I have selected for debate the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. In addition, under
The House will know, because of the 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, that many Members wish to speak. It would be offensive if hon. Members approached the Chair during the opening speeches. I would not appreciate such an approach. Anyone wishing take part in the debate should listen to the opening speeches.
I beg to move, as an amendment to the Address, at the end of the Question to add:
'But humbly regret that the Gracious Speech does not contain the Bills on victims' rights and reform of the licensing laws promised in the Government's manifesto, nor any measures to make prisons more purposeful, to improve the asylum system to ensure that the United Kingdom fulfils its obligations to genuine refugees, and to introduce honesty in sentencing;
note that the Gracious Speech makes no mention of the cuts in police numbers that have occurred since 1997 and the crisis in police morale;
further regret that the Government has failed to outline detailed proposals to alter the procedures or composition of either House of Parliament, and failed to guarantee suitable opportunities for the participation of all political parties in any consideration about the future of Parliament;
further note that the Gracious Speech contains no plans to increase the democratic accountability of Her Majesty's Government and its servants, and makes no reference to the need to address the problems caused by the increased diminution of the authority of this place since 1997 and of the falling participation rates in national elections;
and further regret that the Government intends to introduce ratification of the Nice Treaty without allowing the people an opportunity to express their views in a referendum.'.
First, I should like to congratulate you, Mr. Speaker, on your re-election as the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn and on your re-election as Speaker of the House. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who opened the debate of the Queen's Speech for Conservative Members last week. On that occasion, he treated the House to one of the best speeches that Members have heard in recent years. It was all the more remarkable given the high quality of the contribution of the previous speaker, Mr. Lammy, who seconded the Loyal Address. Even the Prime Minister said that my right hon. Friend's speech
"was extraordinarily witty and eloquent, which is what we expect of him."--[Hansard, 20 June 2001; Vol. 370, c. 49.]
It is just not for my right hon. Friend's acknowledged debating skill that his leadership will be remembered. He will for ever be known as courageous in the face of adversity; his was a cool nerve and his purpose was steadfast.
I should like to pay tribute to Mr. Straw for his work as Home Secretary over the past four years. He was a diligent and hard-working Home Secretary and, in my dealings with him, I always found him to be most courteous to the Opposition. I wish him well in his new responsibilities at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and I hope that he will not find the domestic arrangements at 1, Carlton gardens too cramped.
Finally, before I get down to the business before the House today, I should like to congratulate Mr. Blunkett on his appointment as Home Secretary--although the fact that he got the job came as little surprise to those of us who read The Sun. I wish him and his ministerial team well in the tenure of their new posts, but I remind them that the past few days, during which there have been several important Home Office issues on the front page of just about every newspaper in the country, are the norm, rather than the exception. In that context, I condemn the recent violence in Oldham, Burnley and elsewhere, and echo the calls on all sides for restraint and dialogue.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said last week, we can welcome certain elements of the Gracious Speech, although even some of them are not without danger. The Government have said that they intend to build on Conservative legislation--although they did not quite use those words--on the seizure of criminals' assets. We need to remember that, under English law, there is a crucial difference between those who have been convicted of a criminal offence and those who have not yet been convicted. While we support the seizure of assets from those found guilty by a court, I myself resist the confiscation of assets prior to conviction.
Similarly, there is widespread concern, not just among Opposition Members, about the Government's plans both to reveal routinely to juries defendants' previous convictions and to curtail the right to jury trial itself, which we vigorously and, indeed, successfully opposed in the previous Parliament. In developing their proposals for the reform of the justice system, I hope that the Government will be mindful of the need to ensure both justness and fairness. The fight against crime should be just that--the fight against crime--and not an excuse for a general deprivation of civil liberties.
In the Gracious Speech, despite all their election rhetoric, the Government failed either to introduce legislation to improve victims' rights or, indeed, to reform the licensing laws, both of which were promised. The Labour manifesto promised to
"legislate for a Victims' Bill of Rights to give support, protection, and rights to information and compensation to victims."
There was no mention of that in the Gracious Speech, but that is hardly surprising, as the Prime Minister has been promising such a measure since 1994, at least. The victims of crime, it appears, will just have to wait.
The manifesto also promised
"an overhaul of licensing laws, greater flexibility over opening times, and tougher controls on rogue landlords".
Indeed, the Labour party made quite a big issue of this at the election, sending text messages to young voters telling them,
Extra time for what? Was it extra time for Labour to spend breaking its promises?
The week before the election, Mr. O'Brien, who was then a Minister and to whom I have given notice of my intention to raise this matter, made the following announcement, which we understand had the Prime Minister's full backing:
"Our licensing laws are outdated, complex and in need of a radical overhaul . . . We are determined to bring forward these reforms as quickly as possible."
Now, however, the hon. Gentleman has realised the truth and has accused the Prime Minister of "bad political judgment" and of breaking his promises to the British people. Last year, we were told that reforms would be in place by this summer. It now looks as if it will be 2004 at the earliest.
I also hope that the Government will ensure that measures to tackle paedophiles who entice children over the internet through chatrooms will be included in the criminal justice Bill.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. The Opposition first proposed those measures more than a year ago and, inexplicably, the Government voted against them on a number of occasions during the last Parliament. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will depart from the approach of his predecessor in that respect and, because he has indicated his assent, I look forward with eager anticipation to what he has to say on the subject.
The Gracious Speech also proposes a police Bill. During the last Parliament, police numbers and police morale plummeted to their lowest levels ever. Despite the repeated promises by the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Blackburn, there were many fewer officers at the time of the last election than when the Government came to power in 1997, and police numbers are still below the levels that the Government inherited. The Government must look to improve not just the recruitment rate, which was allowed to fall to dangerously low levels during the last Parliament, but also the retention of serving officers. The strength and status of the job and the attraction of serving as a police officer must be enhanced.
All too often in the past, however, the Labour Government have been all spin and no delivery and have failed to live up to their promises. So if the right hon. Gentleman's proposals mean more targets, more paperwork for the police, more upheaval and measures that stop the police getting on with their job, the Government will have learned absolutely nothing.
The chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Federation said in March,
"The blame lies fairly and squarely with Jack Straw . . . It's a total mess. There are fewer and fewer officers having to cope with more and more work."
The right hon. Lady may have seen the editorial of June's edition of the Metropolitan Police Federation magazine. It says:
"Police conditions of service suffered the biggest blow in 1992, when a . . . Home Secretary called Kenneth Clarke arranged the Sheehy Committee . . . The resultant reduction in the compensation for doing the job ensured recruiting just dropped away."
To assist new Members, will she tell us what she thought of the decision by Mr. Clarke to set up the Sheehy committee?
For all that the hon. Gentleman says about recruiting falling off, we left behind 16,000 more police officers than we inherited from Labour. That is a fact of life, just as it is a fact that there are now fewer police officers than the Labour Government inherited from us.
"are being worked up as a priority."--[Hansard, 25 June 2001; Vol. 370, c. 48W.]
With the Home Secretary's record in mind, we shall look with interest at the form that that unit takes.
Measures on sentencing were also announced in the Gracious Speech, although I fear that the Government will not introduce greater honesty into the system. Indeed, according to the memo leaked in February from the previous Home Secretary's special adviser, what will be introduced will be
"a significant softening of sentencing arrangements".
The Government have already made it clear that they intend to retain the special early-release scheme established by the right hon. Member for Blackburn, which at present rates would see another 80,000 criminals released earlier than normal by the end of the Parliament, including 10,000 drug dealers, 10,000 robbers and burglars and 10,000 violent criminals. In answers given on Monday, the Minister for Prisons and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Beverley Hughes, also made it clear that the Government will not allow victims to be told about that either when prisoners are released or at the time of sentencing. I call on the Home Secretary to reconsider both of those decisions.
The beginning of any Parliament is a good time to step back, reconsider and examine the overall objectives of policy. I believe that one of the Government's major objectives in this Parliament should be to improve the lives of the group of people whom, and I admit it, successive Governments have let down and who are still ignored by many politicians from all parties even today. I have called them the forgotten decent. They are people like any hon. Member but with only a fraction of our resources. All they want to do is to live normally. Instead, their lives are made a daily hell by drugs, thuggery, intimidation and the sheer degradation of the environment around them.
There was some coverage in the media of my recent visit to the Arden estate in Hackney, where I observed yet again how many decent people in this country are, even today, forced to live in conditions that are entirely unacceptable. If we really want to have an inclusive society--a much-overused phrase--we have to revolutionise places such as that, where mothers cannot let their children go out to play without checking for needles first, where gardens are wrecked and windows of people's homes are broken and where the vulnerable are intimidated and every agency shrugs its shoulders. Police leave it to the councils; the councils leave it to police. The courts cannot or will not take effective action, and the pattern continues from one generation to the next.
Does the right hon. Lady not think it a bit rich to be lecturing Labour Members on those matters when we are the ones who have put an extra 1.1 million people back into jobs? We are spending more than the previous Conservative Government did on housing, and we are lifting people out of poverty, which is the root cause of crime. We have also been investing more in police, whereas Conservative Members were committed to slashing public investment.
The hon. Gentleman demonstrates what has gone wrong with the debate on this subject and why so many people just do not come out to vote. Rather than having their problems dealt with and their quality-of-life issues addressed, they are treated only to a trading of statistics by politicians. In the discussion of this particular issue I have avoided doing that. I have not talked about the single regeneration budget or all the issues that I could have talked about; I said that those people have been let down by successive Governments and I meant that.
I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he approach the subject seriously and consider that none of the factors that he has mentioned, however worthy they might be in their own right, have dealt with the problem of those people experiencing that menace as a daily, living reality. For them, the menace is not the odd headline in a tabloid but a daily, living reality.
I shall make some progress with my speech.
Five months ago in the House, I challenged the Home Secretary's predecessor on the plight of an elderly resident on one such estate. That man was being terrorised in his own home by gangs of youths. He actually had to put--it would be farcical if it were not so tragic--the local police station number on to his friends and family discount scheme because he was making daily calls for help. He said:
"I am frightened to death. It's unbearable . . . I can't live like this. The police, as individuals, are very good, but we need more of them on the streets, patrolling the estate."
Is it people like that who are the victims of Government failure. The challenge of the next few years is to ensure that their concerns are heard and dealt with.
I am going to finish this passage. Moreover, having given way before, I was not entirely enlightened by the comments that were made.
Dealing with those concerns is the challenge, and it is a challenge that I shall continue to take up as long as I am in this place.
It is not politically correct to talk about zero tolerance, about taking problem children off the streets and into secure training or about evicting troublemakers entirely. But unless a Home Secretary gets to grips with those problems--with, if I may put it this way, a Guiliani-style will--then not only will decent people continue to suffer, but we shall continue to produce generation after generation of disaffected youngsters who have seen no better, have been taught no better and know no better. It is not just the victims who have been let down, but the miscreants themselves. Recent events have brought home to all of us the necessity for ensuring that youngsters do know better. The murder of Damilola Taylor late last year was an appalling crime, but as charges have now been brought and the case is sub judice, I shall not comment further.
However, there is one such case that is no longer before the courts and has dominated public debate in recent days, namely, the release on parole of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the killers of little James Bulger. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing the deepest sympathy to Denise Fergus, Ralph Bulger and the rest of James's family at what must be another incredibly difficult time for them.
The House knows that I fully support the position taken by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard, namely, that Thompson and Venables should have served at least 15 years, rather than eight. I do not find it readily comprehensible that the Lord Chief Justice should have taken the decision to cut the tariff in the way he did.
However, I believe that there are now a number of important issues that arise from the handling of the case, issues to which I hope the Home Secretary will respond either in his remarks today or at some stage in the near future. First, there is the question of Thompson and Venables's anonymity. It can be in nobody's interest for some kind of vigilante society to be created as a result of that case. We must all hope that the media will exercise restraint, even if it is true that Thompson and Venables probably did not help themselves by ensuring that their cases were kept in the public eye through a succession of appeals. It might have been better to do as Mary Bell did: put their heads down, get on with the sentence and give the public time to forget.
I hope that the Home Secretary will look closely at the comments last October by the Lord Chief Justice about whether or not it would have been a good idea to send Thompson and Venables to a young offenders institution. I have to say that his concerns on that score evoke some sympathy in me. However, I believe that if it was not right to send them to a YOI, we should not have been faced with a stark choice between that and freedom before an appropriate time, and that other arrangements could, and almost certainly should, have been made for their secure detention.
We would all hope that we do not get a repeat of this sort of case in the future, but it may happen. I hope that the course of action taken by the Lord Chief Justice will not become a dangerous precedent in that respect and that the Home Secretary will give some thought--I do not ask for an instant solution--as to whether we can avoid a choice between adult imprisonment and inappropriate early release.
Finally, there is the wider question of tariff setting for juvenile killers. As a result of the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, these matters are now wholly in the hands of the judiciary. However, I hope that the Home Secretary will comment--and, I hope, reassure us in his speech--about the reports that have appeared in the press that dozens of killers, including the killer of the headmaster Philip Lawrence, may soon also have their tariffs cut by the Lord Chief Justice and be released inappropriately early. While the recent judgment on the European Court stands, as do the adjustments made to our domestic legislation, I urge the Home Secretary at least to look at the arrangements that are now in place and see if they can somehow be improved.
The Gracious Speech completely failed to mention prisons. The previous Home Secretary ignored the issue of prison conditions, and the previous Minister responsible for prisons appeared uninterested. I hope that the Home Secretary will reverse that trend and will make conditions in our prisons a priority.
I am so grateful.
This might not be the most fashionable of political subjects, but it is clear that whether time in prison is spent purposefully or in idleness has a massive influence on whether, after release, prisoners become useful members of society or simply continue their pattern of offending behaviour. Education, drug treatment and, most importantly perhaps, the opportunity to develop workplace skills and a regular routine in life should be regarded as essential elements of our prison regimes. It is therefore regrettable that the Government have again failed to take the opportunity given by the Gracious Speech to take any action to provide access to purposeful work for all prisoners. Many of our prisons have, I regret to say, been exposed as places of squalor and neglect, where prisoners are allowed to rot in idleness in an atmosphere where bullying and intimidation are rife.
Only last week, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons criticised the way in which the Government have increasingly sidelined his role and ignored his condemnation of poor conditions in many of our inner-city prisons and young offenders institutions. I hope that the Home Secretary will make the commitment to preserve the independence of the chief inspector's role. Despite the lack of any reference to prisons in the Gracious Speech, I hope that he will commit the Government to ensuring that our prisons are not allowed to decline further into places of idleness, neglect and intimidation.
The Home Secretary must take action to ensure that all prisoners are given the opportunity to use their time inside purposefully. His predecessor dismissed such ambitions as impractical, but the Home Secretary can realise just how practical and effective they are by considering what has happened not only in other countries but here; for example, the arrangements put in place at HMP Coldingley in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Hawkins. Such measures will have an important effect on the chances of criminals deciding to turn their back on a life of crime and to live a law-abiding life after release.
The intimidation and thuggery that the right hon. Lady mentioned undoubtedly goes on in many prisons and in young offenders institutions, where only recently someone committed suicide after intensive bullying. Is she aware that many of us, certainly those of us who served on the Home Affairs Committee and hope to do so again in this Parliament, believe that the new chief inspector of prisons should be no less rigorous than her predecessor? Perhaps I am in a minority, but I have many reservations about the fact that the outgoing chief inspector's contract was not renewed.
I do not wholeheartedly share those reservations, but I agree that the chief inspector's independence must be guaranteed, which is why I have made an issue of it. I hope that the new chief inspector will be as rigorous as her predecessor, if not more so.
Another issue that still requires attention is how our asylum system treats those who are fleeing persecution. It is therefore regrettable that once again the Gracious Speech contains no proposals for legislation to reform the current system. Last Friday, in a press release, the Home Secretary expressed his desire for an asylum system that would ensure that asylum seekers were treated with respect while cases were being processed, and
"where claims of persecution were not founded, decisive steps would be taken to ensure that the necessary steps are put in place for early return to the country of origin."
However, it is clear that we are still far from having an asylum system that delivers that.
In addition, we now have confusion about just how many failed asylum seekers are being returned to their country of origin. Only yesterday it emerged that the Government are deliberately manipulating--I use a neutral word--the figures to exaggerate the success of their policies. In future, dependants will be included in the figures for failed asylum applicants leaving the country, but the figures for those applying for asylum will continue to include only the head of the family. The arrival of an asylum seeker with six dependants is classified as one application, but when he is removed, that is classified as seven removals. Previously, both figures were compiled on exactly the same basis.
The change in Home Office recording of asylum figures has never been fully explained to Parliament, and the Home Office is so desperate to cover its embarrassment that last night, a spokesman made the extraordinary claim that there was no attempt to conceal the new method of calculation as it had been published on the Treasury website. No doubt they were concealed in a section that received even fewer hits than the Deputy Prime Minister managed to get in during the election campaign. Perhaps we can expect an assessment of the Chancellor's five economic tests, news of the number of foot and mouth cases or notices of changes in the social security regulations to appear on the Home Office website in coming months.
The Government's action, of course, will have the effect of inflating the number of removals and depressing the number of arrivals. We are just days into the new Parliament, and the Government have yet again been exposed as more concerned with spin and fiddling figures than with dealing with an asylum system that is grossly unfair to genuine refugees. On present evidence, the Government's action can be described only as blatant fiddling and deception. I challenge the Home Secretary to provide an explanation.
The Home Office's latest asylum statistics--if they have not been fiddled too--show that applications are still rising, and that those who appeal against a negative decision must face a growing backlog, especially in the appeals system, and massive delays. It is still the case that genuine asylum seekers, having fled here from real persecution, must struggle with a cruel and random system, and that people whose asylum cases have been rejected do not leave the country.
Only this month, a report by the immigration service union said that more than 130,000 people found not to be eligible for refugee status had vanished without trace to live and work illegally in this country. The head of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate at the Home Office has been forced to admit that the number of people who have gone missing is "very substantial".
There is nothing fair about that, and neither is it fair when genuine refugees have to face months of uncertainty while they wait for a decision on their asylum application or appeal. It is also clear that a system that is leading to a growing underclass of illegal and often exploited workers is not working in anyone's interests. However, despite the clear failings of the present system, and the Home Secretary's alleged desire--as extensively reported in The Sun--to address the failings of the asylum system, the Government have signalled that they have no intention of doing so. I hope that they will change their minds.
I have spoken about a number of important matters, but there is nothing more important than protecting the public. As I travel around the country I see, all too frequently, the results of the Government's failure to deliver. They have failed to deliver for the people of Britain and for our public servants, and they have failed to deliver what they promised.
Politicians may trade statistics, but people rely on their own experience. There are not many who think that things have got better. Not only has there been a failure of delivery, but all too often there has been a failure of common sense. Surely the victim's rights must prevail over the criminal's, rather than the other way around. Surely compensation payouts should be commensurate with suffering, rather than dictated by political correctness.
What is the sense in a system that grants compensation of a few thousand pounds when a breadwinner is lost, when hundreds of thousands of pounds are given to people whose feelings are hurt at work? Parents who try to restrain their children find themselves on the wrong end of the law. Citizens who try to defend themselves or scare off villains should not have to fear the law, but should expect to be protected by it. Citizens who go to another's aid should expect congratulations, not prosecution.
The system should be on the side of the law abiding. It also needs to have a sense of proportionality. The law should not be deployed against a parent who stops his child going out to prevent her from seeing drug dealers. A system that cannot cope with significant crime should not be invoked to deal with childish spats. When a judge gives a thief back the vehicle that he has stolen and orders the police to pay damages for depriving him of its use, we are living in an "Alice in Wonderland" world. When prisoners sentenced to six months are released in just six weeks, we have to wonder what even that world is coming to.
It is not surprising, therefore, that today there is a failure of confidence in the police, who are no longer visible in problem estates or rural villages. There is a failure of confidence in the law, which needs to be on the side of the victim, not the criminal, and there is a failure of confidence in politicians, whose duty it is to ensure that the law protects its citizens but who instead hide behind statistics and increasingly unbelievable promises.
Conservative Members have always believed in a smaller state and that people should be able to keep more of what they earn. However, there is a balance to be struck. There is no good in making a god out of reductions in public spending at the expense of quality of life. When we wanted to promote home ownership and encourage people to take a stake in society, we undertook an enormous loss to the Exchequer through substantial relief on mortgages. The result was that we increased people's quality of life and, in the long term, there were savings as people took responsibility for their homes and for maintaining them.
When we wanted to improve the quality of retirement, we used tax reliefs to encourage people to make their own pension provision. The result was that we improved the quality of people's retirement and, in the long term, brought savings to the Exchequer because people shared the costs of their old age.
We want to improve the quality of life for people suffering the effects of crime almost as a daily consequence and also for people who are not living in deprived conditions but who nevertheless have to take measures every day against the possibility of crime. We want to turn society round so that we once again expect to come home from holiday and find that we have not been burgled, rather than saying, "Thank God we have not been burgled". That demands giving a high priority to crime prevention, tackling crime, increasing police numbers, making the police effective and having a visible police presence on estates and in rural areas. In short, making this country safe and ensuring that its citizens take that safety for granted must be our top priority. Any Government who fail to make that their top priority have failed in their first duty.
The Government were given a second chance. I very much hope that they will use that second chance to a great deal more purpose than they used the first one.
My congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker, both to your constituency and to the House. The new ministerial team and I are privileged to take over from the new Foreign Secretary and his ministerial team, building on the foundations that they have laid and on which we will build in providing for the action needed to protect people from crime and to provide fairness and equality in all Home Office activities.
I was given a video of a television programme made about three years ago called "How to be Home Secretary". It frightened me to death--it was all about clouds appearing in blue skies, and being overtaken by events. I was quite worried the other morning when someone pulled up alongside the kerb; I thought for a moment that my security men might have to intervene, but it was Lord Kenneth Baker, who leaned out of the window to say, "Remember, it's events, dear boy, it's events." So I am truly warned, including by Miss Widdecombe, about what is to come.
I should like to pay tribute to the right hon. Lady. I was about to say farewell, but she has not actually gone yet. I am genuinely disappointed that she is not standing in the Conservative party leadership campaign.
When the right hon. Lady talked of laying aside the god of public expenditure cuts and replacing it with the quality of life, I began to warm to her. I thought that she was going to outdo the shadow Chancellor on reform and social policy, but then she undid it all once again--what a shame.
I also pay tribute to the right hon. Lady on her stance and remarks during the past weekend about issues surrounding Thompson and Venables. She is right to say that some major issues need to be addressed on the back of the Thompson and Venables parole and the original hearing. I do not intend to talk about the forthcoming decisions of the Lord Chief Justice or the subsequent parole board in terms of other cases, but there are real issues with which to deal--the sort of accommodation in which juveniles are held in such circumstances and the way in which parole board hearings proceed. I will deal with those in the weeks and months ahead with my ministerial team.
On a lighter note, I must also tell the right hon. Lady that, as with many parts of her speech this afternoon, when she is good she is very, very good, but--
I would not have said so for a moment. I was going to say that the speech may have been her swan song, but a different bird springs to mind. I was in Egypt a little while ago with friends on holiday. It was late afternoon and the sun was balmy--[Interruption.] Hon. Members will see why it was barmy. I heard something in the distance that reminded me of the House and asked what it was. For a moment, I thought that it was the right hon. Lady, but it turned out to be a hoopoe bird. Anyone who has heard that bird will know that she gives a pretty good imitation of it.
I did not know that the right hon. Lady had such a mischievous sense of humour. However, my friends told me that she is a damn good author. "The Clematis Tree"--[Hon. Members: "Read it out."] It would certainly take a long time. I gather that the book is both sensitive and poignant, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for the work that she has done in her present post and in fighting the fight for the Conservative party with vigour and commitment.
My hon. Friends and I could agree with a number of passages in the right hon. Lady's speech. Apart from the fact that it costs a lot of money to improve the prison system, I do not think that there is any disagreement between us. There is a real need to improve what is called in the Home Office "the estate". There is a need to adapt it to the circumstances of the 21st century, to ensure that people are properly and vigorously put to work with a positive outcome--namely, that they do not reoffend. Given that, both with custodial and community sentencing, three out of five people do reoffend and that long-term prisoners are even more likely to do so, there is a great deal to be done.
I will not go into that subject in detail. It was not included in the Queen's Speech because it does not require legislation; it requires resources and will. Finally on that matter, we will be judged not by the people who end up in prison but by the number we prevent from having to be sent to prison. I want to get that on the record. There are now a record 66,500 people in prison--almost 50 per cent. higher than 10 years ago. That is not a record to emulate; it is a record to overcome.
In this debate--the final day of debate on the Queen's Speech--the Government will be making clear their priorities, on the record for people to see. Those are the commitments to order, to effective policing, to measures against antisocial behaviour, to reforming the criminal justice system and, yes, as it has been mentioned, the sentencing regime, as well as to reinforcing civil and community pride--active citizenship and community development, which have been badly eroded over the years and which must be lifted to the top of the political agenda.
This is not a job for Government alone; it is a job for our society, involving the development of economic and social policy, fair and effective immigration and asylum policy, equality of treatment and good race and community relations. What we need is not simply more legislation, but delivery: Government and people working together to create a civilised society--one that is enabled to take the necessary actions to ensure that people are not exploited or do not exploit others.
That is the view we take in respect of the deplorable incidents in Oldham and Burnley. The message is clear, and my hon. Friend Mr. Pike reiterated it at Prime Minister's questions this afternoon. No one gains from disorder, antisocial behaviour or damage to people and property. No one will gain from what has happened in Oldham and Burnley unless we learn the lessons rapidly, not by conducting prolonged inquiries, but by ensuring that people sit down and work out action programmes together. We cannot have these matters simply referred up to Government, important as it is that we take action to support, to advise, and to look at the resourcing and the fairness of the way in which we treat these communities. The community itself should take on the challenge and the responsibility of doing the job.
Mobilising communities, as part of the solution, underpins our thinking in several key areas of Home Office responsibility and Home Office policy. On the Cowley estate in Brixton, which I visited two weeks ago, I saw people pulling together to overcome the scourge of drug pushing and drug addiction. I saw people coming together, working with the police to overcome the scourge of petty burglary and of antisocial behaviour. It has been done in St. Paul's in the Walsall Heath area of Birmingham; drug pushers and prostitution were literally pushed out of the area.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald mentioned her visit to Hackney. There are examples across the country of communities coming together, supported by Government nationally and locally, supported by and working with the police, to make a difference to their area. The policy of the Home Office will be to pursue that approach with vigour; the civic agenda pursued by the active communities unit within the Department will engage with those issues as well.
With regard to the preventing and detecting and combating of crime, there can be no difference between politicians about the objectives. The issue is: how to set about achieving the goal. Overcoming disorder wherever it is, providing an answer to violent crime, will be paramount in restoring people's confidence in the system.
Those trafficking in drugs, in guns and in people must be first in the firing line of our policies, for all those people are our enemies, and that is why the proceeds of crime Bill will be so important to tackling the exploitation of others for the profit of a few.
As the amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats this afternoon says, we will of course have to be vigilant about the safeguarding of civil rights and liberties, and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald made mention of that this afternoon; but those who would use the proceeds of crime to buy the best legal advice in the country are not the victims but the perpetrators, not just of crime but of detriment to the life, liberty and freedom of others. No one, no matter how well-meaning, should use the justice system designed to protect the minority as a justice system to protect those who inflict injustice on others.
We must get the balance right. Of course we must take care to ensure that we do not end up with the wrong presumption about the wrong person, but I make it absolutely clear that there is no point in people's willing the intent if they do not also will the means.
I just sound a warning. Those who have the proceeds of crime at their disposal will buy the best legal brains, not merely to challenge when the Bill has become law, but to lobby and take action while the Bill is proceeding through the two Houses of Parliament. No one should make any mistake about that.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State to his post. I do not think that there is very much between us on dealing with the proceeds of crime, but may I ask him about the balance between the liberty of the individual and the responsibility of the state? Again, the Government have in their agenda a proposal to take away from individuals the right to choose whether to be tried by jury, because, so the Government claim, abuse of that entitlement is widespread.
First, will the Secretary of State consider the figures that show that the number of people who use that entitlement has fallen, not risen? Secondly, if he believes that there is any logical link between taking away the right to jury trial and improving the criminal justice system, will he set out the justification for it--that was never done by his predecessors--because most people simply do not believe the Government?
I certainly will not do so this afternoon; I am awaiting, as is the Lord Chancellor, Lord Justice Auld's report, which my colleagues and I will consider carefully. We intend to dovetail his recommendations with our own thinking and with John Halliday's work, on which I shall comment in the next few weeks. I can promise that we shall seek radically to improve the administration of the court service in conjunction with the Lord Chancellor's office and the Attorney-General. It is important to do that if we are genuinely to deliver justice speedily and fairly. I do not think that there is anything between the hon. Gentleman and me on that matter, so the question on the mode of trial must be determined by the contribution that it makes to achieving those overall goals.
What I said about those who exploit others is equally true of those who profit from the misery of people who seek a better life across the world. Our approach, our procedures and our effectiveness must not encourage or enable organised criminals to exploit the immigration rules and, in doing so, to exploit those in desperate need. For the sake of success in developing communities that can welcome and embrace those who come from overseas, and to ensure good race and community relations, it is absolutely critical that we avoid unjustifiable fears being enhanced by organised criminals who clearly exploit our immigration processes, misleading others about what will happen when they arrive here; and that we want an immigration system that dissuades those whose claim of persecution is not justifiable from using other routes.
In the months ahead, I want, with my right hon. and hon. Friends, to spell out how we can develop an immigration policy, rather than simply having an obsession with asylum; how we can use a revised and updated work permit system; and how we can enhance what we are doing by considering the experience of green card proposals in places such as Canada--not to open the floodgates to people who believe that they can come to this country, but to provide sensitive and sensible routes by which we can deal with genuine claims.
The message to those who organise trafficking in people is very clear: we are not prepared to let them exploit those who land in our country only to have to be turned around and sent back. Where a claim of persecution is well founded, we shall deal with it quickly and effectively and--to paraphrase someone else--we shall ensure that there is a safe haven, not a soft touch. That safe haven must involve considering how we treat people better when they are here and how, when their claims have been justified, they are integrated not only in our communities, but in our nation, so that we have a nationality policy, as well as an immigration policy.
It is time to draw a line under what happened in the run-up to the general election and for everyone, including those who comment on public debate, to help us to look again at what we have been doing so that we get it right.
The Home Office team believes that the tremendous job done by my right hon. Friend, the new Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and his colleagues has been underestimated. I visited the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in Croydon yesterday and was deeply impressed with the work there, as I have been by the work in Liverpool and Leeds and at our ports and airports. The new investment in fingerprinting, technology and the fast-tracking of cases is beginning to work only because investment has started to flow through and people are able to give time to those cases that need it.
A speedy appeals process--together with the removal of those people who have failed to make a justifiable claim--is paramount to getting the system right. Turn-around times for new arrivals is also important. However, that has to be built on a measure of trust and decent investment so that it is possible for immigration officers and those who work with them at the point of entry to do their job more effectively. The House must support those people who have the difficult job of removals, which was mentioned by the right hon. Lady.
The Labour manifesto said that in excess of 30,000 people who had not justified their claim would be removed by 2003-04, which is about 2,500 people a month. We have decided that that target must be met by early next year, which enables us to have a commitment to reach and exceed the 30,000 removals by 2003.
There has been no fiddling of the system--[Interruption.] I do not know about Treasury websites--I have enough problems handling my own without examining what Treasury officials are putting out on the Home Office's behalf. However, Opposition Members know, because they were vigilant in the run-up to the general election, that we dealt with the matter in April. It has not just been announced--
Opposition Members may say that that does not make it better, but they know that it was debated and in the public arena in April. I know about the inference in the stories in the Evening Standard and, this morning, The Sun--yes, I am an avid reader of that newspaper; I want to discover what is happening and to take account of it. Those stories were not new. They may have been newly released, but that is all.
Let me spell out what happens and why. There was a clear reason why the issue arose in the spring. When people claim asylum as head of the family, it is their claim that is reviewed to discover whether the alleged persecution is well founded. If the claim is agreed, the dependants that they have brought with them are treated in the same way. If it is refused, they and those who entered with them are removed, which makes them removals. [Interruption.] I am being heckled again, so let me put the arrangements on the record.
About 20 per cent. of justified removals are dependants. I promise the House that we will not only publish the number of removals, but break it down into heads of households and dependants. There will be no fiddling of Home Office statistics; instead, there will be clarity and transparency.
We will debate those statistics openly and fairly.
Let me say one other thing about removals. It is no good people rightly wanting to ensure that those who do not have a justifiable claim leave the country if, when measures are taken to remove them, crocodile tears are shed in the media. It will not be easy, and those who have to do it will have a difficult job, but it has to be done. We are determined to carry the policy through because it will be a prerequisite to dealing with, supporting and handling those who have a justifiable claim and allowing them to remain in this country fairly, openly and without the incipient racism that was implicit in the debate that took place some months ago.
The Secretary of State referred to the fact that there will be consequences. The people whom we are talking about as statistics are the children of people who have claimed asylum and do not have a well-founded claim. Do we all recognise that the passage of time creates genuine compassionate circumstances in some cases where children are involved and deportation is conceived of? As we have not yet managed to make the decisions as fast as we might want to, there could be cases in which the act of deportation is unfair on children.
That is why we need a highly efficient system. I saw yesterday a massive speeding up of that system, and a great improvement in our ability to deal with people from the point at which they enter this country. There is still a growing backlog of appeals, partly because of the speed with which existing claims are being dealt with. Of course, there is a reduced number of applications now--14 per cent. down on the previous figures. That is very welcome. [Interruption.] It is no good the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald mumbling away. I give way to her.
Instead of mumbling, I will just ask it outright. Which previous figures? Not the figures that the right hon. Gentleman inherited, because the numbers are still up.
The figures to which I am referring are the year-on-year figures. The right hon. Lady knew that, because she is on top of the figures, but I hope that I am, too.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for paying a visit to Croydon and saying such kind words about the good job that is being done there? In Croydon we are now processing 100,000 cases a year and thousands more people are being employed. Some of them were concerned at the prospect of a possible Tory victory and the loss of their jobs.
More people are being removed than ever before. Will my right hon. Friend pledge that sufficient resources will continue to be given to turn round this difficult problem in an efficient and sensitive manner so that I can take that message back to the hard-working people in Lunar house?
I can certainly underline my hon. Friend's tribute to those who have been employed, without whom we could not have achieved the turnround that is now taking place. I shall have a word with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about the open cheque book that my hon. Friend requires.
Another aspect of the Queen's Speech consists of the police reform measures. To achieve the consensus that we all seek in terms of delivering a reform agenda--that consensus will have to range right across the police ranks and to those who work to support the police forces across the country--we need to accept that rapid progress will need to be made. We need a modernisation programme as much for the sake of those working in the service as for those who rely on it.
The disparities that exist between force performance are not acceptable. The disparities in some high-profile but probably peripheral matters such as sickness absenteeism, which varies by a factor of 80 per cent. across forces areas; the rate of medical early retirement, which varies between 5 and 58 per cent; and delivery measures, which we need to examine, all lead us to believe that change is needed. That is change not only in regulations and management but in the perspective on what the police force can do by working with others. We are therefore establishing a new standards unit, which will work with police services throughout the country, concentrating especially on the basic command unit. It will work with the police on spreading best practice, identifying management and delivery problems, scrutinising the way in which work on the ground gels with wider crime reduction partnerships and with our other policies, for example, on drug prevention and drug problems.
Do those changes include unilaterally sacking chief constables? On what basis did the right hon. Gentleman flex his new Home Secretarial muscles earlier this week to give a thinly veiled instruction to the Sussex police authority to sack the chief constable? What does that mean for the future of independent police authorities, which are responsible for operational matters? If the right hon. Gentleman is taking responsibility for operational matters on himself, will he take personal responsibility for the loss of 273 police officers in Sussex in the past four years?
I hope that the renewed morale and motivation of those in the Sussex service will lead to good recruitment and considerably improved outcomes. That is the intention of senior personnel in the force who wish to effect that. I shall not make a statement in answer to a question from the hon. Gentleman. Suffice it to say that I worked within my powers. I did not sack the chief constable of Sussex. I suggested to the police authority, which will receive a report from Lord Carlile next week, that, after three and a half years, it would be helpful if the matter were resolved. I am glad that the chief constable helped us to do that. The case emphasises the importance of an independent police complaints system, which we shall introduce in this Parliament. Not only independence, but speed and effectiveness of operation are important.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked about bureaucracy. One of the standards unit's tasks will be to examine the current process, from the moment of arrest through charging and the criminal justice system to conviction. At present the process is euphemistically described in Home Office parlance as attrition--I hope we shall find a better word, and one which means something to people outside--which means bureaucratic delay: the process to which I referred earlier in answer to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. I hope that we can reduce that bureaucracy.
I was pleased to accept the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs that we should monitor immediately the way in which a police constable's average day is bedevilled by form filling and procedures that must be followed. They include not only updating technology, which, for many forces, is stuck in the 19th century, but the actual processes that constables have to undertake. We will do that because it will both lift morale and speed up the system to ensure effective outcomes.
My question refers to the answer that my right hon. Friend gave Tim Loughton. Does he agree that three and a half years is far too long to wait for action after the fatal shooting by police of an unarmed, innocent man? Does he further agree that it took his involvement for the chief constable of Sussex to act? Will my right hon. Friend consider further inquiries into the James Ashley case to gain the best information on reforming the complaints system?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done over the past three and a half years with hon. Friends representing the areas covered by the Sussex force. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs will be meeting her and the family concerned on Monday. I hope that, together with the Carlile report, the continuing work of the Police Complaints Authority and the considerable help of the police authority itself, we will be able to make sense of the matter without a further public inquiry.
I am very keen--this is the answer to Tim Loughton--not to go through the niceties of process, but to get action from every level to ensure that we deal with cases fairly and openly, and that people on the ground know that police forces are addressing themselves to the fair, just and safe policing of their areas for the sake of everybody in those communities.
I have listened with great interest to what the Home Secretary has been saying, particularly about the Police Complaints Authority. His comments will be most welcome in Wales. However, he has not yet said anything about the degree to which the powers will be devolved to the Welsh Assembly. Given that this is a debate about home affairs and the constitution, I was wondering whether he was planning to indicate the degree to which the Government intend to devolve such powers to the Welsh Assembly.
I shall be discussing those matters with the Secretary of State for Wales and other colleagues. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman in the meantime setting out where we are on that point.
I shall make a moment's progress and then give way again.
We have also taken responsibility for the drugs unit from the Cabinet Office and will be integrating delivery and policy in a way that I hope will dovetail with our drive against organised crime. We have already said--I simply repeat it--that the job of the police, like that of the intelligence service, is to concentrate on the trafficking and pushing of category A drugs and their dangers in the local community. We shall be evaluating the experiment that Commander Brian Paddock of the Lambeth division is undertaking in London.
Although many in Sussex understand that there is considerable disquiet about the way in which the Hastings shooting occurred and has been subsequently investigated, there is also disquiet about the way in which the Home Secretary appears to have sacked the chief constable by press release, or encouraged that to occur. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that his tenure as Home Secretary will not be characterised by instructions to police authorities and the diminution of their powers, and that he recognises that people who serve police authorities well have a genuine role to play? Their role, as well as that of the chief constable, has been undermined by his action.
I shall discuss with police authorities how they can do their job better and more quickly and be more accountable than some of them are at the moment. The job of Home Secretary is not to protect police authorities but to protect the public, and while I am in the job, that is what we will do.
I congratulate the Home Secretary warmly on his appointment and I wish him success in discharging his responsibilities.
"The number of people leaving a profession may be taken as an indicator of morale"?--[Hansard, 11 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 65W.]
If he does agree with his hon. Friend on that score, why does he not accept that since Labour came to office, the 60 per cent. rise in resignations from the police service, the cut in police numbers of 1,600 and the dramatic reduction by more than 6,000 in the number of special constables constitute a damning indictment of his Government's record?
No, I do not accept that at all. Getting 1,353 additional recruits in the last 10 months of last year was a good indication that progress was being made.
I shall spell out in a moment our intentions regarding open and transparent targets--in fact, I shall do so now so that we are clear about where we start and where we are going in terms of police numbers. We have a commitment to 6,000 extra recruits which will be achieved by March 2003. However, it should be absolutely clear that police recruits and police in post are not one and the same. Although we will fulfil the manifesto promise on police recruits, I am keen to set targets also for police in post and full-time equivalents.
Let us assume that there are 125,500 police in post now and that we rapidly--by autumn--reach the number that the Opposition always use which, if memory serves, is 127,158, the figure in spring 1997. In our manifesto we promised the greatest number of police in post ever--128,280. Let us say that we manage to achieve that by next year. Let us then assume--the previous Home Secretary mentioned this during the general election campaign, but it was not in our manifesto, nor is it a public service agreement target--that we reach at least 130,000 police within the lifetime of this Parliament.
I would like us to do better than that. If we do and if I am still Home Secretary when we do, I shall set a new target. I shall want the crime fighting fund to be renewed, because it was that fund and the direction given by the previous Home Secretary and his Ministers that achieved the uplift in numbers. The relationship between the chief constable, the police authority and the Home Secretary must be a positive one, because if Parliament wants more police and wants them on site, in the streets, available, accessible, there to protect against crime and the fear of crime, we must work together to ensure that that happens. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.
I welcome the targets and the vision that my right hon. Friend is setting out for us today. However, we inherited from the Conservative Government the huge problem of the numbers of police taking early retirement. There are large disparities between different forces throughout the country: some forces, such as Staffordshire, are having to meet a greater cost than others in terms of pension payments. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will consider closely ways in which to meet the cost of those pensions, so that we can iron out disparities and set across-the-board targets for new recruitment on the ground?
I cannot give an assurance now on the meeting of the various pension requirements that are picked up by the devolved police budgets. There are enormous calls on the police grant: I cannot recall the exact figure, but a substantial percentage of the police budget--about one fifth--is now spent on police pension requirements, and there is an issue in terms of the impact in different parts of the country. None the less, my hon. Friend makes a valid point that needs consideration.
I have spoken for longer than I intended, but I should like to speak briefly about the criminal justice proposals in the Queen's Speech. We shall consult on the proposals from John Halliday and Lord Justice Auld; on the proposals made in the Command Paper "Criminal Justice: the Way Ahead"; and on other suggestions now being made to modernise court services and the criminal justice system and provide a far more effective way in which to bring those who have committed a crime to justice and deal with them and to deal with sentencing--in other words, the possibility of a penal code similar to those which apply in other countries. I offer the opposition parties an opportunity to participate.
There are few countries in the world that have the constant debate on these matters and the constant change that we have. There is more legislation than it is possible to spend time reading in this area. No sooner has a Bill been passed than another one is being passed to update it. I am still investigating which orders exist that have not yet been laid. The process goes back donkey's years. Over the recent past of the Home Office, the entire Department has been geared to legislation. It is time to get a grip on what we want to do, to settle it in this Parliament, and to allow our successors to settle down to implementing what we decide.
I offer the opposition parties the opportunity over the months ahead to work out, without prevarication, whether we can find consensus on the criminal justice system with the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General. Let us see whether we can work out a penal code and a sentencing system that are followed by the most appropriate measures to stop people offending, to reduce recidivism, to ensure that people are re-integrated and to protect our communities. I offer Back Benchers the opportunity to come forward to work with us, and to bring forward their suggestions on how they would wish to proceed.
It may be that the opposition parties will not wish to take up the opportunity. Obviously, the main opposition party will have to consider the matter following its leadership contest. However, it seems to me that it is time to stop the knockabout in this place and to deliver to those whom we represent.
I repeat my welcome to the new Home Secretary. He will recall that he has had many debates with me over the years, including long before we were both elected to this place. I thank him for what I think the House will accept was a reasoned, reasonable and constructive speech. I welcome his colleagues in the Home Department team. We have an entirely new team of Home Office Ministers--not a single stone unturned.
That might be a good thing.
I think that I am right in saying that although many Home Office responsibilities have been hived off elsewhere in the new Parliament, only one has been acquired--the responsibility for drugs that previously rested with the Cabinet Office. It was entirely logical that that should happen. I believe, however, that the number of Ministers has not decreased, so we have seen a slimming of responsibilities but not of the number of people in charge. That might be an issue to be dealt with in due course.
I join Miss Widdecombe in expressing my thanks to the Foreign Secretary. I was always grateful, as were my colleagues, for his courtesy in ensuring that we were properly informed, and invited to participate where appropriate. I hope that the new Home Secretary's offer, which my colleagues and I accept unreservedly, will continue a policy that we have always adopted from the Liberal Democrat Benches: to seek to be constructive and to collaborate with the Government of the day, and to seek to agree where possible, and as far as that is possible, while reserving the proper constitutional duty to be constructively critical wherever we feel that it is necessary too.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald continues, as I do, to have home affairs responsibilities. We might not agree on a raft of matters, even though as her Member I seek to represent her to the best of my ability.
The right hon. Lady tells me that both she and her good mother voted Conservative. I felt like saying, "You may know what you did, but I am sure that even if your mother did not vote Conservative she would not have told you." I welcome back the right hon. Lady; we should be grateful that, none the less, in this place she has always pursued Home Office matters with vigour, proper concern and integrity--qualities that unite the three major parties. We seek to contribute to these debates on the basis of what we believe is right for the country. I hope that in this Parliament we shall serve the country well.
While we are on the subject of previous Ministers and are going through proper courtesies, will the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to join me in saying that Mr. O'Brien, whatever disagreements we might have had with him, was an exceptionally assiduous Minister, was unfailingly courteous and that many of us will miss him? We should be nice to the hon. Member for North Warwickshire but, if the Government are wise, they too should be nice to him.
I endorse that remark unreservedly and also pay tribute to Mr. O'Brien. As a final prefatory remark, I pay tribute to Jackie Ballard, who represented Taunton in the previous Parliament. Because of a few hundred votes, she cannot be with us today, but she served in our Home Office team with conviction and commitment. Many of us will miss her greatly. My hon. Friend Norman Baker was rather more blessed by the electorate and now has a huge majority; he has joined our Home Office team, and we welcome him warmly. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and--
A Freudian slip--I apologise hugely and immediately. My hon. Friend Mr. Burnett is here again to make sure that legal affairs are looked after properly by Liberal Democrat Members.
Liberal Democrats share with the Government what appear to be some central Home Office commitments: preventing crime, especially violent crime; increasing the detection rate, which is still abysmally low in England and Wales--25 per cent. on average; building safer communities; and clamping down on thuggish behaviour. There is no real dispute between us on those commitments but, in this Parliament, more so than in the previous one, we must have polices that do not just sound tough on crime, but are much more effective in dealing with the causes of crimes.
As events in Bradford, Burnley, Leeds, Oldham and other places have shown, many of our urban and other areas have a legacy of inadequate education, an inadequate youth service and poor training and employment prospects. There is huge disaffection and a great lack of skills and self-worth among youngsters and many of their families. Members on both sides of the House will agree that those problems and a sense of alienation do not ever justify crime and violence, but they often explain it. When one adds the abuse of solvents, drugs and alcohol, there is a ready cocktail that we ignore at our peril.
In our society, it is far too acceptable that people will be verbally and physically abusive; it is far too acceptable that they will resort to knives and firearms; and it is far too acceptable that, when punished for wrongdoing, they sometimes go into custody, but come out hardly rehabilitated at all and highly likely to reoffend within a short period. The press release issued by the Home Office when the Home Secretary visited Croydon the other day stated that key among his objectives were the three Ds--delivery, delivery and delivery. That is what the country wants from the Government's second term; in many respects, they need to do better than the Home Office did in the last four years. Crime must go down, police numbers must go up and the statistics must be accurate and honest about not only such things but everything else.
If I may say so gently, I am glad that, in spite of the trailers that the Home Secretary put out before he took up his job, his speech today indicated that he is more concerned about being effective in dealing with the causes of crime and dealing with crime, and will leave aside any desire principally to get a reputation for being, as he said, much less liberal than his predecessor.
Well, if the right hon. Gentleman did not, I am glad; that is another reassurance.
In the previous Parliament, there were two types of Home Office policy--some good, sound and well thought-out policy, which we supported, but far too many soundbites, gimmicks and short-term solutions that were never going to work. I hope that there can be a self-denying ordinance about those and that they can be left behind because, invariably, they raised expectations but often failed abysmally.
I understand that the Lord Chancellor's Department is to take on additional responsibilities that previously lay with the Home Office. We will work well and constructively with the Lord Chancellor and his colleagues on the human rights, freedom of information and data protection agenda, but that is no substitute for a modern Government department of justice. It is no substitute for a minister of justice, accountable to elected representatives and working with the Home Secretary on matters involving courts and related issues. I hope that the Government have not stopped their reform of Departments with their announcement at the beginning of this Parliament. We will seek to persuade them that if we are to have a modern criminal justice system we need a modern structure and a Government Department to manage it. That reform has been far too long delayed.
Events of the past few weeks have highlighted the causes of crime around the country in places that we have all noted. We all share that concern. I have talked to people in each of the affected communities and I am aware of the way in which a single event can trigger a series of other incidents that can easily get out of hand. I hope that the lesson is always that we must seek to build and strengthen communities and to avoid stereotypes.
It seems to me that three fundamental concerns must be addressed, the first of which is inequality in our country. For as long as the likelihood of unemployment is so much higher in certain places, wards and communities, they are bound to have more problems. I was talking today to a friend in Harehills in Leeds, where because many youngsters have no expectation of success there is no reason for them to be restrained in their behaviour. The Home Secretary and I both represent inner-city constituencies and we know the score: the very rich live not far away from the very poor and disadvantaged. Unless we deal with that issue of inequality, many crimes of disaffection will continue.
Secondly, we need to deal with two of the fundamental causes of crime: drugs and alcohol. I hope that the Home Secretary and the Government will consider the idea of drugs courts. I am encouraged by the Home Secretary's response to the Metropolitan police policy that has been piloted in Lambeth. It is a pity that his predecessors did not agree to the proposal that we should have a standing body--it need not be called a royal commission--to advise on drugs policy in respect of all drugs, legal and illegal, including alcohol and solvents. If that proposal had been accepted some years ago, perhaps we would by now have had a report and further intelligent proposals. Drugs laws, whatever we may think about them, are clearly not working, and nor are the licensing laws. That makes it more likely that people will exploit and abuse drugs and alcohol.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about the war against drugs, which is clearly not being won. The royal commission is an excellent proposal from the Liberal Democrats. What is his own personal position on the decriminalisation of cannabis, and perhaps other drugs too?
I am happy to answer that, although I do not want to be distracted into that debate because my party has commissioned work, which is under way, to look at the Police Foundation report and its 80-odd proposals. My position is that we have to make sure that that work is presented to our party in the next few months. I hope that it will be a positive contribution to the debate in the House. The evidence is not overwhelmingly on one side, but I am absolutely clear that taking people to court for possession of recreational drugs rather than using police time to pursue the dealers, to whom the Home Secretary rightly referred, is a complete reversal of proper priorities, is against the interests of the police and the community and can alienate many individuals and communities. I am resisting the temptation to go further, not least because I am involved in the internal debate and we will shortly make proposals that I hope will help the debate in the House.
Thirdly, the Home Secretary is very alert to the issue of increasing racist activity in some parts of England and Wales and undoubtedly in other parts of the United Kingdom. In my constituency, as in others, right-wing groups have been seeking to be more active and peddle blatantly racist language and allegiance. Such activity has a harmful direct and indirect effect on those communities.
There is a dilemma for those who, like some other hon. Members and me, are liberal by nature in allowing free speech. I have always defended people's right to put their case, but people should be prosecuted when they use language, orally or in writing, that is clearly intended to incite racial hatred. Prosecutions do not always follow such language. Quite often, many people using such language are not prosecuted. Unless we have the security of knowing that people will be prosecuted when they break the law, the law is being taken for a ride and many communities will be hugely and dangerously disadvantaged.
Marches are another issue that I shall raise in my first or in another early meeting with the Home Secretary. The law is quite right in providing that marches should be banned only when there has been a proper consideration process and police take the view that they cannot manage them, but as right-wing groups seem to be able to stage one march after another, disrupting communities, increasing pressure and indirectly causing violent offences, we may have to re-examine public order legislation. Some freedoms are being abused by people with no interest other than causing harm to other communities. Such activities are doing no good in many of our urban areas and elsewhere and the legislation may need to be changed.
The Queen's Speech contains four Home Office Bills in addition to a draft Bill and two constitutional Bills that will be coming from elsewhere in the Government machine and have the involvement of the new Leader of the House, whom we welcome. Although only four Home Office Bills were trailed, a fifth has already been published. The Home Office is therefore living up to its usual reputation of promising much and delivering even more, even if it is not always quite what we would have wanted.
I realise that dealing with such a flood of legislation is very tough on civil servants, to whom I pay tribute. I was therefore encouraged and very positive about the Home Secretary's proposal, following that of his predecessor, that we should consider codifying the criminal justice system and the criminal law and seek to establish a permanent system, rather than consider a new criminal justice Bill every year, apparently to little effect.
The Home Secretary rightly said that in this Session we shall have the Halliday report on sentencing and Lord Justice Auld's report on the criminal justice system, both of which are welcome. Both reports, and the related legislation, merit very careful consideration. They should both first be put in the public domain so that a public response can be elicited and we can ensure, as the Home Secretary said, that the broadest possible consensus is reached. Ideally, the legislation flowing from both reports should be considered in one or both Houses in a Special Standing Committee so that evidence can be taken and we can best consider how the proposals might operate.
I have one linked rather bold suggestion. I believe that it would be better if both those Bills, both of which are necessary, were considered in draft form in this Session and considered substantively in the next Session. Therefore, both the criminal courts reform Bill and the sentencing and criminal justice Bill should be consulted on this year and enshrined in legislation only later. The purpose of waiting is not to prevaricate or delay, but to ensure that we get it right rather than repent at leisure.
I hope that the three main parties agree that victims' entitlements should be the centrepiece of that legislation. I also hope that Liberal Democrat Members will persuade the Home Secretary that victims should be able not only to make a written statement to the court but, after conviction, to make an oral statement to the judge as well. Such a provision might be controversial, but I believe that it is hugely important to victims or their families.
I also hope that we will increase our efforts to ensure that our prisons and penal system work far more effectively. The Home Secretary knows well that, as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, the prison system will not work properly until prison working days are truly working days; effective treatment for drug, alcohol or sex abuse and anger management are available; everyone who goes into prison is prepared for their release, which certainly does not happen now; and everyone released from prison receives continuing treatment and support.
I want to add a few words on the subject of the controversy of the past few days, about which there has been considerable agreement among the three parties. Our views on the right sentence for Thompson and Venables might have differed, but we are all of the same view that the killing of James Bulger was the most ghastly killing and we understand the anger, frustration, sense of loss and aloneness of his family.
Liberal Democrats have, however, taken the view that it is right that judges and the parole board, and not politicians, set sentences. The sentence has been set and those two young men will now be released.
It is highly important that we accept the courts and the rule of law and that those young men--who, as the Home Secretary rightly said, will be at the risk of being recalled for the whole of their lives--are allowed to start to repay something to society to make up for the terrible thing that they did eight years ago when they were of primary school age. I understand the difficulty in drawing the line, but the penal system is about punishing and then starting again; it is about rehabilitation and restoration. Nobody is beyond that new start in our criminal justice system and we must say that to everybody, loud and clear.
There will be a debate between hon. Members about civil liberties, although I hope that we can reach as much agreement as possible. On behalf of my party, I continue to express great concern that there might be an attempt to take away the right to choose jury trial. We think that that is a misplaced proposal that is not based on the evidence; it is not a necessary part of the criminal justice reforms.
Introducing more evidence of previous convictions is, in general terms, a bad and wrong thing to do in the criminal justice system. How can someone be tried fairly for the offence with which they are charged if people know that they may have committed that offence or something like it before? Everyone will appreciate that that must normally prejudice a fair trial.
Another difficult issue is double jeopardy, any change to which could result in a change to many lifetimes of tradition. If the Government seek to change the law, they must proceed carefully, as we are dealing with the rights of people who have been tried and acquitted and who have been able to presume that they will not be tried again.
The criminal justice system must have the confidence of all the people, but we must be careful not to think that reducing the liberties of the defendant is not reducing the liberty of everybody. For example, someone who may have been a victim over the weekend in Burnley might be a defendant in a court case in Burnley in a few weeks' time. Liberties cannot be broken up like that. We do not enhance the liberty of a victim, or of any other citizen, by taking away their rights when they appear in front of a court charged with something of which they may be just as innocent as anybody else.
In that context, juries and lay magistrates play a significant part. They are ordinary people, playing a part in the criminal justice system. We disconnect ordinary people from the criminal justice system at our peril--the same applies if we disconnect young people from their communities--because another part of society becomes one that they do not own any more. I hope that we will resist moves to whittle down the rights of ordinary citizens to do their duty in the criminal justice system, which many of them have done, to our great benefit, over many years.
We must act better to acquire the proceeds of crime, on which I share the Home Secretary's objective. There are, none the less, difficult civil liberties and human rights issues and we will want to look at the matter very fully. We must ensure that we seek first a criminal conviction as a preliminary to acquiring any proceeds. Only if that cannot be achieved should we go down the route of acquiring on the basis of the balance of probabilities.
The House will consider an order under the Football (Disorder) Act 2000 before the summer recess. Being a veteran of last year's debate on the subject, I understood that before an order was introduced and the provisions of the Act extended we would see a report on its working. We have had the working party report, but no report on the Act has been laid before the House. I remind the Home Secretary that if he wants to persuade us to renew the Act he must first produce the right documents and evidence.
In a long, thoughtful, thorough and wide-ranging speech, the hon. Gentleman has yet to mention punishment. Given the righteous indignation and anger that he says victims feel, should not the criminal justice be retributive, at least in part? Not every criminal is a sick person in need of treatment or, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, anger management. Does he agree that some criminals are people who have made selfish, greedy and violent choices, and that they should be punished?
Of course I agree that people must be punished. Retribution is not normally the reason for the measures taken by the criminal justice system. Occasionally, courts pass sentences that are meant to set an example, and rightly so. People should be punished when they do wrong, and I understand why some people might reasonably think that the sentences in the Bulger case may not have been punishment enough. My point is that when punishment ends, rehabilitation must continue, and we must then seek always to wipe the slate clean.
I want to pay tribute to the police. They are extremely important and, by and large, they do a good job. The country wants more of them, and tomorrow the Home Secretary may even announce that the numbers are beginning to pick up again. That is not before time. In the previous Parliament, the Labour party did badly by the police and the country on this matter: there were fewer, rather than more, police on the beat; morale went down rather than up, and more officers left the force than ever before. Although there was continual talk about reforming police pensions, nothing happened. The police often told me, as they will have told the Home Secretary's predecessor, that they felt that the Government were being tougher on them than on the criminals. There is a summary view about what we need to do for the police. The Government and the country need to do better.
The need is not only one of having more police. I hope that the Home Secretary will be positive about our idea of having part-time, paid police, so that we can employ those who cannot do a full-time job or who are coming up to retirement. I hope that he will consider introducing community safety forces, employed by local councils as a supplement to, and support for, the police. I hope also that the Government will be positive about the idea, endorsed by chief police officers and others, of having a standing conference on the police. There could then be regular public debate between police officers of all ranks, the Government, politicians, police authority members and others, and a regular assessment of what is needed for better recruitment and retention, including factors such as pay.
We welcome the proposal for an independent Police Complaints Authority, which is long overdue. I hope that the Home Secretary will revisit his predecessor's refusal to hold an inquiry into deaths in custody. I also share the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes and others that as long as we have independent police authorities and forces in England, the authorities, rather than the Home Secretary, however strong his feelings, should choose their chief constable and decide when he should leave.
I welcome the Home Secretary's moderate tone on asylum and immigration. I look forward to the removal of the voucher system, which is not only discriminatory and extremely offensive but more expensive than putting people on benefits.
There was another omission in the Queen's Speech. The Home Secretary's predecessor promised equality legislation to deal particularly with the fact that we do not have religious equality in this country. Members of several faith groups, especially the Muslim community, are urgently waiting for that. Liberal Democrats believe that as soon as we get equality legislation, to deal not only with that but with civil partnerships and the repeal of section 28, among other things, we will have a fairer society.
Two Bills will focus on constitutional reform: one of them will increase the number of women in the House, and the other will reform the House of Lords to make it a more representative second Chamber. Liberal Democrats support both Bills, as far as they go, but we strongly believe that we must seize this opportunity to look at what both Houses do and how they relate to each other. We must also look at how people get to Parliament. Unless we do that, the danger is that reform will not go far enough, and that the public will not be engaged in the democratic process nearly enough.
Increasingly, people find what we do a turn-off. The statistics are sad and disappointing. The House has become unrepresentative, and that is sad too. It is not just that there are too few female, black or Asian Members but that there are only a few young people in the House and very few older people. Parliament does not look or sound like Britain.
Turnout at the election was very low. In Liverpool, Riverside, which was regarded as a safe seat, turnout was as low as one third of the electorate, although in the much less safe seats of Winchester or North Norfolk it was higher than 70 per cent. Those figures hint at the direction that must be taken.
There will soon be a new leader of the Conservative party, and the new Labour Government are already in office. I hope that, in the interests of democracy, all parties in the House will look seriously--and soon--at the need to reform political representation in this country. The Tories won no seats in west Yorkshire, south Yorkshire and Wales, even though they received 30 per cent. of the vote or similar in those areas: something is badly wrong.
People are being deprived of their say. In Surrey, 20 per cent. of the electorate voted Labour but they have no representatives. In Kent, 20 per cent. of the electorate voted Liberal Democrat but they have no representatives.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we all got here by the strange and funny system that we inherited a long time ago.
We need a system in which the balance of background and gender is correct but which allows people to get what they vote for as well. The constituency of Tatton was represented by Martin Bell in the previous Parliament, and he was respected because he said, "A plague on all your houses. The system is not up to the job." Dr. Taylor was elected because people are increasingly moving away from the political parties rather than towards us.
Parliament must be more representative. The power of Back Benchers must grow, rather than diminish. The power of the Whips must diminish, not grow. All hon. Members must have increased power to hold the Government to account. Unless such fundamental change is introduced, the danger is that democracy will become a minority activity. In such circumstances, discussion about the contents of programmes outlined in Gracious Speeches to come will matter less and less to more and more of our fellow citizens.
If the Government are to be remembered for significant progress and reform, they will have to be much braver and more effective about the Home Office agenda and constitutional reform. The country is waiting for that radical approach. Liberal Democrats will support the Government if they are willing to be brave, but we will be extremely critical if they become as conservative as they have been for the past four years.
I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on his appointment. He has a hard task before him in following the work done by his predecessor, our joint right hon. Friend the new Foreign Secretary. However, I am sure that the new incumbent is up to the job.
I know that a lot of new hon. Members will make speeches about their constituencies, so I shall confine my remarks to what is happening in my area now.
Twenty-two years ago, when I made my maiden speech, I did not mention the problems of crime, drugs and outlandish, loutish behaviour because they were not particularly significant in my inner-city seat. They certainly are today, however, and the situation is, quite frankly, out of hand. The drugs problem used to be confined principally to the Kings Cross part of my constituency. It is still in Kings Cross, despite everyone's efforts, but it has spread right across the constituency and, indeed, across central London as a whole.
Parts of the area that I try to represent sometimes feel like an outdoor supermarket, dominated by street drug traders. They make my constituents feel threatened and alienated on the very streets where they live. People talk about civil liberties, but I am willing to take away a lot of drug pushers' and drug possessors' civil liberties if they are going to take away the civil liberties of my constituents, who are entitled to the quiet enjoyment of their homes and streets. Old people and toddlers are faced with used needles on doorsteps, needles thrown down in children's playgrounds, put in window boxes or in flower beds. People are no longer threatened at the point of a gun but at the point of a used syringe. Recently, a woman was robbed at the point of a used syringe and, one of my local doctors tells me, then stabbed with it. Now she is awaiting the results of a blood test to see whether she has HIV. That sort of behaviour is going on within about half a mile of where I am standing. It is wrong, and we must take stronger measures to deal with it.
All sorts of security measures have been introduced. People are turning their homes, blocks and flats into fortresses. In one block in my area, a notice went up only a couple of days ago saying that used heroin syringes had been found on the fire escape of the stairwell on the second floor and that, as they can be dangerous, the estate manager or caretaker should be contacted to dispose of them immediately. Gangs of lads are using heroin and cannabis inside the block of flats.
People are entitled not to live in those conditions, and we are letting them down. I do not blame the local police, who put in a huge effort. Special operations include Operation Welwyn, which has been going on in Kings Cross for a long time, and Operation Regis, which has been carried out in the Kings Cross area recently with special funding from the Government.
There is an element of displacement: when short-term attacks are made on drug takers in a particular area, they get displaced to other areas. However, it is not just a question of displacement; it is going on all over my area. A new operation covering part of Soho, Covent Garden and the Bloomsbury part of my constituency--Operation Lilac--is working fairly well. It involves the health service. People are faced with prosecution or with being helped to overcome their habit. That is a good special effort, but there is displacement. The trouble with all these special efforts is that they are short term: when they come to an end, the problem arises again.
The police tell me--the figures bear this out--that they are attempting to concentrate their action on the dealers rather than the people in possession. They are finding it difficult because some of the dealers and those with whom they deal are now so familiar with one another that the dealers will sell only to people they know to be their usual customers. Even police in plain clothes are finding it difficult to get the dealers.
I am, admittedly, extremely reactionary on the subject of drugs. I think that we should contemplate introducing a concept of aggravated possession. If people are in an area where drug dealing is known to go on but do not live or work there, if they are in possession of drugs but are not registered addicts and are not trying to get treatment, I think that they move into a different category and should be treated as such. We must stop both the dealers and the people with whom they deal.
We certainly need more police and, at last, recruitment is going up, but the Metropolitan police force is wasting a huge amount of time. I shall give two or three examples. Half of the 999 calls made to the Metropolitan police are not serious. To the best of my knowledge, no one has been prosecuted for making any of the 1.2 million hoax calls that were made in the past year.
In the last year for which figures are available, 80 per cent. of burglar alarms--I refer not to those that go off and keep people awake at night, but to the ones that ring in police stations and to which the police have to and do respond--to which the Metropolitan police responded were false alarms. If some batty old lady kept ringing them up and it was a false alarm, the police would prosecute her for wasting police time. Those alarms are a systematic waste of police time and the management of the Metropolitan police should pay more attention to the problem.
We need more money and recruits. The Metropolitan police certainly need to speed up their recruitment process and to shorten the period between someone's application to join and when they become a working policeman or woman.
We also need other measures that do not relate directly to the police. Known drug dealers operate out of individual flats in blocks. Under the present law, it takes months to get them out. The system is so slow that it makes a two-toed sloth seem hyperactive. It is useless. The council and the police do not have the necessary powers. Dealers are making people's lives a misery for months on end. More rapid attention must be paid to them and to getting them out.
The other major problem in my area is the significant increase in the amount of plain loutish behaviour. It is also a characteristic over the boundary in Westminster, as my former right hon. colleague, who is shortly to become Lord Brooke, would agree. The west end on a Friday and Saturday night is full of a lot of drunken people being particularly obnoxious.
The police have not told me this, but I am fearful that, with about 150,000 half-drunk people roaming the streets at 11 pm or midnight, some minor incident will turn into a huge riot with a lot of drunks beating each other up and having a right old go throughout the area. We must pay attention to that loutish behaviour--it is a powder keg.
I welcome the postponement of the Bill to introduce 24-hour boozing and the 24-hour city. It may be possible to allow that, but we must have nuisance laws in place in parallel, so that when places become sources of disorder and nuisance the police can close them down there and then and people do not have to resort to the courts and face months of delay to end the ruination to their lives.
I am sorry to have to make this speech; I am sorry that the situation exists. People in my area have never been so sickened by the amount of crime and the loutish behaviour and drug taking. I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will want to do something about it and will do something.
I devoted my maiden speech to defence. It is a tribute to the previous Conservative Government that defence is now so much on the back burner. Thanks to the robust policies followed by previous Conservative Prime Ministers, we have successfully dealt with that threat. However, we still face the threat posed to our cities and rural areas by lawlessness. I want to say a little about that later.
Everyone who loves this place should be very concerned indeed about the appallingly low turnout in the general election and should be asking themselves why people apparently have so little faith in the democratic process. One reason is that politicians, even those armed with very large majorities, appear to lack the courage of their convictions, and I am disappointed that the Government, who have already been in power for four years and now have an enormous majority, have produced a Queen's Speech that is so lacking in radical cutting edge. I should like to say a few words about that.
Above all, we need Governments who believe in justice, in telling the truth and in reaching a decision and putting that decision fairly to the British people. In their handling of two subjects--the constitution and Europe--the Government show a lack of justice, a lack of firmness and a lack of conviction.
On the constitution, devolution is now in place and, although we have argued about the West Lothian question for four years, there is still no answer. Our English constituents are still faced with the fact that Scottish MPs vote on our health, education, policing, agriculture, transport, housing policy and much else, whereas we have no say on Scottish matters. We should point that out again and again because it is a denial of natural justice.
Over the years, many solutions have been proposed. There is the federal solution, advocated by the Liberal party; and there is the solution advocated by my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and which I favour--that Scottish Members should not be allowed to vote on exclusively English matters. But it is a matter of justice, and it must be dealt with. The Government cannot ignore it.
On reform of the House of Lords, we are still waiting for a definitive answer to the question of what will happen to the second Chamber. In a democracy, one cannot have a situation where half the legislature is entirely appointed; it does not work. Something must be done. I personally favour an elected House of Lords. I believe that the House of Lords must be based on the traditional counties. If we are to retain an appointed element, the appointed element can no longer be appointed by the Prime Minister. In a modern democracy, people will not accept that so much patronage over the legislature is given to the head of the Executive.
On Europe, too, people are crying out for conviction politics and for guidance from the Government. We cannot continue with the policy of "wait and see" on the euro. It is bad for the constitution, for business and for our country, and it is incumbent on the Government to reach a conclusion on that. I see no reason why there should not be a referendum within the next two years. Let us decide the question once and for all.
My personal view is absolutely clear: I am opposed, on constitutional grounds, in principle, to the scrapping of the pound. I would put that view--I am happy to do so, as are many of my colleagues--to the British people. The Government cannot continue to play around with this issue. Let us have a referendum--let us sort this out once and for all and move on to other things. Let us then try to base our relationship with the European Union on an element of honesty.
Everyone else in Europe is perfectly honest about their aims; there is no doubt about that. I am happy to remain in a European Union that concentrates on trade matters, environmental protection and good relations between nation states. I cannot accept the Europe that seeks to control our foreign and defence policy, our currency, our taxation, our justice and immigration. I believe that the point of view that I am advancing is rational and should be debated. Let us have the referendum now and get this issue out of the way. Everyone else in Europe apparently knows their mind. Why is it only in this country that the Executive are incapable of giving clear guidance to the people?
Let me pass on quickly to home affairs. Why are people so disillusioned? They are disillusioned because, every year, we have a new criminal justice system and, every year, it appears to make so little difference on the ground. What do people want from their chief constables? They want visible policing. Despite the fact that we have put so much pressure on the Government, why is the number of special constables still in catastrophic decline?
I agree that we cannot afford to employ as many regular policemen as we would like, so why do we not pay special constables? Many people are anxious and willing to give of their free time to the public, so let us get them back into the villages and on to the streets. The people are crying out for visible policing. They are not crying out for yet another criminal justice system; they want to see policemen.
Before I finish my speech, let me say one or two things about the public services. There is enormous dissatisfaction with the public services and, again, there is a lack of honesty about what is going on in them.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is a serious point. Mr. Speaker has selected the Liberal Democrat amendment for a Division. That amendment most certainly touches on public services, so it would be extraordinary if we were not allowed to debate an amendment on which we shall vote just after 10 o'clock.
If I am not allowed to talk about issues of importance to the public, it is a sad reflection on how we order our affairs. I believe that we need to reform the procedures of the House and to ensure that Select Committees are strengthened, and I support what the Liberal Democrats are trying to achieve in that respect. It is important that we try to strengthen the role of Back Benchers in our affairs and that the Government should produce clear policies that the people understand. We are not being honest in the way in which we address the great issues of the day, especially health and education. People care about those issues, and we are not meeting their aspirations. The way in which our proceedings are conducted in the House is not meeting those aspirations. We are not having an honest debate.
Surely people want to ensure that an operation is available when they fall ill. They ask us why they should contribute all their lives to the national health service if operations are not available to them when they reach a certain age. They ask why they have to pay twice: they pay through taxation for operations, which are either denied to them, or they are told that they must wait two or three years; and they have to pay again through the private sector.
A lot of work is being done on such matters--for example, by the Institute of Directors--and there are interesting and radical ideas. For example, if people are denied an operation, the state should give them a credit towards a private operation, so that the difference between the private and the public sectors would be blurred.
We need to consider similar ideas in education. If people do not receive the state education that they believe is their right as taxpayers and prefer to use private education, the state should provide a credit towards it. Those are interesting and radical ideas. To give them credit, in their proposed education Bill, the Government are starting to break down the barriers between the private and public sector in education, which we are debating in this Queen's Speech debate. They have already done it in health with their concordat. Why can we not have an honest debate? Why do we have this rigid divide?
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Would you be kind enough to clarify the ruling that you gave earlier? It has always been the convention of the House that, in the debate on the Queen's Speech, it is permissible to discuss any subject in the Queen's Speech on any day, even though certain days are earmarked for certain subjects. I have never known of a Member being prevented from touching on other subjects in the Queen's speech. As your ruling affects every hon. Member, wherever he or she sits, I should be grateful to know whether you have changed that age-old practice.
I welcome my right hon. and hon. Friends to their new positions and look forward to working with them. It is good to be back among my friends on the Back Benches. I enjoyed my visit to the foothills of government, but after two years as the lowest form of ministerial life, I concluded rightly or wrongly that I would be of more use to my constituents, the Labour party and the human race in general if I returned to the Back Benches and, I hope, to the world of Select Committees. I hope that my experience in government will make me a more effective scrutineer of the Executive.
I shall start with a couple of general points. For the avoidance of doubt and to avoid being listed among the disappointed, may I say that I am broadly content with the general direction of Government policy? I shall not, therefore, unlike other refugees from government, be offering my thoughts exclusively to the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph. Of course, were I Prime Minister, which by some inexplicable oversight I am not, I would do one or two things differently. I hope that this Parliament will see a little less managerialitis, fewer targets, fewer initiatives, less spinning and an end to naming and shaming. We should accept that some degree of initiative must be permitted at local level, recognising at the same time that there must be a role for the Government in making sure that certain core services are delivered.
On public services--which I refer to in passing--we must avoid talking ourselves into a depression. Yes, they are under strain as the result of years of underinvestment. Yes, they need better management and more resources. But to use expressions such as "third world", which I have seen occasionally, is hysterical nonsense, and we should not pander to it.
For most of our constituents, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Dobson graphically illustrated, the main problem is not organised crime but disorganised crime. Reversing the rising tide of yob culture is one of the greatest challenges that the Government face. It is the single greatest issue in parts of my constituency, as it is in his. I am sure that it is also the biggest issue in the constituencies of other hon. Members, especially those who represent poorer parts of the country.
Many of my constituents are plagued by out-of-control youths and yob neighbours, against whom the law appears powerless. All too often, bad behaviour goes unchallenged. It does not bring consequences to anyone but the victim. People come to my surgeries shaking with fear, and all too often I end up evacuating the victim rather than the villain.
Effective policing and an effective criminal justice system are a precondition of regeneration. It is no use pouring money into the most devastated parts of our inner cities if some of our citizens are tearing them down as fast as we can rebuild. Despite the undoubted progress of recent years, it remains a sad fact that our criminal justice system is wholly inadequate to protect us against persistent young offenders. Many are being repeatedly bailed, walking out of the court door and resuming their activities within hours. They are laughing at us.
We must recognise that some youths are too badly damaged to be capable of reform and they are causing mayhem. Our priority must be to give their victims a rest from their activities, if necessary by locking them up. That is the harsh reality and I do not shrink from it. Successive Home Secretaries have promised more secure detention places for juveniles, but delivery has been slow. I hope that this will be speeded up. In the meantime, we must concentrate our efforts on helping younger children to grow up and lead useful lives, in the hope that they will not disappear down the same plughole as some of their older brethren.
The Home Secretary will come under pressure to pour more resources into policing without paying too much attention to how effectively it is spent. I hope that he will resist that temptation. The first requirement is to obtain value for the very large sums that are already invested in policing. As he will know, there are extremely wide variations in the quality and management of policing as between one force and another. In Sunderland, I am glad to say, it has improved immeasurably in recent years. I look forward to the police Bill, which will contain measures to improve discipline and complaints procedures, some of which were proposed in the Select Committee report that was produced under my chairmanship three years ago.
Details of the crime Bill are a little sketchy, but I have a suggestion: one aspect of the yob culture which urgently needs addressing is the number of out-of-control youths with air weapons. No week passes without some new horror story. Last week, for example, a youth in Cardiff shot and injured four children in a school playground. It is incredible that no licence is required for an air weapon and that anyone over 14 can own one. It is necessary urgently to reduce the number of air weapons in circulation, and the crime Bill is an obvious opportunity to do that. Once again, the Home Secretary will find that there is a helpful Select Committee report on the stocks. I urge him to dust it down.
Drugs lie behind a great deal of crime and the ruin of many young lives. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras graphically illustrated the problem. Enormous efforts have gone into combating the drug culture and I do not seek to denigrate them. I wonder, however, whether we are having a serious impact. Perhaps the time has come to consider a new approach.
The Home Secretary will have seen a recent series of articles in The Guardian by Mr. Nick Davies. I know that he is not my right hon. Friend's favourite journalist, but I hope he will agree that Mr. Davies has made some serious points that require equally serious examination. Legalisation is traditionally a subject on which politicians fear to tread. Let me hasten to add that I am not yet persuaded, but given that everything else has failed, I wonder whether the time has come to contemplate the unthinkable. That may well be something on which the Select Committee can be helpful.
I hope that Select Committees will be functioning by the summer and I would welcome an assurance on that from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I hope also that he is considering ways in which Select Committees can be made more effective. He will have seen the recent report by the Hansard Society and the report by the Liaison Committee, "Shifting the Balance", which incidentally was brushed aside a little too hastily. I hope that my right hon. Friend, who has a reputation for radical thinking, will take them seriously.
I also hope that hon. Members will take Select Committees seriously. We cannot expect Ministers to do that if we do not. The first rule for an effective Select Committee member is to turn up on time; the second is to keep one's backside on the seat throughout the sitting; the third is to ask concise, relevant questions, for which short training courses can be arranged if necessary. After that, we can have a discussion about powers and resources. For what it is worth, it is my view that the only hope of making Select Committees function effectively is to create an alternative career structure for Back-Bench Members; otherwise we are for ever destined to see the best and the brightest seduced away by office or the prospect of office.
If we sometimes wonder why the House and our profession in general do not enjoy the public esteem that we believe we deserve, at least part of the solution lies in our own hands. We do not have to award the Government a three-month holiday from scrutiny every summer; we do not have to ask lollipop questions; and we do not have to let the Executive select those whose job it is to scrutinise them. Those are things that we choose to do--and we can equally well choose not to.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Mullin. We worked together on various issues, especially Northern Ireland, and I was sorry when he decided to resign from the Front Bench. On a Government Bench that contained a number of junior Members who were faceless apparatchiks, he shone as being extremely capable and able.
This is not a maiden speech, but a semi-retread speech. A proper retread speech is when one moves to another constituency. I am in a small and select group of two people who are quasi-retreads because we represent our former constituencies. It is, of course, an honour to be elected in the first place for one's home constituency, but to be re-elected is a substantial honour, and I feel humble about it. All new Conservative arrivals need to have some humility. They are part of a parliamentary party that is in opposition, and we have much to learn so that we can contribute constructively to our task.
I pay tribute to my predecessor. I also pay tribute to his predecessor, because if he had not worked hard over the years, I would probably not be here today. My immediate predecessor, Dr. George Turner, was an effective representative for North-West Norfolk. He worked extremely hard in Parliament and the constituency. He dealt with a heavy case load and established an effective team in King's Lynn to deal with people's problems. It is sad for him that that team is being dismantled. He must feel like I did four years ago and think that all his work has not been rewarded at the polling stations. That is what happens in politics; it is a rough trade. However, we must move on.
I pay tribute to some of my predecessor's achievements. He worked hard to bring Ministers to King's Lynn. As a consequence, we received pledges on key local issues such as the Hardwick flyover at the junction of the A10 and A47, the regeneration of the Anglia Canners site in King's Lynn, and the Nar-Ouse regeneration area--the NORA scheme--which will greatly regenerate an area of King's Lynn that has been blighted for many years. He secured pledges from Ministers on those important projects and it will fall to me to ensure that they are honoured by the Government. I shall work as hard as possible to make sure that those promises are kept. As we got nearer the election--I am sure this was no coincidence--more and more Ministers came to the constituency and made more and more pledges, which I shall hold them to. That work must continue.
King's Lynn is a great historic town. It has remarkable churches and extraordinarily beautiful Georgian buildings. However, it also suffers from the blight caused by the neglect of the areas that I mentioned and of the state of the high street. Anyone who goes into King's Lynn will be horrified at the number of empty shops, which generates a sense of depression and gloom. We have a strong local economy that has been built on the tradition of working hard for self-sufficiency, and on the entrepreneurial drive of many small businesses. Although we have a thriving small-firm sector, we need more investment. I do not think we will get that unless something is done to sort out the high street and to implement the schemes that will regenerate it. We need to attract more business and engender more development. I shall work hard to achieve that, because I fear that all the regulations and burdens on small businesses mean that much of the spirit of wealth creation that has been built up in the past few years will start to suffer.
King's Lynn is the centre of the constituency, but one does not have to travel far outside it to find truly stunning countryside. Inland from one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the country are many small villages, most of which I visited in the election campaign. I found genuine anger, frustration and isolation because of a Government who have forgotten and neglected rural communities.
We are considering not only a crisis in agriculture. Many farmers in North-West Norfolk continue to keep stock, especially pigs. They live in daily fear of foot and mouth disease. The crisis is not confined to small post offices or lack of rural transport. There is a perception that the Government do not care about the rural communities. That was summed up by the Prime Minister's contribution to "Question Time" during the election campaign. He said that he did not care about votes in the rural communities. That is a small step from saying that he did not care about rural communities.
Above all, those communities feel isolated and that the Administration are remote. What, according to the Gracious speech, will the Government do to help rural communities? Nothing whatsoever. There will be a Bill on hunting. During the election campaign, I met one voter who was anxious about hunting, but thousands who were worried about rural crime.
Rural crime and the lack of a visible police presence in west Norfolk are a genuine problem. I pay tribute to the police officers who work tirelessly and do their best to provide policing on the ground. There are far too few, however, and their morale is low. They are worried about the extent of the burden of paperwork that is placed on them, and about bureaucracy and retention. Now is not the time to start tampering with police pay and conditions. Morale is low, and if the Government want to fulfil their promises on law and order, they must win the support and trust of the police. That also applies to health and education; they must win the trust of teachers, doctors and nurses in order to fulfil their promises.
People mentioned the Tony Martin case during the election campaign. It was a big issue in west Norfolk. Many people believe that Tony Martin was the victim of a crime. Many others believe that we cannot make law on the basis of one tragic, unfortunate case. But consulting one of the burglars who broke into Tony Martin's house on the length of the latter's sentence represents an unfortunate state of affairs which the Government should urgently examine.
Police morale can be improved. I am pleased that more police officers will be appointed in Norfolk. The Government make great play of the extra numbers, but as my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary pointed out, they have let the numbers fall. We are considering 100 extra police officers in Norfolk, but why were numbers allowed to fall by 50 between 1997 and 2000? Only now are the Government making up for the harm that they did.
If the Government are to fulfil their promises, they must tackle morale in the caring services. I am worried by the fact that the previous Home Secretary was slow-handclapped at the Police Federation conference. I am worried that doctors are tabling motions about contracting out national health service contracts. I am concerned that teachers and university lecturers are threatening industrial action. The Government can promise what they like about the caring services, but they must carry the staff with them.
I shall do all I can to ensure that the Government's promises are fulfilled in my constituency. Making sure that constituents get the best possible deal is the most important task of a Member of Parliament, especially a new Member. I shall be constructive, but extremely critical if the promises are not delivered in the next four years.
I am speaking from the Back Benches for the first time in seven years, and I have chosen the furthest Back Bench from which to do so. It has been a privilege to serve the Labour party and my constituents in North Warwickshire as a Minister for four years and a shadow Treasury spokesman before that. I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for appointing me; he showed great prescience and wisdom in doing so; I shall not comment on his decision not to reappoint me.
The Government are reforming and radical, and I have played a part in some of the reforms. I contributed to constitutional reform, including the Human Rights Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Those measures made important changes, and I want the Government to continue with a programme of radical reform.
I shall speak about two issues: policing and public-private partnerships. The Gracious Speech was very good, and delivered on many of Labour's pre-election commitments, but I want to mention two measures that are not in the Gracious Speech. First, I wish to say that, like my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin, I am broadly content with the direction of Government policy, but I may occasionally want to encourage it to move faster in some directions.
I cannot help expressing disappointment that we did not move faster on licensing reform. I expected a Bill to be announced in the Gracious Speech. I have heard that the policy and the Bill have not been dropped and that they will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Prisons, who is to reply to the debate, can confirm that that is the case. A draft Bill in the next year might help to deal with some of the detailed issues on licensing law, and I hope that it can be provided. Licensing reform should give customers more choice, publicans more freedom, the police more power to deal with disorder, and residents a say. It is long overdue.
I want to put it on record that, although it may have been only a small part of his activities as a Home Office Minister, the hon. Gentleman dealt sensibly with the lack of competition in the racing industry. That was deeply appreciated by a range of people, including the new Leader of the House and myself.
I am grateful for that comment.
The amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats refers to the lack of a Bill on a referendum on the euro. The Government are right not to rush forward with a Bill, although I am pleased that we shall move to ratify the Nice treaty. We need a careful and practical assessment of the economic tests for joining the euro before we introduce a Bill on the referendum. I welcome the recent speech of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who said that we would make that assessment. I urge the Government to ignore the euro ideologists on both sides of the argument, the siren voices who urge immediate or no entry.
We must beware the Conservative argument on the euro. Ideology has led the Conservatives to defeat in the election and into a policy cul de sac on the euro. The people of North Warwickshire want answers to the basic questions: what does joining the euro mean for their jobs, for interest rates and for economic prospects? That is why the Government are right on the question of referendums on the Nice treaty, to which the Opposition amendment refers, and the euro, to which the Liberal Democrat amendment refers. The Government's position on those issues is right--
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have heard a speech in the past half hour dealing largely with the Government's failure to introduce such a measure. How on earth can it be wrong for the hon. Gentleman to express the opposite point of view?
I will of course accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and move on. I had wanted to say something about ensuring that we did not repeat the mistakes that the Tories made on the exchange rate mechanism by entering the euro at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons and at the wrong rate, but I have heard your ruling and will move on.
The people in my constituency want the Government to deliver on public services and particularly on schools, the national health service and, importantly, policing. The public want a police force that is able to deal with the crimes that they face in their daily lives. Very often, they are not the crimes of armed robbery or murder, but antisocial and loutish behaviour and the problems of neighbours from hell who make others' lives a misery. Those are the issues with which my right hon. Friend Mr. Straw dealt as Home Secretary, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett will want to continue that agenda.
The public also want more police officers on the beat. They will welcome proposals for police reform. When considering reforming the police, I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider the precise terms of the definition of the operational independence of chief constables, as set out in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. Having more police reassures the public that the Government share their instincts and want to cut crime. Few other issues in the Home Office are more important.
We have promised 6,000 extra officers in the current spending round, and police training centres are full, which is good news. The struggle to increase police numbers, however, has been a hard one. The Conservative Government spent more but got fewer police officers. Indeed, during the first two years of the Labour Government, we did much the same. One reason was that the 1994 Act gave operational independence to chief constables and abolished the requirement to maintain establishment levels. In other words, in conjunction with the police authority, chief constables decided how to spend resources.
When chief constables received extra resources, they met their own, perfectly justifiable priorities, such as providing better equipment and training, new police stations and computers and civilian staff to release officers from desk jobs. So it is not a criticism of chief constables to say that they spent their resources in ways other than on extra officers. However, the fact was that police numbers fell and both Conservative and Labour politicians got the blame. The public wanted more police and they did not always get them.
In recent years, the crime fighting fund has been a way round the legal problem of the definition in the 1994 Act of the operational independence of chief constables. Chief constables receive money from that fund only if they increase police numbers. The fund is essentially an artificial construct. What we really need is an amendment of the Act so that chief constables can in all other respects maintain their operational independence in day-to-day policing matters such as the distribution of resources and the deployment of police officers, but so that the public can get the increase in police numbers that they want and politicians can show that they can deliver what they were elected to do.
Let me make it clear that no one wants politicians to interfere in the proper operational matters of the police. I would oppose doing so. However, on numbers, there is a case for either reintroducing an establishment figure or introducing a similar mechanism for each force that enables chief constables to increase or at least maintain the number of officers. In that way, the public can be reassured that police numbers are a priority. I very much hope that we will be able to increase police numbers beyond the 6,000 proposed in the current spending review. On that issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South and I part company.
I should like to make a couple of other brief points. We need to find ways to increase the powers and status of the ordinary police constable on the beat, which have been eroded over the years. We need to ensure that our constituents are empowered to deal with antisocial behaviour, inservility and louts, rather than--
It is with some trepidation that I endeavour to make my first contribution in this House. There are two clear reasons why I am a little anxious. The first is the obvious pressure that afflicts those who follow an exalted predecessor. Members will be mindful of the fact that the previous Member of Parliament for Southport, Mr. Ronnie Fearn, will be a hard act to follow. I need no reminding of that.
Members may not be aware, however, that there are some disturbing precedents when it comes to maiden speeches by Southport MPs. In particular, there is the distressing case etched in the minds of Southport parliamentarians of Edward Marshall Hall. As a Conservative Member, he was returned with a narrow majority of 209 votes, and it is almost exactly 100 years ago to the day that he made his maiden speech in this Chamber.
Mr. Hall chose the subject not of licensing changes but of temperance reform, which was a significant political issue in 1901. He spoke particularly of the then endemic problem of under-age children and youths being sent to public houses to fetch ale for their fathers. It is perhaps a mixed indicator of social and moral change that children no longer enter pubs on their fathers' behalf or even with their fathers' knowledge or permission. If they do so, they are motivated no longer by filial duty but by a desire for personal consumption. In his maiden speech, Mr. Hall chose to address the House on the evil of children transporting liquor from pub to home.
The Tory party in those days was clearly entering a period of policy revision. Belonging to the socially liberal wing of his party, Mr. Hall did not propose harsh penalties, but that beer should be sent around in carts like milk and deposited on the doorstep. It is recorded that his bold and imaginative proposal was greeted with hoots of derision, that he was loth ever to speak again and that he felt that his talents were never sufficiently recognised.
That awful precedent aside, to follow Mr. Ronnie Fearn is daunting enough. Members will recall that, in his two spells as a Member of Parliament, Mr. Fearn was a model of diligence in his pursuit of constituency affairs and a resolute champion of Southport and its people at Westminster.
Anyone who, like me, has canvassed the streets of Southport will observe that it is rare to go down any street and fail to find someone who has been directly helped by Ronnie. Indeed, it is rare in some parts of Southport to go down a street and fail to find someone who is related to Ronnie or has been at school with him. He was born, schooled and employed in the town, was a councillor there for nearly 40 years and was awarded an OBE for services to the town. Ronnie has been everything a constituency MP should be. He is a legend in his own community.
It has been gratifying but not surprising to learn on arriving at Westminster how well thought of Ronnie is among Back Benchers. I have learned that he is even held in high respect by those responsible for the running and conduct of this great ship of state who have inside knowledge and whom we disdain at our peril: the team of parliamentary attendants and officers.
Ronnie has remained, persistently and consistently, a man of the people. In his case, there was no disconnection between politics and people. Among a sea of grey suits, Ronnie was a character. Few, perhaps none, in this Chamber would have the sheer nerve and joie de vivre regularly to star in pantomime in front of thousands of their constituents. Of course, there are unkind observers who say that that is exactly what we do, and perhaps there are too many parallels between the activities--indeed, many would say that the experience of throwing sweets at an expectant audience and harkening to shouts of "Look behind you!" is the best possible preparation for political life.
Ronnie will continue to serve Parliament as a peer--a not inappropriate outcome, given that he played a significant role in securing heritage lottery funds for the restoration of Southport pier. Those unfamiliar with that great landmark should set aside any preconceptions that they have about piers: it is far longer than one can imagine, but despite that--and such is the measure of the Southport sands--it fails to reach the sea except at high tide. The pier restoration is only one small manifestation of the on-going renaissance of Southport--a process that not unnaturally coincides with Liberal Democrat leadership of the council.
That has not passed unnoticed in the House. A quality tourist and retail venue, Southport has had an increased influx of visitors in recent months. Those visitors have included the right hon. Members for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and for Devizes (Mr. Ancram)--in fact most probable and improbable candidates for the Tory leadership. I trust that they enjoyed their stay.
It would be foolish of me to pretend that all is well in my part of the world, however. There are deep misgivings about the state of public services, and especially about the way in which they are delivered. The local police force has lost 500 police as a result of the systematic planned Home Office reduction endorsed by both previous Governments: the real effect has been real delays in police response and availability. That has been coupled with--dare I say, "masked by"?--a dazzling range of initiatives: partnerships have mushroomed; there has been a constant chorus of consultation; and police have been taught to talk like insurance salesmen. However, nothing can disguise the simple fact that we want more policemen. It is the result of decisions and actions of the House and the Government that we have not got them so far.
What we have instead is the endless reconfiguration of public services, and the continuous and futile attempts to remodel public services on private enterprise--a vice endemic to both previous Governments. When people phone the local police in Southport, it does no good to find that piped music is played as they wait for their query to be dealt with. When people dial 999, it does no good being told helpfully that they are queueing in a call-waiting system. That sort of thing might work for retailers, but it does not work when there is an intruder in the house.
My conclusion is simple. In Southport and elsewhere, public services have been the focus of the election. The issues surrounding the way in which they should be fairly resourced are clear. However, the battles ahead will have more to do with the way in which they are to be delivered. Two parties in the House appear to be persuaded, either wholly or in part, that only in so far as public service is modelled on or involves the private sector can it deliver. The premise is that public services cannot be delivered effectively by public servants. That is a counsel of despair and is recognised as such. One party represented in the Chamber sees a clear difference between public service delivery and selling soap. On behalf of the citizens of Southport, I respectfully submit that the time is now overdue to state the ancient but unhappily no longer orthodox view that public services are best delivered by those whose personal destiny lies with rendering public benefits, not private profits.
The concept of public services pursuing publicly agreed objectives, run by public servants and accountable to nationally or locally elected bodies is clearly one with which the current Government have difficulty. It is of grave concern to people in the north, especially in Southport, that not only is the Government's confidence in public servants in question, but they have seriously weakened the link between the delivery of services and democratically elected bodies. There is a link between our public service problem and the democratic deficit. If the people who truly control public services are increasingly quango placemen, assorted partnerships, shareholders in private companies and the glitterati of Whitehall, what can a vote in a ballot box do?
There is a connection between the disquiet about public services and the disquiet about the workings of our democracy. The House's timidity about constitutional reform has produced regional agencies where there should be regional autonomy, a confusing plethora of partnerships, the marginalisation of local councillors and the sidelining of this Chamber--in a nutshell, the general decay of democratic accountability. Can it not be said that the proper, if not the best way to restore confidence in public service is to restore democratic accountability? That is the message from Southport.
I congratulate you on your re-election to Parliament, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is nice to see you in your usual place.
I welcome all the new Members on both sides of the Chamber to the House of Commons. I am sure that they will enjoy their stay and the work that they do on behalf of their constituents. The first speech in this debate from a Back Bencher--made two hours after the debate began--was made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Dobson, who told the House that it had been 22 years and a Queen's Speech since he had made his maiden speech. He was followed by Mr. Leigh, who said that he had made his maiden speech 18 years ago. I shall follow their lead and say that it is 14 years and a Queen's Speech since I made my maiden speech. The three of us have in common our sympathy with and admiration for all Members who come here to make their maiden speech.
I congratulate Dr. Pugh on his maiden speech. I am sure that his family and constituents will be proud of him. He will enjoy his time in the House of Commons and he will make some alliances across the political divide. I am sure that he will be surprised by some of his experiences here, but they will not impair his enjoyment.
Focusing on constitutional issues, I want to comment on the turnout in the recent general election. None of us can be comfortable with such a drop in turnout. Only a few months prior to the election, I introduced in the House a modest ten-minute Bill called the Rewarding Democracy Commission Bill. I argued in favour of granting incentives to increase public participation in the democratic process. However, the Tory party issued a three-line Whip in respect of my ten-minute Bill--a move unheard of in my time here--and voted it down. All I did was propose establishing a commission to consider how to reward people for participating in democracy. We must think of ways in which to improve our people's participation in their own democracy, but let me put down a marker tonight: whatever the solution to the problem of turnout, the status quo is not an option.
My next topic is devolution. The Scottish Parliament is about to celebrate its second year in existence. Like all new democracies, it had its teething troubles while it settled down, but I was confident that Parliament and the Government were doing the right thing when we passed the legislation to give Scotland its own Parliament, and I remain as confident today. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Gainsborough is not present to hear my comments on the West Lothian question. I have never had any problems with that question, just as he and his colleagues never had any problems when voting to impose the poll tax on Scotland, or voting on Scottish legislation.
The real answer to the West Lothian question is to embrace the new democracy that devolution offers the United Kingdom. We must think about how we can decentralise government to the regions--a process for which I suspect that there will be cross-party support. I hope that the Government continue to develop their ideas on constitutional reform and ways in which we can improve our democracy. I assure those in the English regions who argue for their own assemblies that they will find a sympathetic ear and support on my part.
I am delighted that there will be a Bill to ratify the Nice treaty. I was in this place in 1992 when we debated the Maastricht treaty. It will be amusing for us to observe the Conservative party ripping itself apart yet again. It was a wonderful sight to behold. The Tories were then in government, and I remember the night when we beat them on a vote. The then Prime Minister had to whip all his Eurosceptic right hon. and hon. Friends into line from the Dispatch Box; he threatened them with a general election. The next day, they all said dutifully that Europe was a good idea if it stopped them from getting the sack. A few of those Members are no longer in this place. I suspect that unless there is some rethinking in the Opposition on how we embrace the European Union and involve ourselves in it, Conservative numbers in the House will continue to decrease.
I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is no longer in his place. However, I am sure that he will receive a report of my contribution to the debate on the need for scrutiny. I was fortunate to be the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny in the previous Parliament and of the Select Committee on European Legislation in the Parliament before that.
I say to Ministers and to the Government--I hope that we are beginning to be listened to--that scrutiny is extremely important. Those of us who scrutinise European legislation and all those who are members of departmental Select Committees are serving Parliament. They do not take on that role as enemies of Ministers. If the process is used properly, good scrutiny aids government. I hope that the quality of the scrutiny of European legislation enables us to tell Ministers what is happening in their Departments, because all too often they are unaware of that. That is the value of scrutiny. I hope that we shall consider further reforms of that process. It is not a matter of giving power to Select Committees with which to bind the Government. Power should be given to Parliament to scrutinise how we deliver to the people in the communities that we represent. That is not only in Parliament's interests or those of communities, it is in the interests of the Government of the day as well. The collective need should be recognised.
There were some significant reforms in the scrutiny of European legislation in the previous Parliament. The Scrutiny Committee has considerably more powers than previously. I can remember arguing the case for five such Committees. Those who were Members during the previous Parliament will remember the argument and will be aware that we ended up with three Committees instead of two. The case for five was the right one, and I do not say that as a means of saying, "I told you so." I hope that the new Leader of the House and this Parliament will consider how we engage Parliament in scrutinising European Union issues.
We should have five Committees so that more Members are involved in the scrutiny process. On that basis, we would be serving Parliament--we are honoured to be Members of it--our communities and democracy.
I, too, am more than comfortable with the Gracious Speech. However, there will be areas of policy where we shall have to examine matters carefully, scrutinise, discuss and investigate if we are to arrive at best practice--if that is not to use buzzwords--in terms of how we deliver services and democracy inside and outside the House. I am delighted to support the Gracious Speech. I hope that my small contribution on scrutiny will be considered when we come to talk about improving procedures.
First, I shall comment on the excellent speech of Dr. Pugh. As all Members do when making a maiden speech, he talked about his constituency and his predecessors in the first part of his speech. It is right and proper to do so. I was interested particularly in the second part of the hon. Gentleman's speech, which touched on what I think should be the main issue for debate today. He referred to the phrase in the Opposition amendment about the
"democratic accountability of Her Majesty's Government and its servants" and considered whether that sentiment is compatible with the privatisation of public services. The second part of the hon. Gentleman's speech was hugely impressive. It augurs well for his future contributions in this place. I do not know whether I shall do him a service or a disservice when I say that I will apply his approach to my brief remarks.
There is an interesting part of the Tory amendment about participation rates in national elections. Participation rates seem not to be extending to the Tory Benches.
In the election campaign, I think that the Prime Minister had one tremendous stroke of luck. On the day when he was berated by a distressed lady outside a hospital in Edgbaston, the Deputy Prime Minister decided to pursue his dialogue with the public in an altogether more vigorous fashion. That was an amazing stroke of luck because it pushed the hospital confrontation from the top of the news in every bulletin to item three, four or five.
Although the action of the Deputy Prime Minister was top of the news, I can report from my constituency that, rightly or wrongly--although I do not believe that he is constitutionally entitled to punch members of the public--there was sympathy for the quality of his left jab, whereas there was no sympathy for the Prime Minister's handling of a clearly upset lady whose partner was in a cancer ward.
It was a stroke of luck. I do not think that even new Labour could have planned the synchronisation of the two events. The episode involving the Prime Minister would have been intensely damaging to the Government's position if it had received the prominence that would have been given to it if it were not for the activities of the Deputy Prime Minister.
The issue of whether it is possible to have accountable public services touches at the heart of what is going on in the House. We had almost a pantomime today. It was almost a surreal experience. The Prime Minister accused the Leader of the Opposition of planning the privatisation of the health service. We all know that the Prime Minister is planning to privatise key areas of it. [Interruption.] Of course he is. Did not Labour Members read the coded language of the Prime Minister's speeches during the election campaign? Did not they notice in the Gracious Speech that we shall have school sponsorship? What sort of school sponsorship will we have? Will we have McDonald's grammar schools to teach pupils about healthy eating? Will we have Coca-Cola grammar schools to teach pupils about healthy drinking? If one of the leadership candidates in the Conservative party is successful, perhaps he will support the Government in having Imperial Tobacco sponsoring schools throughout the country.
If the private sector takes on responsibility for not merely the provision of private finance, a policy which was started by the Conservatives and continued by new Labour for a substantial period, but the running of key parts of public services, where lies the accountability that is spoken about in the Opposition's amendment in terms of the public sector and public servants?
The irony of the amendment is to say that the Gracious Speech puts forward no proposals to increase public accountability, when the Conservatives were the forerunners of the very policy that the Prime Minister seems to want enthusiastically to pursue. I used to earn a bare crust as the economist to the Royal Bank of Scotland. I have therefore worked in the private sector, unlike the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who--unless being a barrister or television pundit counts--have never done so. I can report that my former colleagues in the Royal Bank of Scotland and, indeed, in every other financial institution are enthusiastic about the private finance initiative because it has made them a great deal of money. We should not complain about that, because the role of private companies is to make profits and create jobs. The fault does not lie with the banks, financial institutions and contractors, but with those who are meant to defend and protect the public interest, but do not have the common sense and judgment to appreciate that we are not getting value for money from the pursuit of private finance in our great public services.
If I had time, I could go through the excellent work done by Allyson Pollock, for example, and the analysis of a range of PFI projects, such as the Edinburgh Royal infirmary, which give the clearest indication yet that they represent much worse value for money for the public sector than alternative means of raising finance. They make clear the implications for jobs, pay, and services within the health service and, increasingly, within the education service of taking on PFI commitments. As someone who has worked in the private sector--and I yield to no one in my admiration for entrepreneurship and people creating jobs--surely, in relation to public accountability, we can see a clear demarcation between what should happen in the competitive economy and what should happen in public services.
I read closely the article in The Observer on Sunday by the former deputy leader of the Labour party who, during his active political career, was regarded as being well on the right of the party. He expressed anguish that, as a social democrat--an honourable political philosophy to pursue--he now found himself on the extreme left of new Labour on a range of public policy issues. The article may have been motivated by a range of things, but it was correct in one aspect: its argument that the Prime Minister seemed to be ideologically adrift, with no reference points about what should, or should not be done as far as the public sector and public accountability are concerned.
Having listened to an exchange earlier today--and Labour Members had better cotton on to this--I believe that the Prime Minister is mesmerised by what he thinks is the efficacy of private management and private finance in our great public services. However, the people have a different judgment. The Prime Minister is back with a tremendous majority, not because of that policy, but because of the lack of a serious alternative from the Opposition to what he was hinting at in the election campaign and what he wants to pursue in public policy, as outlined in the Gracious Speech.
I remember the interview that the Prime Minister gave on "Breakfast with Frost" in which he said that it would be a good idea if funding of the health service moved up to the European standard. If we are going to meet that standard, we will have to increase funding to 9.1 per cent. of gross domestic product. However, the gap between us and European provision is not about private finance; throughout the UK, private health service provision is about 1 per cent., as it is across the continent. The gap is about the lack of public provision.
On Monday night, I participated in a debate with the Mayor of London. A GP from London pointed out that the bed occupancy rate in the London health service is 99 per cent. In such a situation, there is no slack or room for manoeuvre; there is no ability to do anything to respond, not just to emergencies or winter crises, but any situation. Would it not be a really useful idea to invest in our public services without serving the god or at the altar of privatisation? Would it not be a good idea if we tried to see what we can do with public services and public accountability if we provide funds? Would that not increase the public's faith in politics and increase their participation in our democracy?
I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House for the first time since my election. I hope that hon. Members will display their customary patience and indulgence on such occasions. A former Speaker of this House, J. W. Lowther, said in 1919 that there were three golden rules for parliamentary speakers:
"Stand up. Speak up. Shut up."
I will try to bear them in mind.
In the tradition of maiden speeches, first, I pay tribute to my predecessor, John Maxton, who was clearly held in great affection and esteem by his colleagues on both sides of the House, as well as by his constituents. He was an assiduous, hard-working Member who served his constituency and his party's Front Bench with deep commitment. I am convinced that, had the Labour Party won the 1992 general election, John Maxton would have been invited to serve in government, a chance that he would have richly deserved, but was denied only through bad timing.
John Maxton was renowned in the Labour party for two reasons. First, he could claim impressive lineage as the nephew of the famous Independent Labour party MP, the red Clydesider, Jimmy Maxton. Secondly, he became something of a Labour hero in 1979, when he unexpectedly won Glasgow, Cathcart from the sitting Member, the then shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, now
Cathcart is one of nine Glasgow constituencies. Geographically, it is the largest in the city, stretching from Carnwadric and Kennishead in the west, to Castlemilk in the south and east; from Mount Florida and Crosshill in the north to Muirend in the south. Castlemilk itself, once a byword for deprivation, with a population equivalent to the Scottish city of Perth, now has a fraction of its original population. Castlemilk has changed out of all recognition over recent years and, importantly, the emigration from Castlemilk to other parts of the city is, at last, starting to be reversed. Of course, like any other housing estate in the country, Castlemilk does not have its problems to seek. In particular, drugs misuse has scarred the lives of thousands of families in my constituency, and I am delighted that the Government have given notice to those who profit illegally from others' misery that their evil trade will no longer be tolerated.
Scots, and Glaswegians in particular, have a great resilient spirit, matched only by their sense of humour. There is nothing quite like a close encounter with a member of one's electorate to eradicate any sense of self-importance in a candidate. In the general election campaign, I was canvassing in Castlemilk drive one Sunday afternoon. I introduced myself to one elderly voter as the Labour candidate and asked, "Can I ask how you intend to vote on Thursday?". She replied, "Oh, I'm just going to go round the corner to the primary school as usual, son."
I am conscious of the convention that maiden speeches should avoid any controversial subjects; the last thing that I would seek is a reprimand from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for contravening any House rule. I doubt if I could respond to such a reprimand with the flair and humour shown, for example, by Benjamin Disraeli, who was once criticised by the Speaker for declaring,
"Half the Cabinet are asses."
He later apologised and said:
"Mr Speaker, I withdraw. Half the Cabinet are not asses."
I hope that I can be allowed to say a few words, not so much about the Gracious Speech as about what was not in it. A great deal has been spoken and written in the past few weeks--and much has been said in the House this afternoon--about how we can encourage voters back into the polling booths. Some claim that a change in the electoral system for the House would increase participation at elections, but my experience has not borne that out. The first ever Scottish parliamentary elections in 1999 were held using the additional member system. Only 60 per cent. of voters in Scotland took part--more than 10 per cent. fewer than at the general election two years previously. In June 1999, fewer than 30 per cent of voters took part in the European parliamentary elections, which were held under the closed list system.
Now there are some who want a fourth, altogether different system for electing Members to the House, called AV-plus. Apart from the dangers of creating a two-tier House of Commons, with MPs of different status, and apart from the confusion that inevitably arises whenever a new voting system is introduced, we have to consider another more damaging consequence of changing the existing system. If Governments in future are cobbled together by politicians behind closed doors instead of being elected by voters at the ballot box, how can we expect people to come out and vote? My fear is that a few years after the new system was introduced, we would look back with longing and envy at the turnout of 2001. So may I take this opportunity to express the hope that a similar omission will be made from the Gracious Speech for many years to come?
It appears that I am setting out on my parliamentary career at a time when the public perception of Parliament and politicians of all parties is at an all-time low. We are told by political commentators that politicians are held in far less esteem by the electorate than was the case 50 years ago. We are also told by the same political commentators that that was one of the reasons for such a low turnout at the general election. There may well be some truth in that, but as a former member of the fourth estate, I suggest that at least some of the blame for the electorate's lack of enthusiasm for politics stems from the media themselves.
Enoch Powell once said that politicians who complain about the media are like ships' captains who complain about the sea. Nevertheless, at the risk of being swept overboard, let me ask this: during the election, how often did we read in the newspapers, hear on the radio or see on television so-called humorous advice to voters to go on holiday to avoid election coverage, or not to answer the door in case it was a canvasser? In their few attempts to make politics more interesting to a larger number of voters, journalists risk trivialising issues to the point of ridicule.
Now, many members of the public, the media and even this House may well find the Tory leadership campaign to be beyond ridicule, but I am making a genuine cross-party point. When BBC television news can illustrate the leadership election by depicting every prospective candidate as a cartoon pantomime character, it is time to ask whether the media's claim that politicians are no longer respected has not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We have all arrived at the House by very different routes and with very different qualifications to do the job before us. I hope my own experience and qualifications put me on a higher level than the unfortunate gentleman of whom George Bernard Shaw once wrote:
"He knows nothing and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career."
It is an extraordinary privilege to have been elected to this House. I believe that this sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom remains the best hope for radical change in the lives of the millions of people that we represent. So I finish by expressing the hope that in the next few years I can play some part in helping bring about the changes that we need and I thank the House for its indulgence this evening.
I begin by congratulating Mr. Harris on his excellent maiden speech. He spoke generously about his predecessors, which was appreciated throughout the House; he spoke with humour and he spoke quite movingly about some of the problems of the low turnout. We all listened to his speech and we look forward to hearing much more from him in future. I thank him on behalf of us all.
I congratulate the Home Secretary on his appointment and welcome his new ministerial team. It is good to see them all in their places. I declare, as always, an interest, as I must in these debates, as a recorder of the Crown court, a former acting metropolitan stipendiary magistrate and now a deputy district judge in the magistrates courts in London. I should like to say something about the criminal courts this evening.
I missed the hon. Gentleman's intervention, but I bet that it was so good that it would probably have incurred him six months if he had appeared before me, which in the current situation would have had him out in six weeks--and not a moment too soon.
If I may offer the Government a word of advice, it is that they should not legislate too much. The criminal justice system has been subject to a plethora of legislation for the past 15 or 20 years. I remember the Conservative party starting it. When I was first elected in 1983 we seemed to have a Criminal Justice Act or two every year. Perhaps it is time to reflect for a moment on what we have done and to see whether we have got it right or wrong.
In a few moments, I shall turn to a couple of matters that we need to correct, but first let me say a word about prisons. Members on both sides of the House share a concern about the state of our prisons. It is not a party political issue. Members everywhere are ashamed of what goes on in our prisons. There are good ones, and Sir David Ramsbotham, who was an excellent chief inspector of prisons, pointed out the good prisons--the ones with a good work regime and good morale--but, my goodness, there are some bad ones.
I was most depressed by my last visit to Feltham young offenders institute, and I advise all hon. Members to go and see it. The institute is in two wings--A wing and B wing--one of which is for under-18s. A lot of money is spent on the under-18s, who have a constructive time. There is plenty of education, work and sport and morale is not too bad, but for the over-18s it is simply dreadful. Would any of us want to see young men of 19 locked up for 18 hours a day? The situation is absolutely hopeless. Any of us in that position would come out bitter and twisted--much worse than when we went in. Is there any team sport for the 18 and 19-year-olds? There is hardly any. There is very little education or preparation for the outside. That is the fault of Governments over the years. Perhaps the problem is money, but it depresses me as a judge and as a member of the Home Affairs Committee to go to Feltham and to see a real problem--to see young men for whom I am very sorry indeed. I hope that that does not sound soft. I mean that I am very sorry indeed that there they have absolutely zero chance of making any progress when they come out. It is an absolute tragedy. Let us all co-operate in trying to address it.
I was really pleased to hear the Home Secretary say that he would try to involve hon. Members on both sides of the House in sensible discussions about the way forward in the criminal justice system. I have had enough of yah-boo politics. I have experienced it for too long and I am not very good at it. I should like instead to have some serious chats with people who know the subject and I welcome what the Home Secretary said in that respect.
I am not sure whether we need wholesale changes in our criminal justice system. I would rather look at the current system and see where we can make some improvements. I am about to set out a technical problem. I would be tempted to ask hon. Members to put their hands up if they were aware of it, but I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rule me out of order if I did so. It concerns the youth courts and it is addressed to those who might be advising the Government. It is a real problem in the courts where I sit, and I sit from Camberwell to Greenwich, Woolwich, Horseferry road, Bow street and Highbury corner. It concerns 12 to 14-year olds and the question of custody in the youth courts.
A persistent offender aged 12 to 14 can be given up to two years' custody by the youth courts. A non-persistent offender cannot be given a custodial sentence, so what happens? If two young boys appear charged with a fairly serious offence and one is a persistent offender, he can be given two years' custody, but what about his mate, who is of good character? The youth court is unable to pass a custodial sentence. If it considers that custody is even a possibility, it has to send that young man to be dealt with by the Crown court, which creates enormous upset. Crown court judges are saying, "What on earth is going on? We are getting all these young men aged 14 being sent to the Crown court. That is stupid. Why on earth can't the youth court have the same powers in respect of those who were previously of good character as it has with persistent offenders?" It would be a small amendment to make, but it is a problem that worries district judges right across London. It is something that the Government need to put right.
There is another little matter that we could put right. Currently, there is what is known as a section 51 transfer. A defendant appears before the magistrates court and on an indictable-only offence does not get committed for trial, which takes weeks, but is transferred straight to the Crown court. That it straightforward when it relates to adults who are transferred straight to the Crown court and it is over in a flash, but no such power exists for youths. Why not? The provision could be tagged on to a Bill currently going through Parliament.
We are all worried about the Crown Prosecution Service. Is it underfunded? What is wrong? Is there a morale problem? Those of us who appear in court regularly see day after day the CPS apparently in some difficulty, to put it mildly, with its files, which cannot be found.
Defendants who have appeared before me at Camberwell Green magistrates court have elected for a committal to a Crown court, but the CPS representatives were told by their bosses to ask for a six-week remand before committal, or a four-week remand if the defendant was in custody. It takes about half an hour to prepare the papers for a committal, although it can take two days if it is a difficult case, but it does not take six weeks. Someone somewhere has to drive the CPS into being able to commit cases to the Crown court much faster than it has hitherto.
There is something in magistrates courts called the criminal justice unit--a group of people whom we never see. It is a type of liaison between the Crown prosecutor and police. Time after time, however, cases are adjourned because witnesses have not turned up and it turns out that the criminal justice unit had done nothing about warning them. There are inefficiencies in the system, and much has to be put right. However, we do not need a fundamental reform of the entire system.
I am slightly in favour of some reform of the double jeopardy rule. I think that there is a good argument for it in cases where a life sentence could be passed. However, I am worried about the proposals on jury trial, which I think will encounter a pretty tough fight in the House.
If we have a rule that simply says, "If magistrates think that their powers of punishment are enough, there will be no jury trial", it would exclude the possibility of magistrates having any discretion to permit the defendant, who may be of previous good character, to elect Crown court trial. We have heard about abuse of the system by which people elect Crown court trial, but such abuse is disappearing. Nowadays, there is something called plea before venue, and there are other means of keeping the process short. Other developments in magistrates courts are improving efficiency, notably plea before venue. I therefore advise Ministers to be very careful with their proposals on jury trial and to talk to the whole House about them.
My final comments are on the great, big issue of the day--drugs. Young men of 17 to 25 appear before me who are heroin addicts. Their lives are ruined and it is absolutely tragic. They burgle houses to get the goods, and they sell the goods to buy the heroin. I agree that we need a royal commission on drugs, a sensible chat about which drugs we should or should not legalise and what to do about heroin. For example, there is now a drug, Naltrexone, which has been tested in America and which helps to block out the need for heroin. Cocaine is a problem, but heroin is the biggest problem facing young people today. Please, let the House spend four years trying to sort out the serious issue of the effect of drugs on young people in the criminal justice system.
I listened with interest to the comments of Mr. Malins on Feltham young offenders institute, which is not far from my constituency and I have visited. I share his concern about conditions there. I also join him in praising my hon. Friend Mr. Harris for his excellent maiden speech. My hon. Friend paid proper tribute to the excellent John Maxton, and his constituents can be truly proud of his first speech in this place. I should also acknowledge the very strong maiden speech of Dr. Pugh.
I share the view of those who have said that modernisation of our public services, particularly our criminal justice system, is the crucial challenge facing the House in the next four years. The environmental challenge, however, will take more than four years to resolve. We have to determine how best to reduce our carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Maintaining a strong economy is a central factor in addressing both those issues. Our strong economy, and strong memories of crime doubling under the previous Conservative Government--who promised an extra 5,000 police officers in 1992, whereas the police establishment had been reduced by 1,500 officers by 1997--were powerful factors in my own and my hon. Friends' re-election to the House.
The general election campaign also clarified the electorate's endorsement of the Government's view that the fruits of a strong economy should be invested in our public services. Mr. Letwin did the United Kingdom a service by revealing Conservative Members' deep antipathy to sustained high investment in our public services: just imagine the implications of a £20 billion public spending cut for our police forces and for the regeneration funding that is necessary for community renewal.
The way in which reform is achieved and extra money is used in our public services are crucial issues. I have no ideological problem with enhanced use of the private sector. The credit card industry, for example, was sensibly involved in tackling credit card fraud, and the private finance initiative has delivered hospitals. We have to examine each case on its merits. I feel some frustration, however, about the way in which the debate on private sector involvement in our public services is being conducted. We have to move on from the very narrow private sector versus public sector debate. If we can do that, it will help us to deal with the concerns of some of those who did not vote in the general election.
We should examine the role of the third sector in our economy and consider how to extend the role of schemes such as neighbourhood watch and victim support. Those key third-sector organisations are rooted in the community and play a vital role in helping to prevent crime and in supporting the victims of crime. Co-operatives and other mutual organisations, social enterprises and not-for-profit bodies could have a new role in tackling some of the problems facing both our public services and other services on which the public rely. Harmoni, in my own constituency, is a general practitioners co-operative that has transformed not only the provision of out-of-hours GP care but the terms of service for the GPs participating in the co-operative.
In the private sector, the financial services industry is filling big gaps in efforts to tackle financial exclusion, with credit unions and building societies providing many of the cheapest loans available. I hope that we shall see further measures to extend the role of credit unions and building societies.
Perhaps we should consider a mutual model for Railtrack. In addition to considering whether to renationalise it or maintain it as a purely private company, surely it is worth debating the option of applying a not-for- profit or business mutual model to that organisation. We could consider applying mutual models in the water industry, too, as a means of remedying serious under- investment and a lack of consumer input and control in the sector.
In debating our public services, particularly our criminal justice system, we have to consider not only structure but how to improve the quality of leadership. I think that, with the extra resources that the Government are making available, the police reform Bill will help police in my constituency to develop much more flexible and effective services, to respond more quickly to the concerns of local people. Nationally, we have to find a much better way of celebrating and rewarding best practice in police forces and other parts of the public services. We also have to examine ways of enabling leaders to develop their talents and consider how best to retain our police officers.
We definitely have to ensure that there is a much more sensitive, partnership-style approach to national monitoring and inspection regimes by bodies such as the Office for Standards in Education and the Audit Commission. Those regimes should, however, remain just as rigorous. We also have to consider how to maintain the flow of staff between our public services and private and third-sector bodies.
In the general election campaign, the quality of the health service and the fear of crime were two of the most important issues in my constituency. I hope that we shall see much more investment in Northwick Park hospital, which is the key acute hospital in my constituency. The NHS reform Bill will be a key factor in giving GPs a greater say and greater clout in the local health care economy. I hope that such measures will enable us to modernise intermediate care services, such as those that are potentially on offer at Northwood and Pinner community hospital.
We also need much more investment in social services if we are to tackle some of the causes of crime. The image of Harrow--
The one key concern flagged up by the amendment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is the falling participation rate in our national elections. One of the ways to tackle the drop in numbers of those voting in my constituency and the wider borough of Harrow will be to provide additional resources to tackle some of the problems in Harrow. There is real social need alongside great wealth in the area, and I hope to see changes in the local government funding formula to reflect that.
I welcome the Bills on police reform and the proceeds of crime, not least because, over the next 12 months, they will help to tackle a key challenge for the Metropolitan police--violent crime. The experience of crime and the fear of violent crime in particular have a deeply pernicious influence on people's lives and their ability to participate in the community. A new drive to take on the organised criminals behind much of London's violent crime--aided by the criminal asset recovery agency, for example--is essential.
I look forward to the Halliday and Auld reports being published and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's announcement of a standards unit will enable a proper inspection of crime and disorder partnerships. The very best of these work effectively in bringing together all statutory and voluntary agencies in the fight against crime, but some partnerships do need proper scrutiny by such a unit to make sure that "partnership" is a reality, and is not just talked about.
Another key issue that would help to drive up participation rates in our elections will be tackling some of this country's environmental issues. I am pro-nuclear, but considerable investment in renewable energy over the next four years is essential if we are to tackle the immediate problem of lowering our greenhouse gas emissions.
I welcome the Queen's Speech and the measures to improve our criminal justice system, but I hope that Ministers will not lose sight of the environmental challenge.
It is with a great sense of honour that I rise to speak in this House for the first time today. I know that at least 658 people will disagree with my contention that the Cities of London and Westminster is the most prestigious constituency in the United Kingdom, but it is probably fair to say that it is where so many of the great matters of our history have taken place.
I was born in Germany and brought up in the home counties. I first came to Westminster and central London when I was about seven years old. I remember the excitement of seeing Buckingham Palace, St. Paul's Cathedral and all the other great landmarks in my constituency. Little did I realise that, less than three decades later, I would be lucky enough to represent this constituency.
It was a particular joy for me to learn that I am the third-youngest Member of Parliament for the City of London part of my constituency in the past 160 years. I realise that I have a hard task before me, not least as I must follow Peter Brooke, who was Member of Parliament for my constituency for the past quarter of a century. As Mr. Dobson said earlier, he will go now to the House of Lords. He has been a great help to me in the 18 months since my selection as a candidate. He has been a great servant not only to my party, but to the country at large.
As many hon. Members know, Peter Brooke has an erudite manner, which will be sadly missed and which, I am afraid, will not be entirely replicated by myself in this House in the years ahead. He had two obsessive interests; election statistics and cricket. When he used to talk wistfully about what it was like in the Rawalpindi in 1935, one never knew whether he was referring to some arcane test match trivia or some local election statistics. He will be sadly missed and I only hope that I will be able to follow in his footsteps as best I can.
One of the difficulties of representing Westminster is that a great number of fellow Members live within my constituency. I was made aware of that only yesterday in the Lobby when I was harangued by two colleagues, complaining, respectively, about traffic calming and the strictly enforced parking regulations in this part of London. I should point out that I have never been a councillor in the City of Westminster. However, my hon. Friend Mr. Djanogly was a councillor here until April and he is the person to whom Members should put all their complaints in future.
All of us who come to this House have different backgrounds and--with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker--I should like to say a little about mine and about why I wanted to enter public life. My mother was born in the early months of the last world war in 1939 in a little village outside a large town called Breslau--now called Wroclaw--which subsequently became part of Poland. My grandfather, whom I barely knew--I was about three when he passed away--was born exactly 100 years ago. He grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, at a time when politics was very much looked down upon by the ruling class. He was from a well-to-do Silesian family and became a doctor.
My grandfather regretted to his dying day that he had rather looked down on politics, as had many others of his generation, as that was the vacuum that, along with the discredited Weimar republic and the great economic crisis in Germany in the 1920s, let in, to a large extent, national socialism. People say to me that politics does not matter very much, but, like many here, I am concerned that there is a sense of apathy. Many hon. Members would confirm from their experience of recent weeks and months that there is antipathy from many members of the electorate. We must do our best to re-engage them.
My mother was twice a refugee by the age of 15, fleeing first from Breslau to Leipzig and then, finally, from east to west Berlin before the days of the Berlin wall. It was instilled in me from a young age that politics is far too important to be left to someone else. I am a great believer in the words of Edmund Burke, a great Tory philosopher, who said that for evil to prevail requires no more than for good men to do nothing.
I wish to refer to the constitutional reforms of recent years. I believe that my party was too timid in the post-1997 era, particularly in relation to what was going on at the other place. The House of Lords reforms were botched and partisan, and we shall see what is to come in the second stage of those reforms. However, my belief is that we have little choice and we cannot turn the clock back. We should perhaps have defended the status quo more robustly than we did. However, and this will be a rare use of these words, I now agree with the Liberal Democrat policy: that we need to move to a fully elected second senate. As will be pointed out, there will be concerns as to how a fully elected House of Lords will intermesh with an elected House of Commons, and we shall have to face those concerns because of the ill-thought-out constitutional reforms.
My great political hero is Andrew Bonar Law, who entered this place at the first general election of the last century. It is a salutary lesson that he entered this House with two things in mind: one was the preservation of the empire--he was Canadian; and the other was that Ireland should remain united. By the time he became Prime Minister in 1922, the pass had been lost on both of those main issues, in a sense. That may be a salutary lesson for many Conservative Members who have entered the House as Eurosceptics with strong feelings about the importance of our nation. I am concerned that, in the years ahead, events may move in a direction that we do not, at least at this juncture, consider favourable.
I also wish to look at, dare I say it, Scottish devolution. I am sorry that Mr. Salmond is not here because I suspect that what I am about to say will warm the cockles of his heart. Conservative Members have perhaps made too much of the idea of English votes for English laws, when the issue should be about Scottish taxes for Scottish expenditure. By dint of a mere 74-vote majority, my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan is the Conservatives' sole Scottish Member of Parliament. We must face facts: at each of the last two general elections, barely one in six Scottish electors have voted for unionist parties, so we are being taken down the path chosen by the Government.
I am very worried because the Government have upset the equilibrium of the United Kingdom, and it will be difficult to restore. I have a prediction to make, and I hope that I shall be proved wrong. The House must bear it in mind that I am not necessarily the best of forecasters. At the weekend, I told most of my constituency association, or those who wanted to hear, that I did not think that my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke would enter the fray for the Tory leadership.
I predict that there will be two distinct power blocs in the Scottish Parliament: on the one hand, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party; and on the other, the Scottish National party, possibly in bed with the Conservatives, who will no longer be a unionist party in Scotland. That will present a great challenge in the years ahead. My great concern is that the Government have not really thought through their modernisation agenda and are blind to many of the difficulties that will arise from it. I beseech them to tread carefully in constitutional matters.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to address these crucial matters, on which I know I shall have much more to say in the years ahead.
It is normal to extend the ritual courtesies to someone who has just made his first speech, and to say that it was thoughtful and a good contribution. In the case of Mr. Field, I can say that without any exaggeration. He made an awesome speech, and did so as a new Member with far more assurance than I can manage after 18 years in this place. I noticed his lack of notes and his eloquence on the matters that he wanted to address.
The hon. Gentleman comes from a fascinating background, and I look forward to more contributions from him. He told us that his family came from Germany; indeed, so did our royal family. He also talked about Bonar Law--a strange hero, if I may say so--who was Canadian. We might consider that when we talk about immigration. Probably all of us have predecessors who came here from elsewhere. We should bear in mind the contribution that many eminent people have made to this country over the years. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House. He replaces a very erudite, civilised and cultured Member of Parliament in the right hon. Peter Brooke, and I am sure that he has nothing to fear about his ability to stand comparison with Sir Peter, who was much admired by everyone in the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Harris, who unfortunately is not here, on his speech. He, too, follows in the footsteps of an assiduous, popular Member of Parliament, John Maxton. Speaking as chairman of the advisory committee on works of art, I can tell the House that John played an eminent part in our deliberations, and we will miss his contribution. I noticed that my hon. Friend bears a remarkable physical resemblance to John, and I remind him that John was a fairly regular runner in the London marathon, so I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to follow in those sweaty footsteps.
Although he is not here, I must mention the speech of a retread, Mr. Bellingham. When he talks about law and order, I am always fascinated. I have to remind myself, and the House, that one of his ancestors assassinated that very good man and Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, so given the hon. Gentleman's antecedence, I always listen carefully to what he says about law and order.
There is a good lesson tucked away here. Spencer Perceval was doubly unfortunate: he was shot by a constituent who was complaining about the tardy response to a letter. That was bad enough, but the assassin got the wrong Minister. Let that be an object lesson to all new Members: they must be quick in replying to their constituency correspondence and try to avoid at all costs looking like a Minister in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As I said, I have been a Member for 18 years, and I had only just got to the point where I thought that I recognised everyone who entered the House in 1997. Now, in 2001, there are more new Members, so I am trying to identify them. I apologise for the fact that there are at least two new Members here whom I do not recognise, but they do look stunningly like people whom I do know. I saw a Liberal Democrat Member who looks like Chris Chataway, and behind him, a Member who is still present who looks remarkably like Lord Lucan. May I say, with great respect to John Thurso that his Lordship is safe here? He has done well to seek the anonymity of being a Liberal Democrat. There is a Tory Back Bencher who looks remarkably like Mr. Bean. He is welcome, and I hope that his time here will be spent well and to the purpose of the House and his constituents.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on his new post. I knew him when he was a local councillor in Sheffield. We worked together in local government, and he has done rather better than me, of course, but he has also done well for the east end in his capacity as Secretary of State for Education and Employment. I look forward to similar treatment from him for the east end in his new capacity. Having thanked and congratulated everyone, I am running out of time to make my own contribution, but I will, I hope, have opportunities to speak in future.
I was disappointed with the turnout in West Ham--it was below 50 per cent. I might add that Labour still won handsomely, with 70 per cent. of the vote, so we were not too worried about our majority. What worried me was that 17 per cent. of the households in my constituency had not a single registered voter, which either says something about the collection of details by the local authority and the returning officer or it means that an awful number of people in my constituency are not entitled to vote, although many of them manage to make their way to my advice surgery. [Laughter.] Well, it is a serious point.
We check to find out which people are registered, and I spend most of my time dealing with those who are not registered. They might have a good reason for that, but what is the relationship of a Member of Parliament to those people? They cannot even say that I am their MP if they did not vote for me. I was toying for a moment with the idea of seeing only those who are on the electoral register, however they voted, but I felt that it would probably be unfair because many of them are asylum seekers and people who want to settle in this country. In view of what I said earlier, most of them are very welcome; indeed, I hope that they will make a contribution.
One reason for the low turnout is the fact that people are galvanised in an election when they want to vote against something. One rarely runs into demonstrations of people who are, by and large, satisfied with events. I am not being complacent, but I believe that the electorate were prepared to give us, as a party in government, the benefit of the doubt. They saw that we came to power after 18 years of Conservative government, so we have not had enough time to slow the ship down, never mind turn it around. We have these four years to make genuine progress. When the next election comes round, we shall have to demonstrate significant progress and success in the areas where people feel that it is most necessary. If we do that, the new leader of the Conservative party will grow old in opposition, because a Labour Government will be returned in election after election. If the new leader of the Conservative party turns out to be Mr. Clarke, he will have to be mummified so that he can see out his time as leader. He smokes so many cigarettes that he has probably kippered himself already.
We will be asked about delivery of services such as health, education, law and order, transport, and we cannot be prescriptive about how we will deliver them. We will be judged by results, not by the purity of our approach.
I look forward to the conversion of my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin to the cause of decriminalisation of drugs, which I have advocated in this House for many years. We are not winning the war against drugs. My hon. Friend Mr. Howarth, who is sitting on the Bench in front of me, used to be a Home Office Minister. He used to give what amounted to Government health warnings by saying that decriminalisation was not Government policy, but today I shall do it for him: the decriminalisation of drugs is not Government policy. However, I believe that we must be bold and radical when we consider the matter, and look at the whole range of issues involved.
We are not winning the war against drugs. If it is true that 70 per cent. of all crime is associated with the supply and use of drugs, we ought to be deciding whether criminalisation is appropriate. I believe that it is not.
Reference has been made to the yob culture. I shall not try to pinpoint the blame for its rise over recent years, but it represents a general breakdown in our society. I believe that we should consider a national community service scheme, and I hope to be able to advance that cause by means of a Bill later in this Parliament, so that I can explain more of my thinking on the matter.
The Gracious Speech makes it clear that there will be another free vote on hunting. I hope that this time there will be no attempt to kick a Bill on the subject into the long grass. One cause of the low voter turnout at the election was cynicism. If we promise to do something and then do not do it, it will not be surprising if people become cynical and do not support us. I hope that we shall do what the House has said that it will do many times in the past--institute a ban on hunting. It is time for the Government to act and give hon. Members a chance to introduce such a ban.
I intend to address the House on the question of constitutional issues. Taking up the point made by Mr. Banks, I should make it clear that I believe that the most important matter facing the country and Parliament is the restoration of faith in politics.
The constitution is the framework within which we are governed. Given that that framework is becoming increasingly eroded, how does it match up to the requirement that it must permit the British people to make decisions based on true democracy and accountability? That is the key question. For example, I believe that we should reverse the procedural changes that have been introduced to the guillotine procedure. A motion on that subject will be debated tomorrow. The changes will have a major effect on the debates on the Nice treaty.
We must restore the independence of Back-Bench Members. As I have said in two speeches in the past six months, that will require a reduction in the power of the Whips. In my judgment, such a reduction would have to be achieved by amending the Standing Orders. Anyone who cares to look at the two speeches to which I have referred will see that I made mention of what happened in 1886. I shall not go into that now, but that was when the Speaker's rules were transferred to the Executive. From that moment on, Back-Bench Members ceased to have the degree of control that they had enjoyed for centuries.
I believe that there should be more independence for Select Committees. I am glad to have signed the motion circulating among hon. Members with regard to the report from the Select Committee on Liaison. That is a very important indicator of the direction in which the House has to move.
We should examine, and probably remove, the rule that prevents civil servants from being cross-examined by Select Committees about the advice that they have given to Ministers. That is a difficult and delicate area, but the present rule precludes proper discussion about what is really going on.
That problem is deeply related to another important matter--freedom of information. If we want a radical and proper examination of the interaction between voters and our constitution, we are bound to consider such matters and to arrive at conclusions in the very near future.
We should enhance the power of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The selection of the Chairman and members of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges should be taken away from the Executive. By definition, all scrutiny Committees should be chaired by Opposition Members. It is outrageous, for example, that the appointment of the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny should be in the hands of the Government. The Committee was established in 1972, but only since the beginning of the previous Parliament has that power of appointment resided with the Executive.
We must also reform the House of Lords by making it a far more elected Chamber, although I do not think that its entire membership needs to be elected. Of course, to prevent competition between the two Houses, the House of Lords' electoral cycle would have to be different from this House's, as would the areas represented. The necessary reform of the House and its procedures must be exciting and relevant, because we must bring them up to date. However, we must also maintain the House's essential democracy and accountability.
My next point concerns matters outside the House. I consider it inconceivable that any leader of the Conservative party--the greatest of parties, which has had the honour to serve this country for the best part of two and a half centuries--should not be clear about who governs this country. Anything else is impossible to imagine, but it is clear, from remarks that have been made outside the Chamber, that some people do not understand what is a very simple matter. The question is not whether one is anti-European, but whether one is pro-democracy and pro-accountability.
The problem is clear. After the Irish referendum, Mr. Romano Prodi went to Ireland to lecture people and tell them that they must hold another referendum because the earlier result had been undemocratic. I defy anyone--in this House or in the country--to advocate allowing ourselves to be governed by such people. However, the truth is that we are already so governed, which is why the European treaties must be renegotiated. That is the only way to get the balance right. I am pro-democracy, and it is pro-European to be pro-democracy. It is anti-European to be anti-democracy. That message must be brought home to the electorate as a whole.
People must be informed properly. The BBC rules on impartiality and on matters of major controversy, and the broadcasting legislation itself, must be examined. We must be sure that the relevant measures are interpreted and used in a way that benefits the people of this country as a whole. We must ensure, in the public interest, that people have a proper and impartial opportunity to acquire the information that they need. It is also important that the right questions be asked, which means that the necessary research processes in the relevant institutions must be enhanced.
I will defend to the death free speech in newspapers or on radio and television. However, that freedom of speech must be based on the requirement that people be given proper and fair information on all matters.
Furthermore, remarks made outside the House in the past 24 hours suggest that the Nice treaty should be allowed to go ahead. I want all the treaty elements covering the European Union looked at properly, because the EU impinges on the rights and privileges of Members of this House, and on the rights of those who vote for us. As I have said before, Parliament is not ours: it belongs to the British people, and hon. Members have no right to hand it over to anyone else.
The natural consequence of the movement towards Europe that might take place under certain permutations of the policies held by those who want to lead the Conservative party is that Britain would not merely be subject to further integration, but would be absorbed into a European constitution. That constitution is in the offing, and I have predicted it for many years.
In this regard, one has to ask certain constitutional questions about the Conservative party. First, let me quote Churchill on the truth. He said that one should tell the truth to the British people, and continued:
"They are a tough people, a robust people. They may be offended at the moment, but if you have told them exactly what is going on you have insured yourself against complaints and protests which are very unpleasant when they come home, on the morrow of some disillusion."--[Hansard, 23 November 1932; Vol. 272, c. 87.]
I believe that that is extremely relevant to what is going on in the Conservative party.
The second point concerns what a political party is. In the words of Edmund Burke, a political party is a body of men--and, of course, women--
"united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed".
It is impossible to reconcile the differences on this European issue and prevent the tensions and conflicts that are bound to follow from it if we try to create a false and impossible coalition. It will not work. To that extent, I agree with what my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke said in his statement yesterday. The issue needs to be brought out into the open. It is essential that we have a proper debate about the principle that Burke identified.
Disraeli said that the Tory party is a national party or it is nothing. That was the statement of one of our greatest Prime Ministers. It was not nationalistic--he meant the democratic nation state. That is the point. It is to do with the democracy and accountability that this constitutional arena--this House of Commons--represents. It needs improvement and reform, but that has to be measured and balanced. Only then will respect and faith in the British constitution and in this House of Commons be justified and be demonstrated--
It is interesting to speak after a Eurosceptic and anti-European fanatic. I do not share the views of Mr. Cash on the European issue.
First, I offer my congratulations to the Secretary of State for the Home Department on his new role, although he is not in his seat. I hope that he will be as successful in the Home Office as he was in the former Department for Education and Employment.
There is much detail to be filled in, but I broadly welcome the proposals in the Queen's Speech. However, I wish to concentrate on crime, as it is a subject that my constituents frequently raised with me during the election campaign.
I hope that under my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my constituency will continue to benefit from the improvements that took place under his predecessor, because improvements there certainly were. It goes without saying that prevention is better than cure, and in our first four years in office, we took great strides in tackling the causes of crime. In my constituency, the number of people on unemployment benefit has fallen by about 40 per cent. since 1997, and long-term youth unemployment had fallen by about 80 per cent. by February this year. I do not think that I am suggesting anything controversial when I say that providing people with jobs plays a fundamental part in reducing crime.
My constituency has also benefited from the largest ever investment by the Home Office in CCTV security systems. The Ealing community safety and crime strategy group received money for schemes in Southall town centre--part of my constituency--and for a multi-storey car park. The total investment was more than £350,000; that money was provided over the past four years, and now we have to look forward. I believe that the Queen's Speech gives us much to look forward to. Certainly, there is still much to be done, but the agenda outlined in the Queen's Speech gives us an opportunity to continue what we started and to address the key concern of the electorate--improving public services.
Reform of public services is at the heart of the Queen's Speech, and it is vital to keep the word "reform" clearly in mind. Let me however return to the issue of crime and how it affects my constituency. Although we have seen a 10 per cent. overall fall in crime since 1997, there are still many areas of concern for my constituents. For example, in spite of the fact that legislation has been passed banning handguns, some violent crimes are still rising.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing those who live in my constituency is drugs. I have been greatly concerned about this and have held meetings with the local police and community members. Recent reports have highlighted the fact that drug abuse, particularly heroin abuse, is on the increase among young Asians, especially in Southall. In view of that, the Southall community drug education project has been conducting valuable research in conjunction with the university of Central Lancashire's ethnicity and health unit. The principle behind the research is that local people know their own needs best, which is why the Department of Health offered between £5,000 and £25,000 for local black and minority ethnic communities to undertake their own needs assessments.
This local focus is part of the Government's 10-year strategy to tackle drug misuse, which has set tough targets, including halving the numbers of young people using illegal drugs and halving the availability of drugs on our streets. There have been a number of achievements in the past year, including the establishment of the drugs prevention advisory service and information from Ofsted indicating that 93 per cent. of secondary and 75 per cent. of primary schools now have a drugs education policy. I have checked with some of the high schools in my constituency that they are implementing the drugs education policy. Another achievement has been the launch of the positive futures programme, which uses money seized from drug traffickers to support sports and recreational projects and to build up young peoples' confidence so as to encourage them away from drugs and into healthier life styles.
More needs to be done, however, to address this issue and the terrible consequences that it can have for communities. Findings from the Southall project suggest that the specific needs of many ethnic groups are not being addressed properly and that some minority groups, such as Somalis, are being left out of the loop of increasing awareness. I hope that time will be found in this Parliament to take this up further and to address the needs of individual communities.
Tackling drug problems is not easy, as it is not possible to create a "one size fits all" solution. The Asian community, for example, encompasses a wide range of languages, cultures and religious faiths, as well as four generations who have lived in this country and have very different experiences. Thus what is good for one group may not be appropriate for another.
The proposal in the manifesto for a drugs register to keep track of drugs traffickers is a start, and the continued emphasis on class A drugs makes sense. We must pick our fights carefully on this complicated issue.
We must address demand as well as supply. Investment in the treatment of offenders is an intelligent approach and money well spent. Reduced demand will come about only through educating people in ways that address their local circumstances, and I hope that the Government will continue to invest in that goal.
I would also like to take this opportunity to ask the Government to take further steps to deal with asylum seekers. My constituency has suffered from an influx of asylum seekers, which is putting a strain on community relations and public services in the area. An unacceptable extra burden is being placed on the already limited resources available and no extra money is being invested to improve the quality of life in my constituency.
During the election campaign, people raised a number of concerns with me, including the lack of amenities and sports facilities for the young, traffic congestion, and parking difficulties for the business community and others. There has also been a general deterioration in living standards in my constituency for many people, owing to the council's inability to invest in the areas of greatest need. If the area is supporting more people than it can cope with, it has every reason to demand that central Government provide more money to the local authority to redress the imbalance. The area of which I speak is predominantly an ethnic minority area; if neglected, it would reflect badly on the Government's record on race relations.
I have every sympathy for those who are genuinely fleeing persecution, but it is essential that we improve the system of dealing with applications that have already been refused. There is no point in improving the speed of processing applications if people end up staying regardless of the decision of the Home Office. That only makes it harder for genuine applicants, who are then more likely to be resented by the community, which sees services overwhelmed by those who should have been removed. We need to be fairer and firmer in immigration and asylum policy.
That said, I am sure that the Government will tackle those concerns, just as I am sure that they will continue to address the concerns of the electorate throughout the country. The people of Britain sent a clear signal during the election that our public services are the issue that is of most importance to them. People want--
First, I congratulate and pay tribute to all hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I hope that I can live up to the high standard that they have set.
It is a great honour for me to participate in this debate and to represent the people of Belfast, North in the House. They have done me the honour of electing me to Belfast city council and to the Northern Ireland Assembly, but it is a particular privilege and honour to be here as a Member of this House, the mother of Parliaments. I thank them for returning me with one of the largest swings recorded in Northern Ireland political history--reversing a 13,000 Ulster Unionist majority and turning it into a 6,300 majority for the Democratic Unionists.
I pledge to my constituents--all my constituents--that I will work hard on their behalf and I assure them and the House that I will raise issues of concern to them and to the wider community in Northern Ireland, both in my representations to Ministers and on the Floor of the House.
My predecessor, Cecil Walker, was a Member of this House for 18 years, serving from 1983. For any Member, it was a difficult task to represent a constituency in Northern Ireland through some of the worst years of violence, the troubles and civil unrest. It was even more so for a Member representing Belfast, North, which has borne a disproportionately high level of violence and deaths owing to terrorism throughout the troubles. I put on record my appreciation of Cecil Walker's service and the sacrifice that he and his family made throughout those years. I wish him well in retirement.
I have had the honour and privilege not only to know Cecil but to know other former Members who represented my constituency in this House. I can think of the late Johnny McQuade, who served here as a Democratic Unionist party member between 1979 and 1983--he was Cecil Walker's predecessor. I have fond memories of Johnny McQuade, who was an ex-Chindit, who served in Her Majesty's forces and was a Shankhill road man born and bred. I now have the honour to represent that area in the House. Johnny was a man of few words but of great integrity and dedication and I am honoured to follow in his footsteps and in those of other distinguished Members for Belfast, North.
One such Member was Montgomery Hyde, who was the Unionist Member of Parliament for the constituency between 1950 and 1959. One of his great claims to fame was that he was the author of a book on the life of Sir Edward Carson, the founding father of Unionism. Sir Edward served in this House with great distinction and held high office--he was eventually elevated to the other place as Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and took the title of Lord Carson of Duncairn, which is part of my constituency. He represented the area with great distinction between 1918 and 1921.
I am honoured to follow in the footsteps of the founding father of Unionism. At the time when Carson represented Belfast, North, Belfast in general and the constituency in particular were at the forefront of forging strong manufacturing and trading links with other parts of the United Kingdom and the world. The constituency has a rich and diverse historical, cultural, architectural and industrial heritage. It runs from Belfast city centre to the beautiful Cave Hill country park and the famous Cave Hill itself, which is synonymous with Belfast. Any visitor to the city cannot overlook that hill, which is part of my constituency.
The constituency also takes in part of Newtownabbey borough council, which includes one of the largest housing estates in Europe--the Rathcoole estate. Some of the best known landmarks are contained within the constituency, such as Belfast cathedral, Belfast castle and other places of some notoriety, such as Crumlin Road jail. Some distinguished colleagues of mine have spent some time in that jail, but it is no longer a place that receives inmates.
The area is known far and wide for its artistic creativity. I am glad at the way in which the local Departments at home and the council have worked to turn the cathedral quarter into an area where cultural and artistic activities are to be encouraged and promoted. Most of all, it is an area in which there are people who care passionately and deeply about their communities and who want to build a better future. I intend to give whatever assistance I can as long as they do me the honour of sending me to this House.
Belfast, North is also known for many of the worst reasons. Hon. Members will be aware that, while there are the famous landmarks that I mentioned, there are many others that scar the area. It has the highest number of so-called peace walls of any constituency in Northern Ireland--walls that divide communities for security purposes. We have lost more than 600 people in the constituency as a result of terrorist violence. The area has seen widespread movement of populations and communities. It contains some of the worst areas of economic and social deprivation in Northern Ireland, and I dare say in the entire kingdom.
My job, in partnership with other people, is to try to put things right--that was our manifesto pledge to the people of Belfast, North--and that means not only the political and constitutional issues but the economic and social issues that affect our constituents so deeply.
I come to the House with a clear mandate not only as a Unionist--which I am and I am proud to be--but as a campaigning Member of the House, to work for the social and economic betterment of all my constituents.
Of the 20 most deprived wards in Northern Ireland, six are in north Belfast. In Crumlin ward, which is predominantly Protestant, 25.9 per cent. of people are short-term unemployed and 11.6 per cent. are long-term unemployed, compared with an average in Northern Ireland of 9.3 and 4.2 per cent. respectively. In the New Lodge ward, which is predominantly and overwhelmingly nationalist and Roman Catholic, 62 per cent. of households are in receipt of housing benefit, compared with a Northern Ireland average of 24 per cent. Those figures highlight the levels of deprivation and social need--problems which have been exacerbated by and have undoubtedly been a contributory factor in the high levels of violence and terrorism that the constituency has witnessed over the past 30 years.
I sought election to the House because I believe in the need to bring regeneration and renewal in place of decline and deprivation, in the form of more jobs, better training and skills provision, better housing, provision for our young people, better education, better health provision, and a better and cleaner environment. That is what people, whether they are Protestant or Roman Catholic, whatever their background, are demanding; it is what they deserve.
Progress is being made, but Members will be aware of the current problems in my constituency. Members will be aware that in recent days we have again seen street confrontation, violence, the police out having to defend communities--even the Army having to be called in to give back-up to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Yesterday I had the sad task of having to stand in a local Presbyterian church in my constituency that has been the target of arsonists, as has a Roman Catholic chapel in a neighbouring constituency.
All those attacks are deplorable, and I hope that the talks that are going on between communities to try to resolve these issues will be successful. However, people I meet in my constituency repeatedly ask me why, when in other parts of the United Kingdom there is a demand for more policing--more policemen and women on the beat--in Northern Ireland the police service is being demoralised and decimated and its numbers reduced as a result of the implementation of the Patten proposals, under the terms of the Belfast agreement.
Mr. Mullin mentioned the yob culture. Other Members have spoken about increasing crime. In north Belfast and other parts of the Province, we have a continuing terrorist threat. We have so-called dissidents perpetrating violence. We have all the problems of antisocial behaviour and crime that other constituencies have, made even worse because of paramilitary influence. And yet, uniquely, our police service has been cut. The numbers have been cut from 13,000 to 7,000. We have large-scale demoralisation and high levels of sickness.
I congratulate Mr. Dodds on that very considered speech, in which he reminded us not only of the magnificence of the city in which he has his constituency, but of its many areas of deprivation--which I understand well, as I come from a very deprived community myself--and the need to address all these problems, and to do so regardless of the allegiances of the people of those areas. I thank him very much for that speech. I hope that he will enjoy his time in this place; that he will make a contribution, as he has done tonight, to our debates; and that he will take up the many opportunities that he will be offered. I thank him for the generous tributes that he paid to his predecessors.
I welcome my right hon. Friends to their new positions and congratulate the Home Secretary on a very considered speech. The subject of today's debate is home affairs and constitution, and I hope that, after many excellent speeches on law and order, the House will give me its indulgence when I raise an issue that I consider to be of extreme constitutional importance: the democratic deficit that we have in the House as a result of the selection processes of our political parties.
"The proportion of women here is too low . . . In my party, the under-representation by women is truly chronic."--[Hansard, 25 June 2001; Vol. 370, c. 404.]
I welcome the commitment made in the Queen's Speech to give parties the right to take positive action to increase women's representation in the House. Last year, I introduced a ten-minute Bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, in an effort to free political parties from the tribunal decision in the Jepson case, which found that the employment section of the Sex Discrimination Act applied to Members of Parliament. Since that time, an in-depth analysis has been carried out by Meg Russell of the constitution unit based at University College London, and a timely paper on international comparisons has been produced, which I recommend to my right hon. Friends.
In this country, we are lagging far behind our European partners in increasing women's representation and in legislating to enable political parties to take appropriate action. Those who opposed my amendment to the SDA frequently argued that even if United Kingdom equality law were amended, positive action in selection, such as all-women shortlists, would fall foul of European Union equal treatment law or the European convention on human rights. I believe that a study of other positive action measures in other European countries gives the lie to these criticisms.
Sweden, with a Parliament 43 per cent. composed of women Members, heads the list of European democracies in terms of women's representation. The UK has slipped to No. 33 in that list. In Sweden, being a candidate is not regarded--as I believe it cannot be here, either--as a contract of employment. It is a position of trust. In the early 1990s, women in Sweden threatened to start an all-woman party. Nothing could be more of a spur to the political parties to put their own houses in order. As a consequence, the Social Democratic party adopted positive action in candidate selection. Other parties followed, with the result that 44 per cent. of Members of Parliament elected in 1994 were women. At no time has there been any challenge in domestic, EU or human rights legislation to the positive action adopted by the majority of political parties in Sweden.
Norway has a similar record. Positive action to increase women's representation has been used for the past 10 years. The majority of parties adopted a rule of at least 40 per cent. women to be selected, and currently, 36 per cent. of the Parliament is made up of women. Again, there has been no legal challenge.
Germany and France present equally useful case histories. In Germany, quotas have been adopted ranging from 30 per cent. in the Conservative CDU to 50 per cent. in the German Socialist party. As a consequence of those measures, women constitute 31 per cent. of the German Parliament. Again, there has been no legal challenge in Europe or under human rights law. But France presents the most striking case of radical action. All attempts to legislate for positive action for women failed in France over many years as a result of the objections of France's Constitutional Council, leaving the French Parliament with a mere 10 per cent. women. However, three years ago the French constitution had to be amended to take account of the new equality clauses of the Amsterdam treaty. As a consequence, positive action became enshrined in law, opening the way for a new electoral law requiring equality in selection.
In local elections carried out since the election law was passed last year, the proportion of women rose from 22 per cent. to 48 per cent. Parties can be debarred from election, and lose state funding, if they do not comply with the strict 50:50 equality law. Because there is so much ground to make up in France, the French Socialist party has proposed that in places where women were candidates in 1997, only women will be selected, and that in all seats where MPs are retiring, only women will be eligible to be candidates.
I give these examples to demonstrate how very modest is the Government's proposal to legislate to allow, but not require, political parties to take positive action in selection to redress gender imbalance.
Does my hon. Friend agree that great progress has been made in this country in setting up the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament? A positive mechanism was used by a political party to ensure that the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have some of the best representation of women in Europe. In fact, there are more women than men in the Cabinet of the Welsh Assembly.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely right, of course. The difficulty was that that was a one-off mechanism. The selection of women has fallen back since then, and we need to return to the point that she so rightly describes.
If the French measures that I have mentioned were adopted here, there would be rioting in our constituency parties and some hon. Gentlemen would adopt a policy of never retiring. Action is urgent. The progress made by the Labour party, which my hon. Friend has just outlined, in adopting twinning and all-women short lists before 1997 has been abruptly halted as my party's membership has reverted to type in the selections for the general election. Other parties in the House have made little or no progress, with the notable exception of the parties in Northern Ireland, which have returned three women after a gap of 30 years.
On present trends, it would take more than 30 years to reach parity in the House. That is absolutely unacceptable. Time is of the essence. It is likely that the selection of candidates for the next general election will begin in 2003, making legislation in this Session a necessity for those parties that will need to present rule changes to their annual conferences in 2002.
No one disputes that there are men in this House who have championed women's interests, but men cannot bring a woman's perspective to the whole range of political concerns. Women Members contribute to the House through different life experiences and from different perspectives. Furthermore, women voters believe that women Members of Parliament better understand the realities of women's lives. Perhaps if the House were more representative, in gender and colour, of our contemporary society, we might make an impact on voter apathy. I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to introduce legislation to allow positive action in the selection of candidates as soon as possible, and I ask the official Opposition to make it very clear that they will support that legislation when it is debated in the House.
I want to concentrate on constitutional issues, especially on one that has been raised by several hon. Members--the sadly low turnout at the general election.
First, I want to note the fact that the Gracious Speech refers to consultations on further reforms to the House of Lords. It seems clear that the Government do not know how to proceed to stage 2 of House of Lords reform. Despite the warnings, which we in the Conservative party issued four years ago, that stage 1 should not be implemented until stage 2 was agreed, the Government went ahead, as they have done so many times, in an arrogant way, removing most of the hereditary peers and replacing them with their own Labour party cronies. More Labour life peers have been appointed in four years than Conservative life peers were appointed in 18 years. That demonstrates the need for a significant change in attitude.
The Government have the effrontery to suggest that the present arrangements are somehow better and more democratic than those that preceded them. The Prime Minister has consistently opposed the granting of honours for political work. It is a moot point as to whether that it right or wrong. Yet having made that announcement over and again, the Prime Minister has used peerages as a currency to buy vacancies in safe Labour constituencies to put in his own appointed men--often those who have crossed the Floor of the House from another party.
I congratulate those Labour Members who have refused to be bought in that way, and I respect their integrity, but that is just one aspect of an arrogant attitude to power that goes much further in snubbing convention and tradition. The Parliament Acts were improperly invoked during the previous Parliament, yet barely a murmur was raised against that. Even the Chancellor, in his petty way, continues to refuse to wear the appropriate dress for his Mansion House speech. [Interruption.] The fact that Labour Members think that irrelevant is precisely my point. It is not irrelevant; it is not only a gesture of the Government's arrogance to be different, but it is downright bad manners not to accommodate the wishes of one's hosts in attending any function. That is one more example of how the Government's arrogance of power shows itself.
As several hon. Members have said, there has been an absolute abandonment of any semblance of accountability to Parliament. That has largely been achieved with the connivance of supine Back Benchers. I do not pretend for a moment that that all started in 1997; it did not, but it has certainly grown inexorably worse under the Labour Government.
The constitution may not be a popular political issue, but from the Government's attitude to it, we can divine their attitude to anyone who takes a contrary view on any of their policies. Indeed, not only will they not enter into reasoned debate, but they will often not even recognise the fact that there is an issue to debate. Other hon. Members have mentioned the West Lothian question, yet the Government firmly refuse to accept that there is an issue, let alone consider how to address it. So is it any wonder that the electorate are increasingly cynical about politicians and that so few people voted three weeks ago. The election result was disastrous not only for my party, but for democracy and even for the Labour party, which, despite the translation into seats, obtained 3 million-odd votes fewer than before.
I want to concentrate for a moment on the Opposition and on my party's role. My party has to regain its standing with the electorate, not just to win power--important as that may be--but to restore its credibility as an Opposition in the meantime. True parliamentary democracy needs a credible and robust Opposition, but it also needs an end to permanent confrontation. It is no wonder that the public are disillusioned when all that they hear is our criticising each other, rather than having reasoned debates. If there were ever any doubt in my mind that that was the public's view, it was removed on the doorsteps of my constituency during the election. Over and again, the people of Britain demanded a new style of non-confrontational politics.
What can my party do to restore public interest in Parliament and in our democracy? I have always believed that the Conservative party's principles represent the natural, gut instincts of the British people. That is why I am a Conservative, and it seems that the Prime Minister agrees, which explains his rhetoric. Of course, the reality is that what he does totally belies his rhetoric, but the rhetoric seeks to appeal to the same gut instinct.
I recall my first job as a full-time employee. When I was 17, I worked on a farm with a large number of other farm workers. They thought that it was not worth working overtime because of the tax that they would have to pay. I know full well from our discussions that they all voted Labour, as did millions of other manual workers, because they thought that the socialism on offer would look after them. However, beneath the surface, they were red-blooded capitalists who sought profit from a deal and a reward for their efforts. If we listen to the Government, we are all capitalists now, but the seam of Conservative principles goes much deeper into the hearts and minds of the British people.
Our party has consistently stood for the rule of law and the maintenance of order, regardless of provocation or even sympathy with the cause. The Conservative party truly believes in choice and has sought to provide it in office. We believe in individual responsibility, not just to make decisions in the expectation that the state will help, but one in which people accept that if they get it wrong, they must accept the consequences. There are many other ways in which the Conservative party's principles go deep into the instincts and inheritance of the British people. Our challenge is to make people understand that. I know that that is of little consequence to Labour Members. Indeed, many of them will disagree with what I say, but ultimately what is right for my party is right for democracy and for the standing of politics in this country.
The Conservative party has always recognised our responsibility to help others. Not for nothing did it used to be said that the Church of England was the Conservative party at prayer. In those days, Conservatives ran local charities and gave their services to the communities and sought nothing in return. Yet after all that, we have allowed ourselves to be seen as a different type of party--a party of hard men; selfish, dogmatic and greedy. None of those things is true, but it is hardly surprising that we are seen that way when we do not explain our principles; when we do not explain that lowering rates of tax can often increase tax yield. If we are worried about funding public services, it is tax yields rather than tax rates that matter.
We allow our views on Europe to be portrayed as polarised or isolationist, rather than spelling out the vision that I described in the House some years ago of a kaleidoscope of nations working together but each retaining their identity. When we talk about public services, we sometimes sound as if they are for other people, whereas in reality the vast majority of Conservatives, like myself, use the state education system and national health service. I believe that people expect from our public services quality, a service free at the point of use and a service that is reasonably convenient.
No one other than those wedded to socialism really cares who owns the bricks and mortar or who pays the nurses and teachers. It is the quality and availability of the service that matters. That is why the debate about privatisation is obsolete. The debate is not about selling off or charging but about the means of delivering a service to the general public. The Conservative Government began to move down the road of making available a range of provision which included the role of charities and religious bodies. Despite the rhetoric of the past few days--we heard it again this afternoon--much of that provision has been removed by the Labour Government.
The Conservative party will not redeem itself by trying to turn the clock back or by explaining our policies more clearly. We need to re-engage with the people of this country. My party has its part to play in restoring the status of politics and politicians. That is essential for my party's interests, but not just for us as a--
I rise to make my first contribution in this House conscious of the fact that, as the Member of Parliament for Caerphilly, I am part of a long Labour tradition. My immediate predecessor was Ron Davies, a former Secretary of State for Wales. He made a huge contribution to the achievement of Welsh devolution.
Other former Members of Parliament for Caerphilly include Mr. Fred Evans, who was the Member from 1968 when he won a famous by-election until 1979. His predecessor was Mr. Ness Edwards, a famous miners leader in south Wales and the author of a scholarly book on the history of the South Wales Miners Federation. He rose to become Postmaster-General. He reflected the coal-dominated reality of south Wales better than anyone else I can think of.
Today, south Wales is very different and so is the Caerphilly constituency. Coal has given way to a more diverse economy. Now manufacturing is king and probably as many of Caerphilly's work force are employed outside the constituency as within it. That is not to say that we do not have the legacy of coal; there are still coal tips in the constituency that need to be removed. The award of compensation to miners and their widows must be speeded up and paid as quickly as possible.
As the Caerphilly constituency responds to a changing world, new priorities emerge and fresh issues come to the fore. In the southern part of the constituency--the area dominated by Caerphilly town--we have a town which is famous for its cheese and its huge, magnificent 13th century castle. That town is an important tourist attraction with huge potential, which will be fulfilled only if we preserve the countryside around Caerphilly mountain and further east towards the village of Machen.
At the same time, in the northern part of the constituency--an area that gave inspiration to the artist Lowry in the 1960s--there is an urgent need for the Bargoed bypass. It is needed to relieve traffic congestion in the town and bring economic regeneration to the upper part of the Rhymney valley. Infrastructure and economic development initiatives are particularly important now in the Caerphilly county borough area due to job losses at Corus in nearby Llanwern and elsewhere. Yes, unemployment is at an all time low, but there is a need for more to be done.
Of common concern to all parts of my constituency, north and south, is the need for a new hospital. We must act so that potential and actual patients in the constituency and county borough need not have to travel long distances for medical treatment. It is unacceptable that my constituents have to travel to Cardiff, Newport or Merthyr Tydfil when it is widely acknowledged that a new hospital is needed in the borough. I hope that progress can be made on that in the near future.
I shall work closely on those issues with the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend Mr. Touhig, and my hon. Friend Mr. Havard, who both represent parts of the Caerphilly county borough and share my philosophy and priorities. They both believe that there is a need for an increased emphasis on better and more effective policing.
We have seen recent improvements in the crime figures in the Caerphilly area, but there is real concern about drug-related crime and increasing antisocial behaviour. I am convinced that the Government here in London and the National Assembly for Wales are correct in tackling the underlying social factors behind crime. There is a direct correlation between social deprivation and the incidence of crime. I welcome the support given to young people by the National Assembly through the publication of its policy statement "Extending Entitlement". I say that as someone who has worked for the past two years for the youth service in Wales.
There is also a need to make policing more effective. That is why I warmly welcome the proposed legislation to take action against money laundering so that recovery of the proceeds of crime and drug dealing is easier. We also need greater police co-operation across police force boundaries. However, there is no ducking the fact that the police forces in Wales need more resources.
Gwent police, for example, suffers from the deployment of an obtuse funding formula. It needs a fairer funding formula to give it, perhaps, £150,000 a year extra. That money is needed to tackle crime in the areas of greatest deprivation in the south Wales valleys. The previous Home Office Minister, my hon. Friend Mr. Clarke, promised to review that formula and I hope that his replacement will realise that commitment.
I am privileged to serve as the Member of Parliament for Caerphilly. I thank the people of my constituency for the trust that they have placed in me and my local party for its support. I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years. That experience has made me a committed European and internationalist. David Williams was one of the most famous sons of Caerphilly. We have heard much about Edmund Burke, but David Williams was a friend of Thomas Paine. He argued forcefully in the 1780s and 1790s for democracy, liberty and freedom. He helped to draft the first French constitution and in 1792 was made an honorary citizen of the new French republic. I cannot hope to follow David Williams's achievements, but I hope to reflect his internationalism and integrity through the way in which I represent the people of Caerphilly.
It is a great pleasure to follow the maiden speech of Mr. David, on which I congratulate him. He spoke with confidence and passion and is clearly a very decent representative for his constituency. His speech will stand him in good stead and we wish him well. As a retread, I do not suppose that my contribution counts as a maiden--I am not sure that it is possible to be a virgin twice.
When my service in the House was rudely interrupted in 1997, I left the Chamber as a Government Whip. I went on to become chief executive of the Cats Protection League, which is Britain's largest and oldest cat welfare charity. It is the most amazing organisation and helps 165,000 cats a year, has 79,000 members and sites and groups in 280 constituencies. One of its main aims is the neutering of cats. Some of my more cruel friends suggested that as a Government Whip I had gone from neutering Members of Parliament to neutering cats. I always argued that it was a good process for both species because it stops them wandering.
It is a great pleasure and honour to represent Old Bexley and Sidcup. Although it is a south-east London borough, emotionally it remains part of Kent. Some 85 per cent. of my constituents are home owners and we are blessed with excellent grammar, community and primary schools, which is part of the reason why so many people choose to make their homes in that wonderful constituency.
My constituents were, of course, served for 51 years by Sir Edward Heath, who was Father of the House and a former Prime Minister. Perhaps less known to hon. Members is the fact that he was also a colonel in the Royal Artillery during the second world war and gave distinguished service to his country in every respect. Sir Edward held controversial views on the European Union, but at least he always had the courage and tenacity to stick by them. In 1985, I was one of 12 Members who voted in defiance of Mrs. Thatcher's three-line Whip on the Single European Act. I thought that that demonstrated some courage, although I did not get a medal for it; instead, I was made to spend even more time on the Back Benches.
Despite our different views on the future of Europe, Sir Edward was a extraordinarily decent Member to follow. Although I am a bit cynical after 33 years in active politics about the size of a personal vote that a Member of Parliament accrues, I found on the doorsteps of Old Bexley and Sidcup that Sir Edward was held in the deepest affection and the greatest respect. It will be an enormous challenge to follow his service in the House.
In supporting the Conservative amendment to the Gracious Speech, I want to highlight the problem of police numbers. The notifiable offences rate in the borough of Bexley increased by 19 per cent. last year. Although it is a tranquil and lovely place to live, crime is of great concern to my constituency. The Bexley division of the Metropolitan police force is an extremely able and talented service, but it is considerably undermanned. It has fewer than half the number of police officers for an average London borough of our type. Just before the general election campaign was announced, the division was pleased when Mayor Livingstone--no doubt to help some of those whom he hopes to rejoin in the fullness of time--announced an extra 20 police officers for it. Sadly, 10 were taken away to form the serious crime group, which investigates murder. In Old Bexley and Sidcup and in the London borough of Bexley in general it is highly unlikely that anyone will be murdered, but it is likely that people will suffer from vandalism, burglary or car theft, and those crimes require the evidence of a police officer in the area.
Sidcup high street is struggling to survive as a retail centre against an enormous problem of vandalism. Its residents were disappointed that the Home Office did not agree to the closed circuit television application that the town made in the recent round. Vandalism is a problem and retailers are struggling. Part of my campaign will be to press the Home Office Minister responsible to reconsider that decision.
It is not only the major centres that have to deal with that problem: shops in the Oval have been frequently vandalised. It was bad enough that they suffered from paint spraying, but the little monsters have got used to using glass cutters so that they can make their presence permanently felt. Struggling to meet the demands of both central and local government in a hostile retail environment in which there is vandalism makes earning a living very difficult. Those traders are struggling.
It is not good enough to say that those who commit such crimes need more counselling or help. The victims of those crimes have lost patience with that approach. It does not matter whether one sits in this Chamber as a Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat Member, or as a member of any other party, the fact is that victims of crime in our constituencies are fed up. It will take parties of all persuasions to have the courage to finance the police service properly and to get policemen back on the beat.
It is very good to be back in this Chamber; it has been gratifying to have been welcomed by members of all parties. Those who lose their seats will find it a very cold experience. One of my tasks now that I am back is not to rest until I am sure that the constituents of Old Bexley and Sidcup are far better protected by a better-manned police service than at present.
I congratulate Derek Conway on what, as he said, is probably not his maiden speech. From listening to him, I can tell that he has lost none of the good humour for which I knew him in his previous incarnation in the House. One thing that always struck me about Ted Heath was the extent to which, no matter his achievements in this House, as Prime Minister, on the international stage or domestically, he gave the impression, which the hon. Gentleman has just confirmed, that he was an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament. That speaks well not only of Ted Heath but of the hon. Gentleman who has picked up that baton. I am sure that he will run with it in the appropriate manner.
I want briefly to comment on the James Bulger case and events of last week, to which Miss Widdecombe and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred in their opening speeches. Denise Fergus and Ralph Bulger are both my constituents. None of us has the imagination really to appreciate what they have gone through over the years as the parents involved in losing a child in such horrendous circumstances. My heart goes out to them, and I am sure that everyone in the House shares that sentiment.
It is unwise for politicians to try to second-guess the decisions of the parole board or, for that matter, of those in the Home Office who have had to be party to those decisions, if not make them themselves. I say that for the simple reason that I have not had sight--nor would it be appropriate for me to do so--of the reports prepared on the two young men concerned. To comment without the knowledge and understanding of what has happened to them and where they stand now would therefore be unfair.
I want to make two points in the remaining time available to me, the first of which is to do with policing. I certainly welcome the target of 6,000 additional police officers that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary reaffirmed in his opening speech. Most people in my constituency and, indeed, across the country will welcome that target. Although it may be important to increase the number of police available, what we do with those additional police officers is also important--how they are organised and how they address the problems of crime faced by many of our constituents.
The major problem experienced in my constituency can exist in all sorts of different communities, and not always just in areas that are unstable in some way or suffer great social and economic deprivation. My constituency is very mixed. There are rural parts, parts known in classic sociological jargon as C1 and C2, and there is Kirkby, which comprises a series of council estates. The problem is low-level street crime--which I consider an inappropriate description--or crime and disorder. Previous Home Office Ministers, my right hon. Friends the Members for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), had a new vision of how to deal with such problems and they gave the police and local authorities some useful tools for doing so, but I believe that that solid foundation must now be built on by reviewing the method of policing, revisiting the punishments available and adopting new and innovative approaches.
On Merseyside, the chief constable has now reorganised his police force in such a way as to put policemen back on to the streets. He has used the existing wards structure and allocated a number of officers--usually an inspector, two sergeants and 20 policemen--to a defined geographical area. That is their patch, which they work mostly on foot. The Home Office is monitoring the progress of that development. It is not the only story--other parts of Merseyside's police force are tackling other problems--but it is a useful start that deserves our support. We should keep a close eye on Merseyside, because developments there may well serve as models for the future.
I should like to make a plea to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Angela Eagle. Merseyside police authority and the chief constable are taking a risk. Although I believe that they will address the problems as people experience them on the street, they might find themselves in conflict with the key performance indicators that Merseyside police force is supposed to meet. While enhancing people's quality of life, they may well fail to meet those performance indicators. It would be wrong if they were penalised for having the courage to act to meet the public agenda.
We need to consider ways in which the police and the criminal justice system can address offending behaviour very early on in a criminal career. The youngster in my constituency who is throwing a brick through a bus window tonight is a nuisance, and a dangerous one at that, but five years down the line he--it usually is a he--could be the local drugs baron, a house burglar or car thief, or committing even more serious crimes. Stopping youngsters early in their criminal career and giving the police and the courts proper remedies to break into the spiral towards ever more serious offences are among the most useful things that we can do. I should like to suggest two things that might help. I do not pretend that they are easy, that they will require no resources, or that I have a fully worked out plan for delivering, but they deserve serious consideration.
First, there is a role in the process for fixed penalties. I know that when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister suggested that some time ago, the response was derision, but a fixed penalty gives the offender the chance to acknowledge the crime and have it dealt with quickly, and it may provide the early warning that a person needs to stop him doing something worse. That will work for some people, but not for others. There is no system in place for it, so it will not happen quickly. Secondly, an early custodial sentence--perhaps for people as young as 12 or 14 if additional resources are created within the prison estate--might be the wake-up call that is needed to stop youngsters developing their criminal career any further.
When opening the debate, my right hon. Friend invited new ideas and said that they would be welcome. I offer those two new ideas to my colleagues in the Home Office.
In conclusion, if we do not start to address so-called low-level disorder and street crime early in people's offending careers, and if we do not stop the drift that seems to be the norm in some areas, we will reap the whirlwind in years to come. I believe that the problem can be addressed, and that the Home Secretary has the will to do so. There will probably be a consensus in the House in favour of measures that start to address it effectively.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in the House, especially in a debate touching on the constitution.
I should like to preface my remarks with an expression of gratitude to the House and a pre-emptive apology. My gratitude is for the introduction and passing of the House of Lords Act 1999, which permitted me to shake off the shackles of the peerage and return to being a normal human being and enabled me to fulfil a long-held dream of seeking election to the House of Commons. My pre-emptive apology concerns the fact that, having sat in another place for a number of years, I observed former Members of the House of Commons taking up a seat there, and saw the difficulty that they had throwing off the habit of addressing colleagues as hon. Gentlemen. If, by mischance, I address the Chair as "my Lord" or refer to any Member as "noble", I ask the House to understand that I mean no disrespect; it is merely old habits coming through.
It is the tradition--and, for me, a particular pleasure--to pay tribute to the one's predecessor. It is a great pleasure because the former Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is a great personal friend; Robert Maclennan served in the House for just over 35 years and made many major contributions. He led one party for a short time and helped to co-found the Liberal Democrat party. In the previous Parliament, with the then Leader of the House, he was responsible for the report that allowed much of the constitutional legislation that was introduced to go through. However, he is most remembered by all those who know him for his extraordinary assiduity as a constituency Member. Having knocked on many doors during the election campaign, as many other hon. Members will have done, I found out just how hard he worked and how many people spoke of him with affection. Indeed, only 24 hours before the election, he was with me, knocking on doors and collecting more casework, which he took great pleasure in handing over to me in recent weeks.
As we got to know each other well, Robert Maclennan told me that he would never have stood for or sought election in any other constituency. I share that view; I would never have wished to seek election in any constituency other than my home of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. It is an extraordinarily large and varied constituency. I am not sure whether it is the largest; I think that that honour belongs to my right hon. Friend Mr. Kennedy, but my constituency is a close second. When I drive home from Inverness airport and cross the constituency boundary, I can see a sign telling me that I have 91 miles to go until I get home; there is therefore a large geographical area to cover.
My constituency not only has geographic variety, but great economic variety. We have new industries, such as Dounreay, the former fast-breeder reactor plant, which is in the process of being decommissioned and has a genuine opportunity to become a world centre of excellence in decommissioning skills that we can export to other countries. At the other end of the constituency in Invergordon are some of the major players in rig refurbishment, looking after the oil industry. Many new businesses have recently come in; we have the largest manufacturer of chest freezers in the world, and we have the company that produces all of Madonna's cassettes. Much in the constituency, therefore, is surprising.
The backbone of the constituency--the heart of it--remains the rural traditional industries of farming and fishing, and to those I would nowadays add tourism. These are all industries that are in considerable trouble.
The fishing industry is in severe crisis. There is a major problem of balancing fish stocks and fishing effort, and I look forward to an opportunity to bring the matter before the House on another occasion.
Farming in my constituency, as in many others, is the glue that holds together many of the rural areas. The entire fabric of, for example, remote parts of Sutherland is held together by farming and crofting.
The recent foot and mouth crisis has had a terrible effect. Happily, my constituency has not had the problems of those where large slaughters have had to take place. None the less, the future seems very difficult, particularly with the tradition within the constituency of rearing stock for transfer to other areas of the country. I look forward to bringing both these matters before the House.
I ask for the indulgence of the House to speak briefly on tourism. I must declare an interest. I am still involved with a number of tourist businesses. I am also patron or president of several industry bodies. Tourism is the industry in which I grew up. I started my working life in the kitchens of the Berkeley, and I did day release at Westminster college. I worked my way up through that industry.
Tourism, as a result of foot and mouth, is having a difficult time. It can be seen from the extent of the crisis what an impact the tourist industry has. It is one of the largest employers. According to the Government's figures, it produces about 7 per cent. of national gross domestic product. It needs to be properly supported and resourced. I hope very much that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will ensure that resources are made available to encourage overseas tourists, through the British Tourist Authority, to come to the United Kingdom.
I turn to reform of the House of Lords. I was delighted to read in the Gracious Speech that the Government intend to go ahead with stage 2 of the reform, which I warmly welcome, but I have two concerns. The first is about the words "after consultation". I hope that that will not mean that reform disappears into the long grass and that what comes out at the end is a somewhat more anodyne reform. I believe absolutely--this is said with the conviction of having sat in another place--that there is only one outcome, and that is for the House of Lords to be either fully elected, or in large part elected.
My second concern is that reform will perhaps be predicated too much on the Wakeham report. One of the key elements of that report is the assumption that the House should always retain its superiority or supremacy over the other place, which is dangerous. As a number of hon. Members have said, it is important that the House takes the opportunity to consider the functions of not only another place but of this place, and to regard reform as a marriage of two equal partners. Both Houses have different roles and should have different roles, but the roles are complementary. I believe that ultimately the two Houses should be fundamentally equal.
I have come to serve in this place with immense humility and respect for its traditions. Having sat in another place and having had the good fortune to go through an election, I understand, despite the aversion that one has to being on green, how important it is, and what a great mother of Parliaments it is. I look forward to serving my constituents, to whom I am immensely grateful, to the best of my ability and to making what modest contribution I can to the workings of the House.
First, I congratulate John Thurso on an excellent speech. It was probably made that much tougher because my hon. Friend Mr. Banks had already accused him of being a dead ringer for Lord Lucan. The hon. Gentleman's speech was very well done.
When we sit on these Benches during the course of a day we might sometimes wonder whether it is all worth while. It has been worth while for me already, having today sat next to my hon. Friend Mr. Jones, a new Member, for the past six hours. I feel as if I know North Durham extremely well now. I look forward to returning to Gloucester and perhaps talking about a twinning arrangement between our two constituencies.
In all seriousness, it gives me great pleasure to be called to make my maiden speech at the very end of the debate on the Queen's Speech, which for my party marks the beginning of a second full term in office--the first in our history.
Many of the measures in the Queen's Speech enshrine changes for which my predecessor, Tess Kingham, campaigned in her four years as Member for Gloucester. It is a fitting tribute to her that, as we work to create health and education systems that we can all be proud of, the children of Gloucester are excelling, school standards are rising and my constituents are to benefit from a £30 million new hospital development on which work has already begun. It is just one of many exciting new developments in Gloucester over the next 10 years. The building blocks have been laid for a new college of higher education; a state-of-the-art tennis centre is soon to be joined by one of the region's finest new leisure centres; and, with the input of public and private capital, ambitious plans are afoot to transform our town centre and historic docks.
Gloucester is well on its way to becoming a modern city of commerce, leisure and employment opportunity--a city fit for life in the 21st century. Yet it is a city steeped in history, having been built on the Roman town of Glevum more than 900 years ago. As one of only three cities to have hosted a coronation, Gloucester has seen many changes down the years.
When we talk of change, modernisation and renewal, we touch base with many of the issues that were of particular importance to my predecessor in the House. It is no secret that she ultimately became quite frustrated by the pace of change or, as she would say, the slowness of change in institutions such as the House of Commons and some of the jousting that goes with it, although I am sure that she would not want Mr. Forth to take to heart her comments in The Guardian last week.
As we debate the Queen's speech, my mind goes back to an occasion during the election campaign, just a few weeks ago, when we were visited by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who was then Home Secretary. My local newspaper, The Citizen, and the people of Gloucester are delighted by the changes to the criminal justice system proposed in the Queen's Speech, but when my right hon. Friend visited Gloucester, he expressed particular concern about the sentences that were being handed out to dealers of addictive hard drugs such as crack and heroin, which are as much a problem in Gloucester as they are in many other cities.
If we are to build the society that we want, it is imperative that we tackle dealers in hard drugs and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the new Home Secretary has already said that it will be one of his priorities. I shall be writing to my right hon. Friend supporting The Citizen's campaign to ensure that judges are consistent in their sentencing and urging him to look at the possibility of monitoring judges and making them more accountable in sentencing people who commit the particularly vile crime of pushing hard drugs.
I am all too happy to support my local paper's campaign, but like many hon. Members, I am fully aware of the fickleness of the media and, occasionally, their attitude towards politicians, for it was the same newspaper that, some months ago, struggled to come to terms with my role as the Labour candidate in Gloucester.
In his eloquent speech last week, my hon. Friend Mr. Lammy summed up some of the difficulties that I am likely to face. He said that he is never anonymous in the House and nor am I. In my case, it is likewise in my constituency. It is not down to being 6 ft 3 in and being--albeit just--in my twenties. Observant hon. Members may have already noted that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham, I am from a minority group. In fact, we are both Londoners born and bred.
In all seriousness, I pay tribute to the Solicitor-General, my right hon. Friend Ms Harman. She has worked tirelessly to make the House look more like the people whom we represent and hope to represent. I very much welcome the part of the Queen's Speech that will enable more women to be elected to the House, and I hope that people from ethnic minority backgrounds also will be encouraged to stand.
Most of all, I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the people of Gloucester who, in the general election campaign, sometimes had to read some quite painful comments about me. After my selection, but before it realised what a splendid fellow I am, my new-found friend, The Citizen, said:
"Labour can kiss goodbye to this seat. They might as well hand it over to the Conservatives now. The Labour Party in Gloucester has made the same mistake as the Tories in Cheltenham when they chose a black barrister as candidate and handed the seat to the Liberal Democrats. Mr. Dhanda could withdraw to allow another candidate to be adopted"--
I am not making this up, honestly. The Citizen said:
"Things were so much easier"-- this may appeal more to older Labour Members than to me--
"when candidates were picked by a handful of party elders in a smoke filled room rather than the whole party membership of between 400 and 500 people."
Most painfully of all, not for me but for the residents of Gloucester, The Citizen said:
"sad to say, many of the voters of Gloucestershire have yet to reach the advanced state of consciousness to accept a foreigner as their local MP."
The people of Gloucester proved that they are better than that, and I stand here as the very proud Member of Parliament for Gloucester. The people of Gloucester are its greatest asset, and I shall do my utmost to deliver for them a city that is fit for them--a modern, confident and dynamic city that is fit for the 21st century.
It is delightful to follow Mr. Dhanda, parts of whose speech I found extremely moving and touching. There may be a lesson in what he said for some parts of my party, too. He did not look nervous at all in making his maiden speech, but I confess that it is with a sensation almost of fear that I rise to address the House for the first time. It is awesome in itself to be a Member of this place, bound up as it is with our country's history and identity, and I am very grateful to the voters of Wycombe for sending me here.
I am aware that I would do well to follow the example of my predecessor, Sir Ray Whitney. In all our dealings, Ray has displayed all the qualities that have been associated with him both in this place and in Wycombe: shrewdness, courtesy, unselfishness and kindness. He was a devoted public servant and is a perceptive thinker, and I believe that the House will miss him.
I shall spare the House the glittering words that new Members have occasionally been known to lavish on their constituencies, although I believe of my own constituency of Wycombe what all hon. Members surely believe of theirs--that it is the best constituency in the country. I am proud to represent it. If a single word could sum up Wycombe for me, that word would be diversity. Wycombe ranges from essentially flourishing areas, such as parts of the countryside around Marlow, to areas that face great challenges, such as parts of High Wycombe itself. Farmers, the socially excluded, London commuters, older people, single parents, the rich, ethnic minorities; all human life--or, at least, much of it--is to be found in Wycombe. It is, in general, a prosperous constituency, but it has some of the problems posed by prosperity, such as traffic and pressure on green space, as well as those posed by poverty, such as social exclusion, especially among our large ethnic minority communities. In short, it can be seen as a kind of cross-section of modern Britain.
This diversity and the changes that drive it would not be incomprehensible to a predecessor of mine, were he alive today. As a young man, Benjamin Disraeli fought High Wycombe three times and lost, as a radical. In middle age, he was elected in an unopposed contest--evidently, he must have had an easier election campaign than I did--for Buckinghamshire, which includes my constituency. He settled at Hughenden manor, which is also in my constituency.
Disraeli said that in a progressive country, change is constant. I cannot help wondering what he would have made of the Government's plans to meet change, as set out in the Queen's Speech. For what the Queen's Speech illustrates to me is not that the Government and Opposition disagree about the recognition of diversity and the need for change, but that their approaches to change are profoundly different. Let me give an example. Today we are discussing law, order, crime and punishment and, naturally, I support the Conservative amendment. But, as someone once said, there is crime and then there are the causes of crime. Crime must certainly be punished, but the causes of crime must be addressed.
In my constituency, and in others, an increasing number of young people who are growing up have never known the love of two parents, which some of us may sometimes take for granted. Some are young men who have never known their fathers. They are raised and taught almost exclusively by their mums and other women whose work and toil almost never ceases. They have no male role models, except the slightly older men who are active in the local drugs economy. Compared to other children, they are more likely to be excluded from schools and to drift into crime. They can thus stave off, at least for a while, the poverty of income.
What they find more difficult to stave off is the poverty of hope. After a while, it can become almost impossible for such a young person to imagine breaking out of the cycle of crime, family break-up and more poverty of hope. Where there is poverty of hope, there will sooner or later be poverty of income. Single men remain deprived of opportunity, while single mums bear the work load of two parents. It makes for a spiral of social exclusion--as other hon. Members have pointed out--the consequences of which affect us all, whatever our circumstances.
On job creation, the Government emphasise inducing parents to work through means-tested credit schemes. We like to emphasise giving parents more choice about work and care through a simple tax and benefits system. Either way, without stable families and the habits that can be picked up from them, there will be no trained and educated work force; no teachers, doctors or nurses with an ethos of self-sacrifice; no voluntary sector of people prepared to give their time to others; and no charities, clubs or civil society--and, yes, there is such a thing as society.
The challenge of reconciling individual freedom with social obligation is perhaps the greatest challenge of our times. Those Conservatives who like to think of themselves as Disraeli's heirs have a phrase for such a reconciliation: one nation. The Labour party has borrowed that phrase. It is time for Conservative Members to claim ownership of it again.
I end where I began: it is awesome to be a Member of this House. But how can this House maintain its reputation if its powers are to be superseded by the Executive at home and less accountable institutions abroad? How can we live together as one nation if we are to become no nation at all?
I congratulate Mr. Goodman on his maiden speech. His references to Disraeli were entirely apt, considering the tenor of most of his remarks, and I am sure that he will make a positive contribution to the debate that is needed among Conservative Members to create a party that has something valuable to say to the nation.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his new team at the Home Office on the start that they made in this debate. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, he is building on the excellent foundations laid by my right hon. Friend Mr. Straw, who has moved on to entirely different matters. There are many reasons to be concerned about law and order, and we still face serious problems. However, despite the doom and gloom, we must remind ourselves that crime has fallen by about 10 per cent. since 1997.
The Government have reversed the trend of falling police numbers which started in 1993. Police numbers are beginning to rise again, and there has been a huge increase in the number of people applying for initial police training. We have introduced a crimefighting fund, which will ensure that by 2003 there are more police officers on the beat than ever before. More cash has been made available for the police service. Money for victim support has doubled, and rape victims will no longer have to go through the trauma of being cross-examined by defendants.
Despite all those good points, the Government are right not to be complacent. We have to remind ourselves that violent crime has increased, and is part of the yob culture to which many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have referred during the debate. The fear of crime remains high. In my constituency, people are afraid to walk through the town after 9 o'clock in the evening simply because of the threat of danger that large crowds, mainly of young men, seem to pose. That fear exists despite the fact that 99 per cent. of the time there is no danger at all. City centres just feel unsafe. That is why I welcome the police Bill, which aims to create a more effective police service by, among other things, enabling better co-operation across police force boundaries. A more open and independent police complaints system will have benefits for the public and the police. It will give the public confidence and help to improve co-operation with the police.
Initially, police reform could lead to more criminals being caught, but in the long term I foresee a reduction because of the deterrent effect of the increased likelihood of being caught and the preventive effect of better policing and other anti-crime strategies, such as the "communities that care" programme, which bring together the police, local government, schools, youth clubs and the voluntary sector for the good of the community as a whole. In my local authority area, which covers my constituency and that of my hon. Friend
Equally important for the success of the police Bill and anti-crime strategies such as "communities that care" is the modernisation of our criminal justice system, both to speed up the judicial process without sacrificing fairness and to ensure appropriate sentencing. The punishment should fit the crime, but punishment on its own is not enough. It is true that, when a criminal is in prison, the public are protected, but the role of the criminal justice system goes beyond locking up criminals in prison, and the role of the Prison Service goes beyond keeping criminals in custody. Indeed, part of the Prison Service's stated purpose is to look after prisoners
"with humanity and help them to lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release."
I believe that a crucial role for the criminal justice system--of which prisoners are a necessary part--is to protect the public. That can be done, as the retiring chief inspector of prisons Sir David Ramsbotham recently put it, "by preventing reoffending". I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will read, inwardly digest, and act on many of the proposals in the lecture that Sir David gave to the Prison Reform Trust eight days ago.
I believe that rehabilitation, the prevention of reoffending and the reduction of reconvictions must be central to the Government's anti-crime strategy. All the good work that will follow from the passing of the measures in the Queen's Speech sponsored by the Home Office will be stunted and disfigured if reconviction rates within two years of release remain at more than 50 per cent. for adults, and at nearly 90 per cent. for those under 18. Those figures must be dramatically reduced.
Prisons will not be working properly until reconviction rates are reduced substantially. The record of Her Majesty's prison at Grendon shows that the rates can be brought down. Rehabilitative work at other prisons, such as at Parc in my constituency, gives grounds for hope. Parc had a very rocky opening 18 months ago, but it is now beginning to work for its inmates and the public. However, the chief inspector of prisons recognises that, despite improvements at Parc and other prisons, there needs to be a thorough re-examination of rehabilitation strategies. Moreover, those attested success stories that are to be found across the prison service must be boldly implemented according to a well financed, properly monitored and coherent strategy.
It is interesting to note that, of the 30 announced, and 23 unannounced, inspection reports through which I have skimmed, 37 seemed to me to cover a range of verdicts that ranged from "very good" to "on balance encouraging" and "positive". The remaining 16 seemed to have serious problems, but in the main even they, on reinspection, showed encouraging signs of improvement.
Home Office projections suggest that the prison population could be higher than 83,000 by the end of the decade, so there is plainly a need to look at alternative strategies. I believe that we need a stronger, more closely supervised system of community sentences, and that it might be worth developing youth justice initiatives such as reparation and referral orders.
The average cost of a prison place is about £26,000 a year, whereas a community sentences costs, on average, about £2,600 to supervise. There is therefore scope for putting more resources into community sentences, given the savings that could be made on prison places.
I believe that a new concentration on rehabilitation throughout the criminal justice system--and especially in prisons--is an essential component in the Government's determination to cut crime and create peaceful communities where people are comfortable and at ease with themselves. Without that new concentration, all the best efforts to make really significant inroads into the crime culture will fail, and the disaffection of crime- creating, excluded communities, made up of what might be called multi-problem people who are persistent offenders, will remain a blight on our society.
I am confident that the Government have the will to tackle those fundamental problems, and I look forward to progress being made over the lifetime of this Parliament. I trust that the good work that has been begun will focus on rehabilitation and better community sentencing, because I believe that that is an essential part of the process.
Today's debate has been a full one. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have made constructive contributions to a debate that has focused on law and order and the constitution.
As this is the conclusion of the full debate on the Queen's Speech, I will not do what I normally do in a winding-up speech and touch on everything that has been said, but I would like to pay tribute to all right hon. and hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches tonight. We have all been very impressed by what we have heard. Those giving them have spoken with great knowledge and warmth about their constituency and their predecessor. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), and for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), and the hon. Members for Southport (Dr. Pugh), for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), for Caerphilly (Mr. David), for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman).
I should also like to mention Mr. Howarth, who was not making his maiden speech. Any Member unfortunate enough to have to deal with a case of violent crime in his or her constituency--as happens now and then--knows only too well what a harrowing experience it is. Obviously, it changes the lives of the individuals concerned, but the whole community is affected. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East for his contribution to the debate. He has had to deal with the Bulger case for some years now, and we can all sympathise with the responsibility that that has put on him as a constituency Member of Parliament.
I wish to conclude our debate by referring to constitutional matters. Part of the amendment before the House in the name of the official Opposition deals with constitutional matters. My right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe spoke on law and order with her usual conviction and knowledge. However, I wish to focus my remarks on the constitutional part of the Gracious Speech, a matter that has been picked up by many right hon. and hon. Members.
In another place on
The Lord Chancellor justified the constitutional reforms of the Government in the previous Parliament. He stated:
"Our programme of constitutional reform was designed to increase public engagement in democracy and to regenerate our national identity by strengthening what is best about Britain.--[Hansard, House of Lords, 21 June 2001; Vol. 626, c. 46.]
I call the Labour party to account on that statement. The people of this country have given the Government a second chance to prove that they can deliver on matters such as public services, which have been the subject of a great deal of debate during the past few days, and the Government can certainly say that they have delivered with regard to the changes made to our national constitution in the previous Parliament.
The changes were contained in some of the earliest Bills produced in the previous Parliament. They were put through without thought or consideration, and they have changed the constitution of this country irrevocably. That is why the further changes that are proposed in this Parliament should be of great concern to all right hon. and hon. Members.
Members of Parliament should take it as a personal duty to ensure that constitutional changes, particularly those that affect the procedures and workings of this Chamber and another place, do not undermine the rights--particularly in this Chamber--of democratically elected Members to challenge the Executive; and to ensure that, nationally, our democratic process allows the voters to continue to influence our democracy through the ballot box. Anything that undermines that process should affect all Members, regardless of which party they were elected for at a general election.
Much concern has been expressed about the turnout at the election--59.4 per cent, which is the lowest since 1918. Many Members on both sides of the House have said that the House must consider carefully why the general public are so disinterested--cynical, perhaps--about our proceedings and about the very heart of democracy. It is incumbent upon all of us to rectify that.
I have heard Labour Members argue that the low turnout was due to the fact that people are so satisfied with the way the Government performed in the past four years that they had nothing to complain about and got on with watering the plants instead of going to the polling station. I question that argument. Indeed, I am sure that the Prime Minister himself would do so, as the tone of much of the debate in the few days since the Gracious Speech has been about the second chance and the need to deliver on promises that were made in the last Parliament.
The failure of any Government to deliver and to fulfil expectations raised has an impact on the way in which people perceive the proceedings of this place and on whether they think that they are engaged in the democratic process. However, it goes beyond that, and there is no single reason why so few people came out to vote. People have become cynical about politics in general and about this national Parliament in particular.
There is a sense of urgency now. All parliamentarians must--in the way we conduct our business and conduct ourselves as individuals and collectively as political parties--put right some of the damage that has been done. If we do not do so, the people of this country will no longer feel that our democratic system serves its purpose--which is that we, as democratically elected representatives, can be dismissed or re-elected every four or five years. That process is painful for some of us, but it puts the power in the hands of the electorate. Any democratic system that is worthy of the name has to be strong and ensure that the power always remains ultimately in the hands of the electorate, who elect us or choose for whatever reason not to do so.
We heard some anecdotes, in particular in the maiden speeches, about things that had been said during the campaign. I was particularly moved by the contribution from Mr. Dhanda, who had had comments made to him that I am sure we all found distressing. Let us hope that people become more enlightened and educated so that they do not say such ignorant things in future.
All parliamentarians are used to the public saying and doing things that can be wounding. I am pleased to say that my general election campaign was gloriously victorious--I almost trebled my majority with a very respectable turnout in Tiverton and Honiton--but when one of my constituents was asked whether he would vote Conservative he said, "No, I'm voting tactically to get that Edwina Currie out." That was very wounding.
The Lord Chancellor opened the Queen's Speech debate for the Government in another place and spelled out some of the issues that would be constitutionally important in this Parliament. In a moment I will deal with those constitutional matters that are printed on the face of the Gracious Speech, but it is of great concern that the Lord Chancellor should raise as a priority constitutional matters that are not even in the speech. I raise this tonight in the hope that the Leader of the House may be able to enlighten the House with the full agenda for constitutional change that the Government obviously have in mind, but have not necessarily disclosed in the Gracious Speech.
There was nothing in the Gracious Speech to say what the Government intended to do about sorting out the mess that was left behind following devolution in Scotland. That was mentioned in another place, when the Lord Chancellor said:
"Devolution does not signal antagonistic confrontation"--[Hansard, House of Lords, 21 June 2001; Vol. 626, c. 46.]
Obviously, however, there will be antagonistic confrontation unless fairness is introduced as between Scotland and England, and to the way in which Scotland is represented in this place, and unless we take action on the way in which MPs representing Scotland are allowed to continue to vote on matters that are quite clearly, as far as primary legislation is concerned, matters for England and Wales alone.
I hope that the Leader of the House will tell us that, under his stewardship, we can expect that injustice to be put right in this Parliament. I know that I am addressing the right person in the Cabinet, because I remind him of his words when he said that
"it would be wrong for those of us from Scotland to . . . interfere in English domestic affairs after that watershed"-- he was referring to devolution--
"has been reached."--[Hansard, 1 February 1977; Vol. 925, c. 457.]
So on a point of principle the Leader of the House is clearly signed up to the fact that there has to be fairness in the way in which devolution is arranged. It is a done deal now. The official Opposition accept that there is a Scottish Parliament. There is no suggestion that we would seek to revoke that. However, there must be fairness for the rest of the country as well, because this is unfinished business. I hope that the fact that the Lord Chancellor mentioned it in another place means that the Leader of the House will tell us tonight exactly how the Government will put that right.
Another very important constitutional issue that was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech or in anything that we have heard in the Chamber during the debate on the Loyal Address, concerns English regional assemblies. The Prime Minister said earlier today, in response to an oral question, that the people would decide about regional government for England, so I wonder why there is no proposal on the table, and certainly no mention of it in the speech, because many issues surrounding the regional government proposals for England remain.
What is the future of the democratically elected county council structure in England? The Lord Chancellor described the English regions as distinct parts. They are not distinct parts; they are parts of England, drawn on a map with an arbitrary line, created not because those regions have anything in terms of commonality, but simply because they suit a political agenda. The agenda is to chop England up into bite-sized chunks. How much easier it would be for a Prime Minister, if we had such a Prime Minister, to see off each little chunk of England one at a time than to see off the collective voice of England represented in the Chamber, ready to hold the Government to account, which is what this Parliament is for.
I hope that, when the Leader of the House gets to his feet in a moment, he will be able to share with us his response to those errors in, and omissions from, the Gracious Speech, which received a great deal of attention and comment in another place.
Will the Leader of the House respond to another issue that is mentioned in our amendment? Will he explain why, if the Government believe that it is the people who should have the final say, one of the biggest constitutional issues that the House will deal with this Session, and which we suspect will be dealt with very soon--the ratification of the treaty of Nice--is not to be subject to a referendum of the people? If the people are to be trusted, why cannot this big constitutional change be put to a referendum of the people, as big constitutional matters should be?
The hon. Gentleman says that from a sedentary position--and it is certainly true in the Republic of Ireland, where the people have spoken. Despite the fact that they have spoken, it is clear that their voice will be suppressed, not by any democratic body that they have elected, but by an unelected, undemocratic body in Brussels. I should like the Leader of the House to tell us why we should not have a referendum on the Nice treaty.
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, when I fought the 1992 election--[Interruption.] Liberal Members should not be so rude. When I fought the 1992 election, the Maastricht treaty had been signed, with some very important opt-outs which the hon. Gentleman would willingly embrace, such as those on the social chapter and the single currency. I accepted in good faith that that was the best deal at the time. Since being elected to the House, I have become very suspicious of all deals cobbled together in Brussels. On a point of principle, I would be in favour of referendums on all major constitutional issues. I had thought that that was Liberal Democrat policy, but perhaps they have also changed their minds.
Oh, they agree with me. We know that they are trying to be the official Opposition, but it is no good their intervening on matters about which they agree.
I was not a Member then; I am much younger than the right hon. Gentleman thinks.
I should like to refer to some of the other changes that we face in this Chamber and elsewhere. The Gracious Speech states that the Government intend to introduce legislation to implement the second phase of what they describe as House of Lords reform, following consultation. I have to tell the Leader of the House, who is new to his post and so may not be fully up to speed with such matters--[Interruption.] That is not a personal slight; he has only just been promoted, so he has inherited the proposals.
In the previous Parliament, the leader of the Conservative party in the House of Lords and I met the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor and the then leader of the Labour party in the Lords to seek to fulfil their pledge to set up a cross-party committee of both Houses to consider the second phase of House of Lords reform. We in the Conservative party made it clear in the House that we were willing to engage in that process, but I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor and the then Leader of the House of Lords not only declined to fulfil their own promises, but declined take us up on our offer, because they would not allow the committee to discuss the composition of the House of Lords in phase two.
The Government were very happy for the committee to debate things such as guillotining and similar arbitrary changes to the procedures in the Lords, such as those that were imposed on this House in the last Parliament, but despite their pledge they were unwilling to let that committee discuss the composition of the House of Lords in phase two. I must tell the Leader that if the words "following consultation" in the Queen's Speech are to mean anything, the consultation must be wide-reaching, genuine, and embracing of both Houses and all parties.
Of course, the fear is that the Government will impose on us their wish for the composition of the Lords. We have heard the proposal to get rid of the hereditaries. We have had a vast number of people added to the Lords--245 have been appointed in the past four years. The Government have not said anything about dealing with that aspect of the composition of the Lords.
I shall have something to say tomorrow in a much longer debate about the procedures of the House and the way in which they have been hijacked by the Executive. I shall leave those comments until tomorrow, in the hope that the Leader of the House can answer some of the questions that I have put to him tonight.
I begin by putting it on record that 39 speeches have been made by new Members and a few old Members who have been enjoying a sabbatical from the House. Some angst has been expressed today about the standing of Parliament, but I hope that I shall carry the whole House with me if I make the positive conclusion that the high quality of the maiden speeches made in the debates on the Queen's Speech and the calibre of new hon. Members are good grounds for optimism about the future of the House. I warmly welcome the hon. Members for Southport (Dr. Pugh), for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), for Caerphilly (Mr. David) and for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) I congratulate them on their well-expressed tributes to the constituents who sent them here and to their predecessors. As it is evident that it gave him so much pleasure, I hope that John Thurso will accept my congratulations on being disenobled and joining us as a born-again commoner.
Mr. Bellingham has returned from a sabbatical. I think that we have a sufficient majority for me to be magnanimous enough to congratulate him on his return. I am not entirely convinced that he correctly paraphrased the Prime Minister's comments on "Question Time", and it is important that we get it straight, as I am aware that one of the hon. Gentleman's distant ancestors carried out the only assassination of a Prime Minister, when he shot Spencer Perceval. I would not want there to be a repetition through any misunderstanding.
I took the precaution of looking up the speech made by Mrs. Browning in reply to this debate last year. I was entertained to see that she finished by saying that the best thing about that year's Queen's Speech debate was that it brought the Tory party six days closer to the general election. It is a sentiment which in retrospect she may wish she had phrased differently.
Today, the right hon. Lady made a sustained plea for modernisation of the constitution. In a spirit of friendship and willingness to enter into common endeavour with her, I should say that her pleas would have carried more authority if just once she had acknowledged the state of the constitution that the Conservatives left behind four years ago. It was the only constitution in the democratic world that allowed the hereditary principle to determine who controlled one of two Chambers of Parliament. It was one of the most centralised constitutions in Europe and we had one of the most secretive of democratic states. The public had no right to know information held by the Government elected by the public.
As a Member of Parliament who served in the House for every one of the 18 years that the Conservative party was in power, I have difficulty sharing the rosy glow with which the right hon. Lady appears to recall that period as the golden age of parliamentary democracy. The Conservatives may have forgotten it, but the nation has not forgotten the poll tax, which symbolised all that was rotten in the constitution at the time. The measure was forced through the House by Government Whips, despite opposition from every other party and from most of their own Members. It was pushed through the House of Lords on the back of the hereditary vote. One Member of the other place was flown back for the day from his residence in Monte Carlo, where he did not have to pay the poll tax in any case.
The poll tax was first imposed on the people of Scotland, who had not voted for a Tory Government at any price. I do not recall it entering the heads of Conservative Members that it would be unfair for Tory Members of Parliament to impose the poll tax on Scottish people who had not voted for it. Any constitution that permitted such a monumental mistake as the poll tax was one demanding a thorough overhaul.
I agree with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that the Government have delivered on radical reform of the constitution. We are proud of that. The people of Scotland and Wales have their own Parliament and Assembly to decide for themselves how to run their public services. I remind her that the Conservative party is only represented in those bodies because we introduced a voting system that is fair to parties which otherwise would be endangered species.
We introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which gives the public the right to the information in millions of documents that were previously kept from them. In addition, we have broken with the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. Of course more needs to be done--not that the Conservatives ever attempted to do it while they were in office.
The Opposition's amendment demands a referendum on the Nice treaty. That is from a party that took Britain into the European Community without a referendum; accepted sweeping increases in majority voting as the price of the single market without a referendum; and signed up to the Maastricht treaty without a referendum. In all the Conservatives' long years in office, they never once gave the British people a referendum on anything. They did, however, claim that they were going to make the election a referendum on Europe--and they lost catastrophically. If I understand them right, the Conservatives are going to claim that, although they might have lost that referendum in the United Kingdom, they won in Ireland.
If the Conservatives want to be taken seriously when they promise to learn from the lessons of defeat, they cannot ring-fence their party prejudices about Europe from the learning process. A good starting point for their rethink could be the Nice treaty. It gives Britain a larger vote than it ever had in the Conservative years and, for the first time, sets out the votes of the candidate countries that are queueing up to become members of the EU even as Conservative Members develop second thoughts. If they cannot support even that modest measure, they are refusing to learn one of the key lessons of the election--that the British public have enough common sense to reject a party that prides itself on offering isolation, rather than influence, in Europe.
For a start, we have already opted out of about 10 of those because we are not part of Schengen. Others relate to matters of such triviality as the pension arrangements for court officials. Some, however, are important, and we fought for those at Nice, including the measure to get rid of the French veto on protectionism and trade. If the hon. Gentleman wants to restore that veto to France, it will be welcomed in Paris and rejected throughout the rest of Europe, including at Westminster.
I cannot help the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton with a referendum on the Nice treaty, but I hope that I can work with her and all hon. Members on the reform of Parliament. There is a big job to be done to complete the reform of the House of Lords to make it a more representative second Chamber. I am grateful for the hon. Lady's helpful advice on the background to that.
Simon Hughes asked for consultation before we proceed. The Queen's Speech promised that there would be further consultation. It must, of course, include both Houses, because any change to the status of the House of Lords plainly has big implications for the House of Commons. However, I assure the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, who speaks with personal authority on the issue, that we have no intention of allowing consultation to obstruct reform if it does not produce consensus.
I hope that we will be able to build consensus on modernisation of the Commons. As Leader of the House, I shall seek support in all quarters for two important objectives of modernisation. The first is to enable the House to hold the Government to account and to scrutinise their Executive decisions and legislation. As my hon. Friend Mr. Hood reminded us, good scrutiny makes for good government.
Hon. Members of all parties have urged on me that the highest priority is to get the Select Committees restarted. My hon. Friend Mr. Mullin asked during this debate for them to be set up before the House rises for the summer recess. His request carries extra force as he has voluntarily given up a career on the ministerial Bench to return to one of the Select Committees.
I am pleased to say to my hon. Friend, and to the hon. Gentleman if he will allow me to continue, that it is my intention to enable Select Committees to be set up in the week beginning
The second objective of modernisation must be to ensure that the hours and working methods of this House belong to the same century in which most of our constituents live and work. On Monday, Mr. Bercow made an intervention in a new, soft focus, socially inclusive mode. I would not wish to discourage him from the challenging process of reinventing himself as a social Liberal, but I am not sure that I did not prefer him as his former robust and brutal self.
On Monday, the hon. Gentleman made a memorable appeal for more women Tory Members of Parliament. If he really wants more women to come forward as MPs, there are two steps that he and his colleagues can take. [Hon. Members: "Resign."] Well, there is a third step, but I was not going to be that brutal and robust.
First, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues could support the Bill in the Queen's Speech to permit positive measures for the selection of women as candidates. Secondly, they must support procedures in this House that make it easier for a woman to be both a mother and a Member of Parliament at the same time. If length of sitting hours were a test of scrutiny, this House would pass with an alpha plus, because we sit for longer than any other democratic Parliament. Wasting the time of the House should not be confused with effective scrutiny.
If women in this place are to be taken as professional and serious in the job of Member of Parliament, why are the Government not proposing that, for example, women serving as officers in the armed forces, women barristers and others also work nine to five so that they can get home to cook the fish fingers? [Interruption.]
As one of my women colleagues shouted during the hon. Lady's intervention, no Member and no woman Member is suggesting that we should sit from nine to five. However, it does not seem entirely unreasonable that we should allow colleagues to go home at 10 o'clock at night. Members of any other profession would regard that as a very minimum working condition.
Elections put a great obligation on those of us who are victors. We must always remember that we secured the trust of the people because they expected us to deliver what we promised: economic opportunity for working families and their children, quality public services on which they can rely, security in their homes and safety on their streets.
We want to liberate the talents and energy of the British people. We want to widen the opportunities for those who get on by working hard. That is why the Queen's Speech includes an enterprise Bill, which will promote enterprise by sharpening competition and by helping small businesses to come back from bankruptcy. That is why the Queen's Speech widens access to high-quality education.
When Miss Widdecombe opened the debate, she spoke with feeling about the problems of real life on deprived estates. One of the factors that perpetuate such deprivation is the low educational expectation of families in such neighbourhoods. We must not accept that children in areas of social deprivation should put up with poorer standards at their schools and poorer opportunities to gain qualifications and skills. That is why the Queen's Speech commits us to an education Bill that will widen the diversity of schools and push up standards for all our children, whatever their family background and wherever their home.
We are committed to opportunity for all who can take it, but we intend to parallel that with security for all who need it. That is why the Queen's Speech included a pension credit Bill--a Bill that will reward those pensioners who have saved for their old age, rather than penalising them for having done so. During the debate on the Queen's Speech, I have heard that Bill denounced by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman as extending the indignity of means testing. That is a rich piece of effrontery from the party which during more than 18 years in power made the means tests progressively more mean, until they had stripped away housing benefit, council tax benefit and any other benefit from any pensioner with a little bit more than income support. How dare the Conservatives now accuse us of imposing the indignity of the means test on pensioners, when we are giving back to pensioners some of the help of which they robbed them?
In her opening speech, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald made a memorable plea to her party to serve not only the god of public spending cuts. That is the sort of line that makes many Labour Members hope that, even at this late stage in the proceedings, her party will be big enough to find a place for her in its leadership election. If we are to have a world-class health service, we need investment, not spending cuts. That is why the NHS is now benefiting from the biggest hospital building programme it has ever known.
However, investment alone is not enough. We must make sure that the investment is put to best use. That is why the Queen's Speech includes an NHS reform Bill--a Bill that will shift the centre of gravity in the NHS from Whitehall to those in the front line who are closer to patients' needs and patients' wishes.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentlemen, Mr. Speaker, because I could not have demonstrated better than they have how little the Opposition want to hear about what we are going to do for the health service.
"needs to develop a much better understanding of the problems of education and health".
We are happy to co-operate with the Conservatives to give them all the time they need in opposition to develop that better understanding. In the meantime, we will get on with implementing the policies that won Labour victory.
We will carry through the commitments of the Queen's Speech: a quality health service, world-class standards and skills in our schools, and a fair society that offers opportunity to youth and dignity to age. That is what this Government intend to deliver. That is what Britain voted for last month. That is what Labour Members will vote for in the Lobby tonight.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment proposed, at the end of the Question, to add:
"But humbly regret that the Gracious Speech fails to include any measures to address the problems faced by rural communities in the wake of the foot and mouth crisis or remove the bureaucracy stifling British agriculture and rural enterprise; are dismayed by the Government's failure to place environmental concerns at the heart of its legislative programme, to address the crisis in our public transport system and to reform the basis for local government funding; believe that the Government's proposals for education will not adequately address the continuing crisis in teacher recruitment and retention; further believe that tuition fees remain the greatest bar to a university education for many; further believe that while reform of the criminal justice system is necessary, there is no justification for undermining fundamental civil liberties of our citizens, in particular their right to a fair trial; urge the establishment of a standing Royal Commission to report on policies dealing with all drugs; regret the continued failure of the Government to provide for referendums on a fair voting system for the House of Commons and the European Single Currency and to bring forward wide-ranging proposals for modernisation of both Houses of Parliament; regret the lack of provision for personal care for elderly and disabled people, and for preventive healthcare; and call on the Government to take bold steps to tackle the steep inequalities of opportunity and access to essential services which afflict the most disadvantaged members in society."--[Simon Hughes.]
Question put forthwith, pursuant to
The House divided: Ayes 57, Noes 344.