you say—now this is what we're going to do."
My hon. Friend suggests that other pleas could be made, so may I make a plea for Darfuri asylum seekers? They also face a difficult time in this country, particularly because until recently it has not been unknown for them to be interviewed with members of the Sudanese embassy present, which, with the best will in the world, is not necessarily what they would like to happen.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that and pleased that I gave way to him, because my theme is that the situation needs to be continually monitored by Ministers and that common sense should prevail. The Zimbabwean case is overwhelming. However, there are other groups of people who have no realistic prospect of being able to return to their countries but face enormous emotional strain in trying to maintain themselves. I do not want to do any injustice to those very vulnerable groups, but the potential for their carrying out petty crime therefore increases, because they have to survive. I urge the Justice Secretary to tell the House that he will revisit this matter and do what he can to ensure that common sense prevails. It would be in the interests of the United Kingdom, as regards our economy and given the pressures on our social services and welfare expenditure, if they were allowed to work.
I hope that the Justice Secretary will speak to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about some of the arrangements that are in place. In an overwhelming majority of United Kingdom high commissions and embassies, the quality of the method by which people are processed is very high. However, in one or two instances there are locally engaged companies—private firms of security guards and so on—who do not treat people who have gone to consulates appropriately. In some exceptional circumstances, I have deep anxiety about their propriety and conduct. Our high commissioners and ambassadors should be reminded to probe and test that which often happens outside the precincts of their offices, where people are queuing up, to ensure that there are no irregularities and that United Kingdom citizens who are not white are nevertheless treated as United Kingdom citizens. People are sometimes treated in a discriminatory way, not by FCO officials but by those who are employed to marshal the people queuing up to go in. I make these comments in the context of the borders, immigration and citizenship Bill and the draft immigration simplification Bill.
The Justice Secretary knows that when he was Foreign Secretary I repeatedly pleaded for the United Kingdom to have a mission in Kyrgyzstan. That is relevant because the United Kingdom was recently substantially embarrassed by the fact that its officials in Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan, failed to process an application for visas by musicians and performers who had been invited to the United Kingdom by the ambassador of Kyrgyzstan. That was disgraceful and is indicative of the fact that we do not have a proper mission in the capital of Kyrgyzstan. We should have, for a whole variety of reasons, and when we become clumsy in that way, the point I have repeatedly made is underscored.
The Justice Secretary might reflect on one thing when these Bills are being drafted and prepared. When my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett was Home Secretary, he introduced legislation that dignified the award of United Kingdom citizenship, which was an extremely good thing. Provision was made largely for civic dignitaries, such as the mayor of a council, to award citizenship at a ceremony. I am somewhat jealous about that. Hon. Members—perhaps including you, Madam Deputy Speaker—have actually sponsored, counselled and encouraged people to get British citizenship. I would like the honour of administering or presiding over such a ceremony, and perhaps legislation could be amended, if that is necessary, to include hon. Members in the list of people who can do that. It is with immense pride that we have achieved this outcome, and why should some here today, gone tomorrow mayor—although some are very good—have the right to make the award when some of us have seen the process through to that point?
The hon. Gentleman may need to talk to his local authority about that because I certainly have officiated at a large number of those ceremonies in my constituency. He talks about providing asylum seekers with a right to work, which is an important point. Will he also consider whether they should be allowed to volunteer as well?
Of course. I totally endorse what the hon. Gentleman says.
I am pleased to see my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer in her place. I listened carefully to what she said about the madrassahs and clearance checks. I want to say how right she is, and I think that most hon. Members would agree. It is an act of appalling discrimination that these centres are somehow exempt—they are not exempt in law, but nobody is homing in on the problem. That takes place against a backdrop of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and many other ministries being very conscious of the issue. The Church of England has a new code dealing with vicarages and rectories. There has to be separate meeting room space, and it refers to the question of propriety and how people are dealt with or accompanied, plus the checks to which my hon. Friend referred. It is intolerable—in the sense that days shall pass from now—that there is no use of the existing law in respect of those madrassahs. The overriding issue is that children are vulnerable, but the situation is also grossly unfair to the boy scouts and the various churches and organisations that have addressed the problem. I hope that the Justice Secretary will take that matter on.
On political parties and elections, the Labour Government have tried, with a lot of good intent, to improve our electoral administration, but in many cases we have made things more complicated. Some of us are very disappointed in the performance of the Electoral Commission, and I notice that in the remaining orders and notices, there is a motion to pay the chairman of the Electoral Commission £100,000 a year. I am waiting for that motion to come up—I have watched out for it every day—because I intend to divide the House on the matter. Frankly, I think that £100,000 a year is far too much money. Even if it is a full-time job, that is too much, but I suspect that if we looked at the small print, we would find that it is one of these jobs that take two or three days a week. I would like the Government to reflect on the fact that £100,000 is far too much. I do not want to labour the point, but it is too much, and I am saying, so that everyone knows, that I will divide the House on the matter if I get the opportunity, and I hope that I command some support.
The list of draft Bills contains a measure on floods and water. I represent Tilbury, which is part of the Thames Gateway, where the Government are properly hoping for and looking to regeneration, quality places for people to live and work, and the creation of skills, especially in my borough of Thurrock. I fully endorse that, but not at any price.
Anybody who is familiar with the terrain knows that Tilbury was built on the marshes of the Thames. Irish labourers in the 19th century cut the docks and I would describe Tilbury town as Lowry-esque. It has great attraction—we are proud of its traditional docks, which have provided work for more than 120 years. However, between the town and Chadwell St. Mary lies part of the Thames marsh, which fulfils traditional green belt policy. It is a lung and it is attractive against the Lowry-esque landscape. People covet that land and I want to make it clear that Andrew Mackinlay does not support its development. It is vital to the people of Tilbury and Chadwell St. Mary in my borough. Although I support the broad programme of development, I will not support building on that land for a variety of reasons—the green belt, questions of flooding and irrigation, and compelling water engineering issues. I hope that I would get the Secretary of State's support if there were an appeal.
I note that there is also a draft communications data Bill. It appears to be primarily designed to regularise matters or provide for the state to marshal information. [Interruption.] I am told that it is dead. That is disappointing. In any event, my point is that the Justice Secretary, who has overall responsibility for data protection and freedom of information, needs to revisit that in the context of Whitehall. I sent data protection applications across Whitehall—to every Ministry—in the summer for good reasons. In my applications, I asked for disclosure of anything held on me in relation to my work as a Member of Parliament. That is important—I would not raise the matter if it were purely personal. I wanted to know what the Ministries held.
Conduct and stewardship of those applications by Ministries was patchy. Some were good and diligent, but others wrote back saying, "I don't know who you are." Although I applied on House of Commons headed paper and included a photostat of my passport, some insisted that they did not know who I was.
There is also a disparity between Departments on charging. There is a power to charge a nominal amount—I do not mind that, but the disparity is not good. There should be consistency across government. In some cases, getting the information was like extracting teeth from a whale.
The worst performer to date is the Cabinet Secretary—I think that his name is Macdonald. He has not replied, despite the 40-day limit. If the Cabinet Secretary cannot get it right, how can we expect proper action down the pyramid and across Whitehall?
I raise the matter not for myself but for all the others who have submitted applications under the Data Protection Act 1998, which the Justice Secretary piloted through the House when he was Home Secretary, and of which he can justifiably be proud. It is inconsistently applied and needs beefing up. All I ask today is that he examine the matter because amending legislation might be required, but I think that people need a rocket put under them, starting with the Cabinet Secretary.
Yesterday we saw the Lord Chancellor, in all his finery, skilfully walking backwards, which he did most expertly. That was entirely appropriate, because retreat has been the story of the Prime Minister's programme on constitutional renewal.
Back in July last year, when the new Prime Minister made his first statement to the House, he promised a
"national debate...founded on the conviction that the best answer to disengagement from our democracy is to strengthen our democracy."—[ Hansard, 3 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 819.]
Constitutional change was not peripheral to the Government's agenda; it was central to their programme—"founded on...conviction". That conviction cannot have been very profound, because just 18 months later, the constitutional agenda has all but disappeared. It has become clear that the Prime Minister had no great vision of a new settlement, just the immediate political challenge of dissociating himself from his predecessor.
The Prime Minister soon discovered that just repeating the word "renewal" did not renew anything, least of all his reputation. The work of change did not work, so spin doctors were fired and a new purpose was sought. Now the Prime Minister has found a different posture, on the global stage—"Never mind British democratic renewal; it's time to save the world." A supposed programme for long-term constitutional change has now been cast aside in a second, desperate attempt to establish a new narrative.
What we are left with is neither reform nor renewal, just tinkering. Eighteen months on from the grand promise, we do not even have a proper constitutional renewal Bill, just an ongoing draft Bill, with an indication that the real thing will be introduced when time allows, and we all know what that means. The Prime Minister said:
"Constitutional change will not be the work of just one Bill or one year or one Parliament".—[ Hansard, 3 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 815.]
Now we know what he meant. At this rate, we will not see a constitutional renewal Bill until the next Parliament. We are left with a few draft measures that are worthy enough in their own right, but completely inadequate to address the real problems of public disengagement and imbalance in our political system.
Last year, the Justice Secretary told us:
"I hope that a consensus can be achieved on the constitutional renewal Bill".—[ Hansard, 7 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 148.]
However, he cannot even find consensus among those on his own Benches. His predecessor, Lord Falconer, said that the Bill was not so much constitutional renewal as constitutional retreat. The Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which was chaired by the right hon. Gentleman's colleague, Michael Jabez Foster, said:
"it is difficult to discern the principles underpinning it,"
which is a polite way of saying, "It's a dog's breakfast." More than one commentator has described the Bill as a miscellaneous provisions Bill. Professor Adam Tomkins of the university of Glasgow told the Joint Committee that
"to call this Bill a Constitutional Renewal Bill is an exaggeration...of both the terms 'constitutional' and...'renewal'."
The Bill contains some worthwhile measures, among them the repeal of sections of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which has seen people arrested for reading out the names of the dead at the Cenotaph, but which can apparently do nothing about the permanent encampment that has taken root in Parliament square. Citizens should not have to petition the police for the right to make themselves heard by Parliament. After all, it was the Prime Minister who said last October:
"we can start immediately to make changes in our constitution and laws to safeguard and extend the liberties of our citizens,"
"respecting and extending freedom of assembly".
With the constitutional renewal Bill still only in draft form, will the Government consider including the provision to deal with the issue of protests in Parliament square in the policing and crime Bill instead, which is at least a real Bill and will be introduced in this Session? Perhaps the Metropolitan police do, after all, have enough to do at Westminster.
The Justice Secretary is in full constitutional retreat. Last year, he promised to publish a Bill of rights and responsibilities. He travelled round the world talking about it. He delivered learned speeches to academic audiences. He even flew to Washington to tell the new world that he was going to modernise the Magna Carta. Only new Labour could utter that phrase with no sense of irony or endorse its revolting suggestion that all our ancient rights need is a makeover from a spin doctor.
What has happened to the Bill of Rights? The Justice Secretary's constitutional adviser, Lord Lester, has resigned, saying that the Government's proposals are unworkable. Since none of us has seen the proposals, it is hard to know. Where is the statement of British values? When does the Justice Secretary plan to publish it—on the new British day, perhaps? Last March, the Prime Minister said, "Today"—I emphasise the word "today"—the
"Secretary for Justice is consulting throughout the country on a statement of values and on the case for a full British bill of rights".
After nine months, will the Justice Secretary say how his consultation throughout the country is going? He cannot, of course, because it has not happened.
The Prime Minister said last year that the consultation would begin "in the autumn". In October last year, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Mr. Wills, told the House that he would "shortly be announcing" it. In November, he said that work was "still under way". By February this year, he claimed that the Government were "about to launch" it; then he said it was launching "before Easter". After Easter, they were still "finalising the process". In May this year, the Justice Secretary said he would be making an announcement "before the summer recess". The build-up to the statement of values is acquiring a tantric quality. The question must be asked how much value the Government believe this statement of values still has. [Interruption.] I am glad the Home Secretary understood the reference.
During the debate on last year's Queen's Speech, the Justice Secretary promised us
"All the changes that...the Prime Minister...set out in his historic, first statement".—[ Hansard, 7 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 146.]
So let us have a look at that historic first statement.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly since he was getting into some splendid references to tantric flying and all the rest of it. I wonder about his own position on one particular issue—the British Bill of Rights. Does he agree that a British definition of rights would inevitably call into question our commitment to universal human rights, which we are about to celebrate on
No, I disagree. We will all celebrate the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights next week because it was surely a landmark document. It is common ground throughout the House that there is no intention to resile from the European convention, although there is a difference between the Opposition and the Government, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman, about whether a British Bill of Rights should replace the Human Rights Act 1998 or be added to it. I do not see any of the problems that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
On the question of the Bill of Rights proposed by the Justice Secretary some time ago, I cannot help feeling that what we want is a reaffirmation of the existing Bill of Rights of 1689 and a reminder to Members of Parliament about the importance of article 9. Under article 9, to quote the previous Clerk, Parliament has "comity with the courts". I remember being laughed at when I said that this was the High Court of Parliament, but the Clerk mentioned comity and no Metropolitan police officer would go messing around in the chambers of a court. We are a court, so everyone needs jealously to safeguard article 9—and I would hope to have a little teach-in for all MPs about its importance and enduring value.
Further to that comment and that of Chris Huhne, does my hon. Friend agree that the notion of universal human rights is nonsense? It is simply the accretion of the rights that we have in this country—rights that have been won for us by many generations in the past. That is why we hold those rights so firmly to our hearts. Those are the rights that we are debating now and have been debating over the last 48 hours. It is for that reason that this party has traditionally not wanted to codify a Bill of Rights; and it has certainly always looked askance at the notion of the declaration of universal human rights.
My hon. Friend sounds as though he might be a fan of Bentham, who described the idea of natural rights as "nonsense upon stilts". I nevertheless believe that the universal declaration has immensely important symbolic value, conceived as it was in the aftermath of war and genocide as a symbol of the determination of the United Nations to ensure that never again should such atrocities take place. The issue for us is to work out whether the current discourse on human rights is devaluing the concept of those great rights that were talked about at that time.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because he has made precisely the point under discussion. He clearly understands the importance of the universal declaration as Eleanor Roosevelt championed it—that is, precisely in the wake of the holocaust and the genocide, no society should ever again be able to take some of its own citizens and say, "You do not have rights that the rest of us have." That is why it is so dangerous to talk about British rights when we should be talking about human rights.
The hon. Gentleman might be aware that both sides are talking about not just British rights, but British rights and responsibilities. As we will continue to remain a party to the European convention and as we will remain subscribed to the universal declaration, I do not see that there will be any problem of the kind he sees with a British Bill of Rights and responsibilities better to clarify rights and responsibilities as they apply directly in our legal system.
I was talking about the Prime Minister's first historic statement on constitutional change and the helpful publication by the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor of a scorecard to show how the Government are getting on with that. The Prime Minister identified 12 important areas in which the Executive will surrender or limit their powers. The first was
"the power of the Executive to declare war".
The Justice Secretary says that
"a draft resolution was published in the Constitutional Renewal White Paper",
"currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee".
So, let us put that one down as not done.
Secondly, the Prime Minister referred to
"the power to request the dissolution of Parliament".
The Justice Secretary says that
"the proposal is subject to ongoing enquiry".
Again, it is pending. But I think that I can make him this offer on behalf of my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron: if the Government want to request a dissolution, I guarantee that the Conservative party will support them.
Thirdly, the Prime Minister referred to
"the power...to ratify international treaties".
That is in the still-in-draft Bill on constitutional renewal. Fourthly, he referred to
"the power to restrict parliamentary oversight of our intelligence services".
The Justice Secretary says that reform is
"in progress...the Government proposes to seek parliamentary endorsement of these proposals".
So that is another not done.
Fifthly, the Prime Minister referred to
"power in the appointment of judges".
That has gone down with the Bill on constitutional renewal as well. Sixthly, he referred to powers over the granting of passports and said that the Government would announce the timetable on that in due course. Seventhly, he referred to powers over
"the granting of pardons."
A consultation paper has been issued. Eighthly, he referred to
"power to direct prosecutors"—
stalled. Ninthly, he referred to
"power over the civil service".—[ Hansard, 3 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 815-16.]
That has been arrested. Nine broken promises, and we are in only the third paragraph. Is that what the Prime Minister meant when he talked yesterday about "change you can believe in"?
The Justice Secretary went on:
"New rights for the British public to be consulted through 'citizens' juries'".
Perhaps he can tell us how many citizens juries his Department has held? I can tell him—none.
Of course, I must be fair about the promises that the Government delivered on: a discussion paper on electoral systems, consultations on weekend elections and lowering the voting age, and consultations on when the Union flag might be flown. The Justice Secretary is mistaking the publication of consultation documents for delivery. What we need is action—action to give citizens and communities real power over the issues that matter; action to address the West Lothian question; action to restore the integrity of the vote; and action to stop Ministers walking all over Parliament, because for all his talk about strengthening Parliament, this Prime Minister's actions show little but contempt for Parliament and determination to maintain control: expanding the payroll vote, so that almost half his parliamentary party hold a paid or unpaid post in the gift of the Prime Minister.
There are now 121 Ministers. We had only 74 when we were fighting the second world war. Answers to parliamentary questions are given to friendly journalists before MPs have had a chance to read them. Announcements are trailed in the media before the House is informed and there is routine programming of Bills. With that in mind, when the Government's draft legislative programme was published, we were told that there would be a coroners Bill and a victims and witnesses Bill. Instead, they will now be squeezed into one. I know that the Justice Secretary is serious about parliamentary scrutiny, so could he answer this? Will there be adequate time to scrutinise both parts of this Bill, given that proceedings on recent criminal justice Bills have been disgracefully truncated, particularly on Report? We were barely able to debate whole sections of the last criminal justice Bill.
There are aspects of the Bill that we support. We welcome reform of the homicide laws and of the law on infanticide, and I am glad that we have finally had some movement on reform of the coroners system. Last year I said that the Bill was dead on arrival. It now seems to have made a miraculous recovery.
A brief about the coroners and justice Bill has fallen into my hands. It appears to have been produced for the parliamentary Labour party. I dare say that it has been leaked. No doubt an immediate inquiry will be launched. Perhaps the police will want to interview me, although of course the right hon. Gentleman would claim no knowledge of that. I know that Labour resources are low but the right hon. Gentleman might be concerned about the quality of the briefing. It says:
"The Bill introduces a scheme to prevent criminals profiting from exploiting the conservatives of their crimes."
I was not aware that the Conservative party was the victim of criminals, but we are very grateful for the Labour party's fraternal support.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield noted that, in October, the Government sensibly withdrew proposals in the Counter-Terrorism Bill that would have allowed Ministers to remove coroners and juries from inquests where the Minister deemed it in the public interest. That provision was far too broadly drawn and I hope that the Justice Secretary will assure us that he will not attempt to bring it back in the Bill.
Our co-operation on emergency legislation, including allowing evidence from anonymous witnesses in court, was predicated on the inclusion of a sunset clause, and an explicit undertaking was given that the issue would be revisited. We therefore welcome the confirmation that the Government will revisit the measures in the Bill and the Justice Secretary has already helpfully written to me to explain their current thinking on the issue. We will of course co-operate fully to ensure that that legislation is properly brought on to the statute book on a permanent basis.
It is entirely right also that we strengthen the powers of the Information Commissioner. The past year has highlighted the cavalier attitude within Government to the handling of personal data and the House will not need reminding that the Government have lost the details of very nearly every parent in the country, of many RAF veterans and of prison officers. Indeed during the passage of the last criminal justice Bill, we advocated—in line with a suggestion by the Information Commissioner—criminal penalties for the loss of personal data. The Government did not feel able to support us then; perhaps they will now.
It is remarkable that a Government who have such a shocking inability to retain people's data should be so eager to amass yet more. So while there will also be situations in which it is right to share data or where the sharing of data can better enable delivery of public services, we will want reassurance that measures to increase the Secretary of State's powers to compel data sharing and to remove any unnecessary obstacles will not grant Ministers the power to create a database state by stealth.
As well as ideas that we welcome, there are some that we are pleased to see the back of. The Gracious Speech confirms that the Government's proposals outlined this time last year for a sentencing commission will not be taken forward. The mechanism that Lord Carter advocated—a grid system for courts that would link resources to sentencing—would have seriously undermined judicial discretion. I am glad to say that the proposal, which almost nobody thought was sensible, has been ditched. Instead we have the downgraded proposal of a sentencing council; another retreat. We will closely scrutinise the remit and powers of the new body to ensure that it brings advantages and in no way undermines the autonomy of judges and magistrates to apply appropriate sentences.
In May, the Government told us that there would be a law reform, victims and witnesses Bill. Now those words have disappeared from the title of the justice Bill. I hope that that will not reflect any downgrading of the importance of promoting the interests of the victims of crime. The Government say that the Bill will deliver a more "effective and transparent" justice service for victims. We hope so, but the Government's record hardly inspires confidence. An effective justice service would include an efficient and well-administered compensation scheme for victims, but last month the Public Accounts Committee reported that two thirds of victims of violent crime are unaware of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and only one in 20 even apply for compensation. That was the second serious indictment of the authority's failures by the Public Accounts Committee in eight years. Nothing has happened, so what will this Bill do about a victim compensation scheme that is not working?
An effective justice service for victims would mean prisoners serving the sentences handed down to them by the courts—not being released automatically at the halfway mark and then being rewarded with an extra 18 days off because Ministers failed to plan for adequate prison capacity. Victims of crime need real support, but unless they are a witness needing anonymity what will this proposed legislation do for them? Will there be measures to improve the court process for victims, which we all know can be traumatic? What about the victims of crimes committed by offenders on bail? After a string of cases earlier this year where victims were murdered by suspects on bail, we announced proposals to tighten the law. The Prime Minister seemed to agree, but the Justice Secretary was silent. Finally, he announced in June a consultation on limited changes to the law, but there has been nothing since then. Will he bring forward proposals to tighten the bail laws, or not? Will that be another retreat? If the Government truly care about victims, why has no one been appointed as a victims commissioner, five and a half years after they announced that there would be one? If they care about victims, why do they continue to release prisoners early when they know that some of them will create new victims when they should have been safely behind bars? At least 800 such offences have been committed, including one murder and two more alleged murders.
When the Ministry of Justice was created 18 months ago we were promised a new approach: joined-up offender management and clear leadership. Instead, we have lurched from the scandal of early release to the fiasco of C-NOMIS, and from the daily crisis of prison overcrowding to the loss of prison officers' names and addresses. In place of a coherent long-term programme of reform, we have a series of gimmicks and short-term initiatives. What about the prison ship that the Justice Secretary promised—and told The Sun a year ago that he was personally in talks with the Dutch Government about? Where is this ghost ship? Perhaps his Government did not need it in the end; they chose to release 40,000 criminals early instead. Then he gave a speech calling for more punishment. That was just after he had passed legislation giving tagged criminals more time off their sentence for days they spent at home in bed.
Then there was another announcement, just this week: coloured bibs for offenders serving community sentences. Quite right, too, but it has taken Ministers years to deliver on that repeated promise; and, like this Government's modest constitutional changes, it is worthy but inadequate. Putting offenders in branded bibs can only be one element of a serious plan to make community sentences more effective. It will not change the fact that a third of community sentences are not even completed and one in 10 offenders commit another crime while serving their sentence. The tragedy is that by failing to rehabilitate offenders this Government are creating a new generation of victims.
It is the Conservative party who are now showing that we have the progressive vision to reform prisons and turn around our criminal justice system, and so make Britain a safer place. We are the ones who are talking about a rehabilitation revolution to reduce reoffending. We are the ones talking about unlocking the voluntary sector to help prisoners get off drugs, into accommodation and back into work. We are the ones with a serious plan to reduce the growth in prison population without letting offenders out early.
By contrast, the Government, who spoke of renewal just 18 months ago, have fallen back on Tony Blair's trademark eye-catching initiatives: short-term policies to mask the absence of long-term strategy. Their first phase of reforms was too often partisan if not in aim, as the need for change was sometimes real, then in practice. However, as the Justice Secretary has said, the constitution does not belong to a single political party. Too often, this Government have pulled blindly at the wires of Britain's constitutional settlement, careless of what they might disconnect. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman continues to hold the office of Lord Chancellor in spite of Tony Blair's overnight attempt to abolish the post is evidence of that. We desperately need a new politics where public trust can be rebuilt and power is returned to the people, to whom it belongs. We need a radical agenda of constitutional change to devolve decision making and power to individuals and communities, to enhance accountability and to strengthen the role of Parliament. Mending Britain's broken politics cannot be done by a Government who promise renewal and then abandon it, and it cannot be done by meagre parliamentary Bills, still less by Bills that remain only in draft form. Real change will not come from this Queen's Speech; it will come in one way alone—by a change of Government.
This has been an interesting and unexpectedly lively debate. I am pleased to say that three Conservative Back Benchers were able to speak, but that rather more spoke from the Government Benches. [Interruption.] Well, it is unwise to make charges at the beginning of the debate.
I enjoyed the speech made by Nick Herbert; it must have been the first time that the adjective "tantric" has been worked into a debate on the rather solemn and sober matter of crime and justice. I am grateful to him for his approbation for my second outing in the other place: walking backwards twice in front of Her Majesty. [Interruption.] I am also grateful for that sedentary comment that I looked marvellous. That is what the Home Secretary also said to me, and I shall tell my mother. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman's claims at the end of his tantric remarks that all would be much improved were there to be a Conservative Government would be slightly more credible were the experience of previous Conservative Governments to be in that direction—the simple fact is that it is not.
I brought this book out earlier, and it is well worth reading—copies are available in the Library, as well as on my bookshelf. I am talking about the 1994 conservative party campaign guide. It is a wonderful source of information, and it makes a central point on pages 413 and 414. The book dates from the time when luminaries such as the shadow Chancellor, Mr. Osborne, and the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Cameron, were fully involved in the Conservative party as advisers or researchers; they were almost certainly writing this book.
The Conservatives were pointing out on those pages, with glowing self-praise, the great value that the party had brought to a wider understanding of crime figures by the then Government's establishment of the British crime survey in 1981. They said:
"Unlike the figures for recorded crime, which show the number of crimes reported to the police, the BCS endeavours to build up an accurate picture of the number of crimes actually committed."
They then apologetically said:
"Inevitably, the BCS shows that more crimes are committed than are actually reported to the police".
I ask my hon. Friends, because sometimes this is disputed, to note the second tire, which says:
"While recorded crime doubled between 1981 and 1991, the BCS shows that the actual number of crimes committed rose by...50 per cent."
So, that is all right then.
During the Conservatives' 18 years in office, crime rose by 50 per cent. [Interruption.] Mr. Robathan, the deputy Chief Whip, ought to know that on becoming a Whip he takes not tantric vows—we will tread lightly on that one—but Trappist vows, and he ought not to make interventions. I think that he is paid, unlike any of his Front-Bench colleagues; that was a matter of great resentment when I was doing a proper job on the Opposition Front Bench and remaining silent. I am perfectly willing to concede to him that the BCS and, I believe, the recorded crime figures showed that something of a reduction in crime took place between 1995 and 1997, provided he is willing to concede to Labour Members that the same BCS that the Conservatives established has shown that since 1997 there has been not a 2 or 3 per cent. reduction in crime, but a 32 per cent. reduction. That is paralleled by reductions in recorded crime, too.
Mr. Grieve mentioned violent crime and, as his right hon. Friend the Leader for the Opposition sometimes does, he said expansively that violent crime had doubled in the past 11 and a half years. In 1998, I was presented with a submission that, I suspect, had been around the Home Office for many years. The officials, quite properly, could not tell me that, but it seemed to me to be of an antique nature. The submission stated that the recorded crime figures as they then were did not properly present what was going on locally in reports to the police of crimes that had been occurring in those areas.
A number of proposals were made to me for changing the way in which recorded crime figures were reported and recorded. The consequence of that statistical change, in some series, would have been an 80 per cent. increase in the level of offences recorded—and that was what happened. Against the advice of some people in the Government—I am unrepentant about this—and because I have always been committed to integrity in official statistics, as the record shows, I said that we ought to make the changes, notwithstanding the fact that much mischief would be made with claims that we were increasing crime, which we were not.
A consequence of the change was that common assaults were included within the figures for violent crime as recorded crime. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows well, such assaults are not only common in description but are the most common offence of violence. The result of the change and of another change in the national crime recording standards has been an increase in the numbers of crimes of violence that are recorded by 100 per cent. That does not in any way represent an increase in the level of violent crime taking place in our society. Proper debate cannot take place unless Opposition parties, as well as Government, are willing to recognise the reality behind the statistics as well as making the kind of points that they do.
I hope that the Secretary of State will bear in mind what I said about the need for a mature debate. I come back to what Sir David Normington said in his letter to the Home Secretary of November 2008:
"In view of the fact that more serious violence has not reduced in the way that we would have wanted in recent years, and that these offences cause the most harm to individual victims and to society as a whole, our long-term strategy on violence focuses on seriousness. This includes homicides, serious wounding and serious sexual offences such as rape. Recorded crime statistics do indicate that despite recent falls, the levels of the most serious violence are higher than they were ten years ago."
[ Interruption. ] The Home Secretary is right to say from a sedentary position that that was not a letter to her—it was a briefing document.
I was going on to say two things. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would be the first to acknowledge that we are not suggesting that there are no changes upwards as well as changes downwards in an overall series. There have been, for example, worrying concerns in some parts of the country about rises in knife crime—there is certainly greater community concern about that matter—and about gun crime. My right hon. Friend does not sit on her hands, but introduces changes and improvements with the police. Those measures are now working to show that those levels of crime are going down.
Before I make my main point on the issue of statistics, I want to draw the attention of the House to something else that I have noticed as I go around the country. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was with me this time last week when we were listening to an interesting presentation in north Leeds, in west Yorkshire—in Calverley. I have noticed that Opposition Members are happy to take the credit locally on behalf of the police or local Conservative councils, and I have noticed this in my constituency, too, for the fact that crime has come down across the country—
They publish it everywhere.
As my hon. Friend says, they publish it everywhere.
If that is the case, as it is in both Opposition Front Benchers' constituencies—crime has decreased in Beaconsfield by 6 per cent. between 2002-03 and this year, and by 9 per cent. in Arundel—the aggregate must also show a similar pattern of crime coming down, not going up.
The point was made by Chris Huhne that we should ensure that the British crime survey and the recorded crime statistics are regarded as national statistics under the control of the national statistician and nothing to do with Ministers. They are national statistics and they are under the control— [ Interruption. ] They are fully under the control of the national statistician. I have checked that point, not with the Home Office—not that I distrust the Home Office in any sense—but with the oracle, the House of Commons statistician. I wanted to be absolutely sure that those statistics are official statistics under the control of the national statistician.
In answer to a further question raised by the hon. Member for Eastleigh and by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, the United Kingdom Statistics Authority—I am proud to say that I had a great deal to do with the establishment of that entirely independent body and that it is one of our many major constitutional reforms—is studying barriers to trust in crime statistics as part of its 2008-09 programme. It is considering precisely the issue that concerns all of us. Notwithstanding the fact that the data are robust, there is a sense in the country that crime is going up and not down. That should be of concern to all parties, especially those that aspire to government.
The reality is, as everybody knows, that the Office for National Statistics reviews the figures, but it is not directly responsible for them as it is, for example, for the census or other figures. That is the key distinction. If the Government want to put trust back into those figures, the ONS must be given direct responsibility for them.
We are dancing on the head of a pin. The census is sui generic; it is conducted by the national statistician, for obvious reasons. When monetary data are collected for the purpose of producing national statistics, the ONS has to go to others to collect the data, and it then has to validate them. That also happens with crime statistics. The British crime survey does not have to depend on the intermediation of police authorities. There are issues with the recording of some crimes, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has addressed them. Such issues will continue to arise, so the more robust we make the system the better. I addressed those issues as Home Secretary, as did my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett, and little thanks have we had, because the numbers for recorded crimes went up, not down.
I shall briefly run through the issues raised by hon. Members in the debate and then make some more detailed remarks, especially in response to Mr. Walker and David Davis both raised the issue of the Marper judgment in the European Court of Human Rights, and I will come back to that.
I apologise for not being in my place for the speech by Mr. Field, although I saw some of it, and he raised several wider issues about the economy and matters of profound concern to his constituents, as well as to the major financial institutions in his constituency. I will personally draw his speech to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor so that he can make reference to it when he responds in the economic debate.
Sir Alan Beith made several points about the coroners Bill. I understand that he also suggested national funding for the coronial system, and again I apologise for not being here for the major portion of his speech. I understand the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, because two Bills have been put into one, but they are still effectively two Bills, and the new Bill will do the same job as the two Bills would have done. I shall deal with the issue of parliamentary time as some important points were made.
Our view is that it is better to leave the funding and appointment of coroners as it is, not least because, although some changes are taking place, local authorities are attached to the idea that they play a role in the appointment of their coroners. There is no great demand for changing that aspect of the system and my view is if it ain't broke, don't change it.
Mr. Ellwood and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield raised the issue of piracy. The law on piracy has not changed. Piracy on the high seas used to be a capital offence, and under the Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Act 1997, which made the law of nations the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, it is still a serious one, with a maximum penalty of life. The hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that our Royal Navy officers might be impeded in arresting people committing piracy on the high seas because such alleged pirates could apply for asylum. People can apply for anything they want, but they would not be given asylum. Article 1F of the 1951 refugee convention states that it does not apply to a person
"with respect to whom there are serious reasons for considering that...he has committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to his admission to that country as a refugee".
There is no question about the matter. Pirates could not conceivably have an application for asylum entertained. However, I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence writes, either directly or through me, to both Members in more detail about the matter.
The Secretary of State does not need to write to me; he needs to write to the Navy and members of our armed forces, who need clarification. Despite all the Jack Sparrow films, piracy is not glamorous; it is an act of war. In an act of war, the armed forces are allowed to shoot at pirates, but if it is not an act of war but a criminal act, they are not allowed to shoot at them. The Navy is struggling with that confusion, which is why we need clarification from the Secretary of State.
That point runs into the whole issue of rules of engagement, but I will follow it up.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer and Mr. Oaten, who are both in the Chamber, and I held discussions with the Kenyan Government last week. On behalf of my colleagues may I tell the House how the Kenyan Government collaborated with the United Kingdom in bringing to trial in Mombasa pirates captured in the Indian ocean? That important collaboration should be acknowledged by the House and the Government. There is great strain on the Kenyan Government, who are the one beacon of justice and democracy available to the Royal Navy and the Indian navy in bringing pirates to justice, and the House should acknowledge that.
Of course I acknowledge that and I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer raised a number of important issues. One was her concern about what she described as a cottage industry in certification that those seeking British citizenship had sufficient facility in the English language. I have discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and we will of course follow it up.
My hon. Friend made an interesting point about madrassahs. I am sure she accepts that the vast majority of people of Asian heritage—certainly in my constituency—are concerned about having proper facility in the English language. They do not want bogus certificates, because they recognise that the English language is an important precondition for proper integration. Just because people can speak English does not mean that their community will be fully integrated, but I am in no doubt at all that there must be that facility and that they want that facility and the proper availability of classes in English as a second language. I have a number of madrassahs in my constituency, and the vast majority of them are properly moderated, properly checked and work satisfactorily, but I will follow up with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the issue that my hon. Friend raises about whether there is, in general, a proper requirement for the same kind of Criminal Records Bureau check that she referred to in respect of herself.
My hon. Friends the Members for Keighley and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) both referred to concerns about electoral registration and the need for it to be improved, and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend Mr. Wills is actively considering that matter in the context of the Political Parties and Elections Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Slough also raised concerns about visa fees. I am afraid to say that I do not quite share her view, but, again, I will draw that to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
My hon. Friend Mr. Drew raised the issue of justice week and the concerns of trade unions about what they say are cuts in criminal justice budgets. There is some irony, because it was only in the summer that the Policy Exchange, in a report endorsed by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield issued an attack on the Government for spending too much on criminal justice and the law and order system, saying that we now spend more as a proportion of our GDP on that than any other OECD country does. We spend a great deal; we spend more on legal aid and policing—I am very glad that we do—and as a part of that, there has been a 67 per cent. real-terms increase for probation. Where those people got the idea that there would be a 25 per cent. cut in probation funding I just do not know, because it is completely and utterly untrue. However, because of the impact that the world economic downturn has on Government revenues, spending on all public services will not rise in the near future as it has done in the past. So we must search more vigorously for efficiencies in the probation service, the Prison Service and the Court Service. I happen to know from my rather lengthy service as a Minister that it is surprising how efficiencies can be found if someone starts to search them out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock raised the issue of Zimbabwean refugees, and whether they should be allowed to work—I will pass that on to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—as well as commenting on the chair of the Electoral Commission. The appointment of the chair of the commission is made by Mr. Speaker, on the advice of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. I happen to be a member of that Committee, but in a minority. It is an appointment entirely within the purview of the House, unlike, for example, that of the Information Commissioner, which required the endorsement of the House—at my behest, as it were, in this case.
Let me deal with the Marper judgment in respect of DNA. As my right hon. and hon. Friends will have seen from the wires, the European Court of Human Rights said about the holding of DNA, fingerprint and other samples by the criminal justice system in England and Wales that it was
"struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the power of retention in England and Wales."
It therefore declared that retention outwith article 8 of the European convention on human rights.
I make first a preliminary point, which is germane to the issue of Bills of Rights and responsibilities—a subject to which I shall return later. [Interruption.] The Conservatives have asked a lot of questions, and I am trying to answer them. This matter was considered under the Human Rights Act 1998 by the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Law Lords. On each occasion, the British courts found in our favour, so the Human Rights Act was not to blame—in fact, it provided important evidence about the margin of appreciation. The decision was made by the European Court of Human Rights.
The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield knows that if convention rights are incorporated into domestic law, as they are across Europe, the highest domestic court will sometimes be overturned by the Strasbourg Court, but that does not undermine the case for incorporation. My point is that we do better, where there is no margin of appreciation, if there is no incorporation. The one point on which there is agreement across both parties is that we remain committed to the convention itself. Of course, the hon. and learned Gentleman is in favour of the Human Rights Act.
The judgment, which I have read in full today, is interesting. I recommend in particular paragraph 119, which draws out what the Court means by the
"indiscriminate nature of the power of retention in England and Wales".
It goes on to suggest that distinctions should be made between the nature of offences for which samples have been taken, and discusses whether they should be time-limited and whether there should be an independent review. Those matters will be considered by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in consultation across Government. We have an obligation to report initially to the Council of Ministers and the Council of Europe by March.
It was I who introduced, in section 82 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, the change that DNA samples could be retained even when there was a subsequent acquittal. I did that for a straightforward reason, because of a case involving a man who was charged with burglary. Before his trial for that burglary, a rape was committed, and the police matched a DNA sample that had been taken from him when he was arrested for burglary with a sample found on the person who alleged the rape. He was convicted of the rape, but was subsequently acquitted of the burglary. He appealed all the way up to the Law Lords, who said, on a construction of the law as it then stood, that the DNA sample had been retained unlawfully, and that the rape conviction, which was otherwise entirely proper, therefore had to be struck down.
I thought that unjust to the victim—indeed, I am clear that it was—and so I introduced that measure. My recollection is that the measure had all-party support at the time, but I will check the record. The judgment might mean justice for those whose data is being held, but there is a much more important issue to consider: justice for the victims of the most serious and egregious offences, and ensuring that the offenders who commit such crimes are convicted.
One argument that the right hon. Gentleman has advanced regarding the incorporation of convention rights into our domestic law is that the European Court would take increasing account of the jurisprudence of the British courts. How much account did the European Court take of our courts' decisions in this latest case on DNA?
If the hon. Gentleman reads the judgment, he will find that the Court did take those judgments into account. There is page after page on that. It happened not to agree with them, but that is a different point. He does not make a strong point, if I may say so, because it has never been suggested that the margin of appreciation means that if a country incorporates the convention into its domestic law, the European Court will never overturn a decision of its highest court. That must be nonsense. If he were to talk to members of the Court in Strasbourg, he would know that proper account is taken of the high level of consideration that our courts give to the articles.
I want to return to the Secretary of State's previous point about faulty DNA evidence. I think that he stated that justice for the perpetrator of what turned out to be a crime was less important than justice for innocent people, but surely a fundamental tenet of the British legal system is that a defendant should have a fair trial. Should not justice for the defendant therefore be paramount in the Secretary of State's mind, and is not that in stark contrast to what happens in many European legal systems?
Of course I accept that, and I would be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman in more detail outside the House about what happened in the case that I was effectively overturning.
At the heart of the Marper issue are the circumstances in which the police should be entitled to retain DNA and fingerprint samples where there is no subsequent conviction. There is no right to test British citizens at random; no one is suggesting that that is the case. The question is whether there is a right not only to take DNA and fingerprints on arrest or charge, but to retain such samples, and if so, for how long. The point that I am making is that, unless there is significant provision in this regard, a number of people who are guilty and who pose a real and serious threat to society—including rapists—will go free. The man who was quite properly convicted of that rape, and subsequently got out on a technicality, had had a fair trial. The evidence was overwhelming: he had committed the crime. He got out on a technicality, and I do not happen to think that that is fair.
I appreciate the Secretary of State's point. Obviously, I have not had a chance to study the judgment in great detail, but it seems to me that it would be perfectly possible to cater for the particular problem that he identified in 2002 while still observing the terms of the judgment, which will generally allow people who have been acquitted or never charged to have their DNA removed.
Let us hope that that is the case. If hon. Members study carefully one of the most important paragraphs in the judgment—paragraph 119—they will see, as we shall see in the headlines tomorrow, that although the Court was
"struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the power of retention",
that general statement was then highly qualified. I am sure that the lawyers in the Home Office will be looking with great care at the nature of those qualifications—and quite right, too.
I want to deal briefly with the points raised by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, and then with other key points. The hon. Gentleman made much sport about the Government's programme of constitutional renewal. This has been the most radical constitutionally reforming Government since the war; there is no question about that. This compares with the paucity of constitutional change—in fact, the absence of it—during previous Conservative Administrations. The Conservatives might complain about the Human Rights Act 1998, the Data Protection Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, devolution, the establishment of the Mayor of London, and what we have done in respect of the House of Lords, but these are major constitutional changes that Vernon Bogdanor—a very independent-minded constitutional expert—has said will be seen as a quiet revolution in our constitutional arrangements.
Moreover, although I accept that we have to do more, not least in terms of the time spent on the Floor of the House on Report, Parliament has been strengthened massively in the past 20 or 30 years, compared with the kind of Parliament that existed in the 1950s and 1960s. I shall refer—although I shall not read it out at length—to what Michael Ryle, a former Clerk of Committees of the House, said in 2005:
"a simple factual comparison with the 1950s and early 1960s shows that Parliament—particularly the House of Commons—plays a more active, independent and influential role in Britain today than at any time for many years...the major advances in the past fifty years should not be derided."
Parliament in the apparently golden age of the 1950s was supine; there were no rebellions of any kind at all. It was a supine, part-time Parliament, and that has now changed for the better.
The constitutional reform Bill is specified in the Gracious Speech. Everyone knows that what has changed since then is the overriding imperative of dealing with the world economic downturn, but the Bill will require parliamentary time. The Queen's Speech states:
"My Government will continue to take forward proposals on constitutional renewal, including strengthening the role of Parliament and other measures."
As ever, Her Majesty meant what she said—and that is my intention, too.
On the proposals in respect of a Bill of Rights and responsibilities, documents will be published. I accept that they have taken more time than I had hoped, but the hon. Gentleman can hardly complain that I have been silent on the issue; nor has the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon. Indeed, I know that the hon. Gentleman has paid me the compliment of reading very important—if I may say so—speeches that I made in October last year and in February and September this year, and I have paid him the compliment of reading his speeches too, which are interesting, if to some extent misconceived.
On the Lord Chancellor's previous point, may I press him on the constitutional reform Bill? It was a draft Bill in the last Session. Today the Leader of the House published the Government's legislative programme. It includes 14 Bill, but the constitutional renewal Bill does not feature among them. There are seven draft Bills, but the constitutional renewal Bill does not feature among them either. Can the right hon. Gentleman be clearer about the prospects for legislating in this Session on constitutional renewal?
We have already had a draft Bill, so there is no point in publishing another draft Bill. That would be absurd, if I may say so, and a waste of parliamentary time. The reason why the subject was referred to in the Queen's Speech in those terms is that a slot for the Bill could not be guaranteed. That is why that formulation is used. My earnest intention, which requires negotiation with the usual channels as well as with my colleagues, is that the Bill should be brought forward. I cannot guarantee that, not least because of the negotiation with the usual channels. We shall have to see what progress is made on other Bills, but that remains my earnest intention.
Time is short. I can see that, much though hon. Members wish to spend most of their time on a Thursday evening listening to me, some have pressing commitments elsewhere, surprisingly. On the coroners and justice Bill, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs helpfully summarised it and welcomed a good deal of it. Each part of that has been the subject of an extensive consultation exercise.
Can the Justice Secretary give the House an assurance that he will not reintroduce in the coroners Bill the clauses on secret inquests and the Secretary of State's powers from the counter-terrorism Bill?
I am afraid I cannot satisfy the hon. Gentleman on that. The proposals were never for secret inquests; they were for inquests without a jury. Only 2 per cent. of inquests in any event take place with a jury. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are considering the points that have been raised. Proposals will be brought forward in due course—in the Bill as presented to Parliament, I hope.
The Political Parties and Elections Bill is, as my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay drew to the attention of the House, a carried over Bill. It has already had its First and Second Reading, and its Public Bill Committee stage upstairs, and awaits its Report stage downstairs. There is a considerable amount of work to do before Report, not least in respect of the Electoral Commission, as we wish to take account of what was said on all sides on the issue of strengthening registration procedures, and also on issues relating to party funding. I repeat the commitments that I have given to the House, as has the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon, that we believe, and I have always believed, that such a matter should be proceeded with only with a consensus between the parties, if at all possible.
I began these remarks by referring to the record of the Government on crime. We are the first Government since the war to have seen a reduction in crime, both in recorded crime and in the British crime survey. Our determination, however, is to make the communities that all of us serve even safer. It is for those reasons that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have brought forward these measures. I commend the Queen's Speech, and the debate, to the House.
Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned. —(Helen Goodman.)
Debate to be resumed on