Mr. Speaker, let us engage in the big conversation this afternoon. Over the past day or two, I have been battered and bruised. I have even been stitched up, but I am unbowed. After walking into a ladder on Friday night, I learned that, in the game of snakes and ladders, we should be more afraid of the ladders than the snakes.
The Queen's Speech is about preparing Britain for the future. It is about anticipating, and not merely responding to, the events and challenges of the future. It is about modernising for an era to come rather than simply reacting to the issues of the moment. It is about being bold in changing, rather than just tinkering with, the challenges that we face. It is about legislating because we need to for the future, rather than picking Bills that have been on the stocks for a long time. Whether changing for the better the way that we protect victims and witnesses or protecting our borders, it is about ensuring that government works in the interests of people.
The Queen's Speech is as much about building trust in our communities, or mobilising them to be part of the solution themselves, as it is about the legislation itself, for we all know that legislation is only part of the picture. Ensuring that the framework, powers and resources are in place is important, but the speech is actually about changing the culture. We need a culture of respect and accountability, in which people are prepared to respond and take on challenges—to be self-interested in the way they look after their family, but self-determining in a way that engages with the wider community. In other words, we are interdependent. We are mutually responsible for each other, and we gain strength by achieving that, rather than being individuals fighting alone. That is the spirit of the home affairs and constitutional affairs sections of the Queen's Speech.
The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Leslie, will be holding the fort gallantly on constitutional affairs at the end of the debate, but I can say now that the dramatic changes and wide range of Bills on constitutional matters that we are introducing are indicative of a Government who are prepared to take on the challenges of the future. In home policy, building on the foundations that we have already put in place, we are laying out the measures that will build the trust and confidence, and the ability of communities to respond, that I have mentioned.
We have already taken enormous steps: 12,000 extra police officers over the last three years, the introduction of more than 2,000 community support officers, the development of the street warden scheme, the massive expansion by 10,000 of the number of civilian workers in the police service, the introduction of DNA and forensic services in a way never before envisaged—
Before the Home Secretary ends his brief reference to constitutional affairs, I want to ask him something, because I suspect that he had a role in the matter. As major constitutional changes were announced as part of a reshuffle, and were therefore not the subject of consultation with anybody, was he consulted about the shape of the constitutional changes that the abolition of the post of Lord Chancellor and the creation of the supreme court would bring about, and did he express a view at the time?
My hon. Friend sums things up admirably: the past is the past, and the future is the future—[Hon. Members: "Oh."] That goes down as the tritest soundbite of the week; it just happens to be true.
Let me deal with the question asked by Mr. Beith. As he will remember, the changes had been the subject of considerable speculation and debate. I remember it well, because my Department was apparently going to be dismembered, and there was going to be a wholesale change in the way in which the justice elements of my portfolio were handled—none of which turned out to be true. Of course, the conversations that we had on the day of the reshuffle were about reflecting on how best to achieve the Prime Minister's goals, rather than second-guessing them beforehand. That is the answer to the question.
Engaging with the issues that are in front of us, I can say that all the changes are about ensuring that we can prepare for the future, and that we have a constitution and crime reduction measures that deal with the 21st century rather than the 12th century. We have measures that reflect that, as does the legislation that we pushed through the House just two weeks ago—it seems a long time now since four home affairs Bills went through in the final week of the Session, but it is only a fortnight ago. That goes all the way through to the crime reduction measures that we are building on today.
In preparing for the future, are the Home Secretary and the rest of the Government aware of the disastrous results of the elections in Northern Ireland, which were brought about principally by the lack of faith of many in the majority community in the Prime Minister's reshaping of that local constitution? Does the Home Secretary expect that legislation will have to be introduced to enable people in Northern Ireland to express an opinion on the Good Friday agreement, in order to replace that which was expressed last week?
That was a disgraceful intervention. Here we are, three and a half weeks away from Christmas day, with people walking freely and shopping in Belfast and Derry—
The hon. Gentleman may wish that, but some of us wish more for the peace and tranquillity that allows people to walk freely in the streets, to shop and to enjoy Christmas in the way that the rest of the United Kingdom takes for granted. That has been brought about by the Good Friday agreement, by removing the causes of the problems and by getting people to work together. Those who wish to stir things up should be aware that, of those who voted, 70 per cent. voted for parties and politicians who are committed to the Good Friday agreement.
If demolishing the agreement is an objective of the official Opposition, I hope that their Leader, who has graced us with his presence this afternoon, will intervene—snarling, scratching and biting, as he did last Wednesday—to tell us what his policy actually is. [Interruption.] It was not me who introduced the topic of the Good Friday agreement—Mr. Turner did.
The crime reduction measures that we have taken—a 27 per cent. reduction in crime in the past six and a half years; crime and disorder reduction partnerships; antisocial behaviour orders; and the measures in the Bill that we passed a fortnight ago, which are now being put in place—are transforming the life of the community. Yet there is much more to be done. The legislation that we fought for in Parliament lays the foundations, which are stepping-stones to enabling people in the professional services and in the community to take control, and to exercise the power to make a difference.
The steps that we took through our balanced approach to nationality and asylum brought about a 50 per cent. reduction in the number of asylum seekers in the first half of this year. Given that the Leader of the Opposition is present, that reduction should be contrasted with the 45 per cent. increase that occurred during his time as Home Secretary. We have also introduced new legal migration routes, and new channels, through the United Nations, for people to reach our soil. All those measures have to be built on and enhanced if we are to ensure future trust and confidence in the system.
Nobody doubts the Home Secretary's commitment and willingness to ensure that the asylum system is robust, but the fact remains that there is a major problem with the way in which the immigration and nationality directorate operates. It is too slow, the backlog is too big and it takes too long to deal with cases. What effective steps is the Home Secretary going to take, other than introducing another Act of Parliament, to make that system much better?
I acknowledged those sentiments two years ago, and substantial steps have been taken to achieve precisely what my hon. Friend seeks. Just over 80 per cent. of initial decisions are now taken in the first eight weeks, compared with an average time of 20 months under the previous Government. We have dramatically cut the numbers waiting for an initial decision, and the numbers waiting for their appeals to be heard. Some 6,000 people per month are now passing through the appeals system, but legislation is necessary. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, whose Department co-operated with us in looking at what else needs to be done.
It has been suggested in the media that we are somehow doing away with the right of appeal.
We are not. [Interruption.] Well, when is a right of appeal not a right of appeal? When it consists of multiple appeals, presumably. If those who do not like an initial decision are permitted to take their cases to a tier of appeal in which appeals can be dealt with differentially, according to the type of appeal being made—for instance, non-suspensive appeals are dealt with differently from straightforward cases—that means that we provide not only a right of appeal, but a sensitive appeals system that is appropriate to the particular case. If someone wishes to take their case to a further appeal—such as to the Appeal Court on a point of law—they will be permitted to do so. At the moment, applicants not only have the right of appeal on the initial decision to the immigration appeal tribunal, but they can have multiple judicial review appeals that string out the appeals process month after month. My hon. Friends and Opposition Members asked for the process to be speeded up, but we have to change the law to do so, if individuals or, more likely, those representing them, string out cases. We are accused of not completing cases, when those involved are responsible for it.
I give way to my hon. Friend in the full knowledge that he will be able to enlighten me about how he would organise the system differently.
I will enlighten the Home Secretary. The problem is bad decision making and the inefficient way in which such matters are handled. I have great respect for him and the work that he has done in the community and in policing. However, this afternoon, he is playing with words. If he takes away a whole tier of the appeals system, he will restrict the right of appeal.
No. We do not give income support appellants or disability living allowance appellants the right to make multiple appeals. If they do not like the decision that has been made, they go to appeal. It is not the case that the system is unfair or that the appeals process is failing unless they have layer after layer.
I shall restate the statistics, so that there is no misunderstanding. After initial decision, 20 per cent. of those who go through the appeals process have their appeals upheld. That figure is too high, so initial decisions need to be better. However, in the appeals process that we are curtailing, only 3 per cent. of appeals are successful. That is a 97 per cent. success rate for the process that we are retaining and enhancing. I do not know where the statistics that some use come from. Perhaps people listen to the pressure groups instead of looking at the reality. I appreciate that not everyone can be an expert on such matters, but I do ask that if people—not least on my own side—criticise proposed legislation, they do so on the basis of facts rather than on what they have read in the newspapers. After all, the Leader of the Opposition made the terrible mistake last Wednesday of believing what he had read in the newspapers rather than what I had said in the press and on radio and television.
I shall deal with that intervention in a minute. On
I heard a sedentary intervention that suggested that I told the newspapers what they printed. I must make it clear that if I were going to brief on an ultra-right wing policy of grabbing asylum seeker children from their parents—as ITN put it to people in the street—I would not have briefed The Observer on it. I would have a little more nous after 33 years in public life than to brief a liberal newspaper on what would be an illiberal policy.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving us that insight into his briefing habits. We all appreciate how sensitive he is on these issues. If what he is now telling the House is correct, why did the Prime Minister not take the abundant opportunity that he had last Wednesday to deny what I was putting to him? Why has the Prime Minister still not replied to the letter that I wrote to him last Friday in which I asked him to clarify the Government's intentions on these matters?
But the Prime Minister did indicate to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that he was wrong. Not only that, we put a statement out on the Sunday of The Observer article indicating that it was wrong, drawing attention to the fact that we had published the proposals on
I have listened carefully to the Home Secretary, but it seems to me that he has not totally ruled out taking the children of asylum seekers into care. Is he aware that, as far as Scotland is concerned, the children's panel system has jurisdiction, and his writ in this matter—thankfully, some would say—does not run in Scotland on what is deemed to be in the best interests of the child?
Dealing with asylum seeker families is a central, Westminster responsibility and will remain so. The hon. Lady is simply wrong. Let me take her question head-on. What we have are those who want us to speed up the asylum system but to continue to have multiple rights of appeal in judicial review, those who want us to remove people from the country but not to raid their homes and take away their children who have been embedded in the community, those who do not want us to have removal centres but do not want us to take action with families in the community, and those who do not want us to have removal centres but somehow want us to continue paying benefit to asylum seeker families even when their claims have failed. And when asylum seeker children, because of the responsibility in relation to their parents, are treated in exactly the same way as any child in my constituency or in other hon. Members' constituencies—when the child is at risk, social services intervene—we get criticised for that. I am asked what should we do once an asylum seeker family has refused to go, and, even after trying to raid the household, cannot be removed, subsistence has been taken away, the family are destitute and the child is at risk; the answer is exactly the same as what would be done with any other child. It is then suggested that that is despicable and that I ought to be ashamed of myself. Well, I am neither despicable nor ashamed of myself.
While some Members of the House think that this is an important issue, for my constituents the issue above all is the collapse of decent behaviour. As in the past, they look to the Home Secretary to be sensitive in the way that he responds to this issue. They know that for the first time for a couple of hundred years politicians are having to concern themselves with the issue of behaviour. We have taken it for granted that families function properly and that neighbours behave to one another properly. Knowing what the Home Secretary has already done, and as in his introductory remarks he said that the Government would be thinking of an interdependence between them and the people, may I plead for such a relationship with Back Benchers on both sides of the House? When he brings forward measures to counter antisocial behaviour, can he frame them in such a way that those of us who have ideas from our constituents on what should be done find it easy to amend those Bills?
I will always seek to facilitate—and I have always encouraged the Ministers in my team to facilitate—changes in Committee and on the Floor of the House, and we have always sought to respond to amendments. We did so with the Sexual Offences Bill, with the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, as far as the terms of the Bill would allow, and we did so—I say smiling—with the Criminal Justice Bill, even to the very last moment. We will certainly do so on the Bills before us, including the measures on domestic violence, crime and victims, which will be very important.
I pick up the wider point that my right hon. Friend makes: what we are seeking is not big government or no government but enabling government—effective and empowering government—that enables people to make a difference in their own lives.
While the Home Secretary is on this point, may I ask him, as the head of the Home Office, to look at the way in which his Department responds to Members of Parliament? I received an answer just before the House rose to a parliamentary question that was tabled in March last year, and it said that the Minister would reply shortly. My right hon. Friend David Maclean tabled a question in January and received a similar answer last week. Will the Home Secretary look at the way in which his Department deals with written answers?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart has written back to him. If any Member has correspondence or questions that have been outstanding for any length of time, I would be happy to hear from them, and I will deal with the matter. I am keen that the Department's record should be improved year on year and month by month. We have improved dramatically the turnaround time of both correspondence and questions, which happens to be a particular fetish of mine.
I want Government to be engaged not disengaged, including with hon. Members, and I want policies to be in partnership with people and working alongside them. I want us to ensure that we are responsive and that services are responsive to people's needs.
Before we move from the point of substance on either the incarceration of children of asylum seekers in detention centres, removal centres or former prisons, or the unforgivable idea that we should breach the UN convention on the rights of the child even further by dividing families—children and parents—because of circumstances relating to social security provisions, is the Home Secretary trying to pretend that he does not know that most people who have their social security removed, as is happening throughout Scotland and in the city of Glasgow, work illegally and are paid exploitative, low wages but still survive? To single out those people who have children and to take their children into care may not make him feel ashamed, but it will certainly make me feel ashamed.
I do not know what happens in Scotland, but in my city the social services department intervenes to look after children who are at risk, whether because their family is dysfunctional or no longer capable of looking after them. That is why, regrettably, we have more children in care than I believe is warranted, and more children in care than any of us would want. I am not entirely sure what my hon. Friend is suggesting. Is he saying that we should pay people benefits when they are here illegally, or that we should be more robust in removing them?
I am well aware of my hon. Friend's interest in the Dungavel removal centre and the difficulties of holding families there. I am aware of the inspection report, and the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration will go to Scotland and make statements on that issue shortly and deal with those children who inevitably have to be held at the moment, pending removal. All those issues are deeply sensitive, but they are not affected in any way by the changes that we propose in the Bill because social services authorities, certainly those south of the border, have the same obligations for asylum seeker children or those who have failed in their asylum claims as for any other child.
A moment or two ago, my right hon. Friend mentioned the domestic violence Bill. This morning, all the press herald the fact that that Bill contains great measures, including the right of the victims to be protected under the law by prosecutions brought by the police, rather than themselves. That is an important measure for the protection of victims. Can he confirm that he will continue to work across Departments so that all the social effects of domestic violence, not only those that relate to his own Department, are dealt with?
Yes, I can confirm that, and I shall be pleased to discuss that Bill; obviously, I will not make a Second Reading speech, but I can confirm that, as with the statement that I made in July, we are now moving forward to implement those policies.
Can the Home Secretary confirm that there is a crucial difference between any other family in his constituency who suffers from destitution and a family seeking asylum? If social workers came across a destitute family in his constituency, they would have a duty to lift the family out of destitution, so that they are not split up, using powers under the National Assistance Act 1948. However, asylum-seeking families are explicitly excluded from those provisions, so there is a crucial difference: social workers cannot keep those families together by lifting them out of destitution, which is what they would like to do.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that, under the Children Act 1989, social workers can make payments in lieu of benefits that people are not entitled to, to keep families together. In some cases, they do that. I was a chairman of a social services committee for four years and the chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities social services committee for about eight years, so I am very familiar with the Children Act and the measures that can be taken, but I am also deeply aware of the intervention that social workers have to make to protect the rights of the child.
I repeat again that all that was spelt out for hon. Members on both sides of the House on
I am very glad that my hon. Friend welcomes it. It is really nice that some of the things that we do are welcomed by our hon. Friends on the Labour Benches. That always cheers us a little and it gets our blood flowing again.
I certainly support a lot of the changes that have been made already, but my right hon. Friend must be aware that we have concerns about the consequences of the ruling that we are talking about now. Having said that, does he agree that a failed asylum-seeking family who decide to allow their children to be taken into care purely to keep them off the streets and keep them safe are saying more about themselves and their own judgment than about the proposals?
They certainly are, because they have a choice—they could pick up the package of free travel, plus resettlement back in the country of origin. If we are not to have a completely dysfunctional system and if there are those in all parties who believe that we should lay down regulations and laws but not implement them, we have to follow through the logic. As I was spelling out a moment ago, the logic is that people take responsibility for their own actions. It is an absolutely key precept of politics that we cannot do everything for people. We cannot second-guess them. We cannot take all their decisions for them. They have to take responsibility for themselves, their families and their children. If we offer people a decent package, having undertaken the whole process, and they refuse to return, we are left with only one obligation: to look after those who are vulnerable and who cannot make those decisions for themselves—they happen to be the children.
I will make a little progress before giving way again.
It is funny how Opposition parties demand less government, but then demand more government when it suits them. Let me give an example. Let us take counter-terrorism or, as the Opposition like to call it, homeland security. The Opposition have proposed with vigour on several occasions that we ought to have a homeland security tsar in the Cabinet, despite the fact that the holder of that shadow post is not a member of the shadow Cabinet.
Yes, the idea is modelled on America, but without the American system behind it. It is an interesting proposition because, of course, a homeland security tsar would—by the very nature of the post, which would be detached from day-to-day responsibility for other matters—be up and down in the media and in the House, constantly justifying their existence in the Cabinet and constantly talking about events in the public arena.
I draw attention to that only because the shadow Home Secretary said on the radio this morning what a disgrace it was that I had answered a question about a police counter-terrorism and security service operation that took place last week in Gloucester. We cannot have it both ways. On a number of occasions, I have been criticised for not appearing in the House enough to talk about anti-terrorism and security, despite all that we have pushed through, or in the media, telling people about what is taking place and answering questions often enough. The criticism is that we need a homeland tsar to do that instead because I am too busy with policy, immigration, criminal justice, tackling drugs and civil renewal to speak often enough on counter-terrorism.
I will give way in a moment.
When I was asked a perfectly reasonable question—it was put to me on a day when I did not make the headlines, by the way, because I was already making them with the proposed asylum legislation—about an incident with which I was familiar, I answered it. Even one of my long-standing critics—the former Master of the Rolls, Lord Donaldson—described the answer as perfectly reasonable. I answered in a way that did not infringe anyone's rights. Although he said that he was a long-standing critic, he said that he could not find fault with what I said on that occasion.
I draw attention to the letter in The Times this morning from Walter S. Greenwood, who has some real experience in such matters. Again, he criticised those who jumped on to a rather silly bandwagon. I just want to put this on the record, so that we get it straight. I did not mention the name of the individual, his background, his religion or what he has done. I drew attention to the fact that section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is not used unless there is a prima facie case to believe that someone has been engaged in terrorism; otherwise, they would be deemed a burglar and they would be dealt with under a different sort of law altogether. What is going on at the moment is silly nonsense, and I am sorry that the shadow Home Secretary has been drawn into it. Now, I give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman who was desperate to intervene.
I can assure the Home Secretary that I am not in the least bit desperate, but he may become increasingly desperate. The answer that he has just given to the criticism that has been made of his interviews with the press about the Gloucester investigation is foolish, if I may say so. He clearly knows the difference between identifying and commenting on a particular case compared with talking about terrorism generally, police efforts in general and Home Office efforts to sustain the fight against terrorism. It really will not do for him to come to the Dispatch Box and try to ally the two concepts. That is foolish and unwise, and he is being silly.
I do not really give a toss what the hon. and learned Gentleman thinks about me, but it is very interesting that he obviously thinks just the same about Lord Donaldson or those who have very clearly indicated, as I do, that the hon. and learned Gentleman is talking nonsense. Those who throw about meaningless criticism in an effort to make party political points need to listen to those who have a great deal of experience and actually know whether someone has prejudiced a trial or has in any way undermined the right of someone to the justice of our country. I am very confident that I did not do that, and I would do it again.
Let us be clear about the legislation outlined in the Queen's Speech and in the Bills that we will introduce. I refer not just to those that will be debated under the subject of home affairs, but to the housing Bill and the Department of Trade and Industry's Bill that will introduce community interest companies. We are seeking to develop a raft of measures that will enable people to live their lives more freely, to have greater confidence and trust in the system and to be able to move forward in terms of developing their lives. As my hon. Friend Kali Mountford suggested, that is true of the legislation on domestic violence and of the charities Bill that we will publish.
The charities Bill will modernise laws that go back to 1601 and, at the request of voluntary and community organisations, it will modernise the way in which local communities as well as national charities can engage with the solutions to their own problems. It will bring about greater accountability and revise the advice on campaigning that will ensure that we can modernise that without party political engagement by such groups. It will also ensure that we separate out the issues. The wider review will also, of course, be taken forward alongside the legislation that is needed. I hope that hon. Members on both sides will join us in making that draft legislation better and will engage in the debate.
Equally, mobilising society involves us in a commitment to supporting victims and witnesses. I think that both sides of the House have said over the years that we needed to do a great deal more. Therefore, the victims commissioner, the new updated code and the enforcement measures behind it, the way that we will engage with the courts—we have done so already in terms of protection—and the way in which we can develop that alongside the domestic violence legislation will all make a difference to people's lives and the way in which they are prepared to support and work with the justice system in the wider interests of the community.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way on the issue of victims. As he will be aware, restorative justice is working successfully in some areas. However, will he consider more pilots to include adult victims in the restorative justice procedures?
The answer is very strongly yes. We need to spread much more quickly the pilot programmes on restorative justice that have been so well exercised through the Youth Justice Board and the youth offending team programmes. As my hon. Friend said, they have been doing a very good job in responding to the wishes of victims.
Some 25 per cent. of all violent crime arises out of domestic violence. That is why tackling domestic violence is such a priority. Work has been done by a whole range of Front-Bench and Back-Bench colleagues from a number of parties, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has been in the forefront of that. It means working alongside those who, over the years, have fought to get improvements to the system. Today, we are able to say categorically that we will be able to do that.
I also wish to announce that we will take forward the proposals on familial killing that we have worked hard on over the past two years. They relate to cases in which families have been able to get away with the death often of a child by no one admitting to the killing and because there is no evidence distinguishing between the two or more people involved. The measures that we are adopting will go some way to overcoming that problem and will ensure that people cannot get away with the most heinous crimes by covering each other's tracks.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that announcement about familial killing. Will his proposals be broadly based on the Law Commission's conclusions?
Will the right hon. Gentleman also be urging the police to take a more active interest in cases of domestic violence? It is not just the legislative framework that is at fault. The police have a propensity not to intervene successfully in cases that they still too often consider to be "domestics".
I think that we all agree on that. At the time of the statement, we said that changing professional practice, attitudes and culture was just as important as changing the law. Empowering the police in the way that we described in the statement and that will be replicated in the legislation is an important step in that direction. We also made it clear that we had to change the attitudes of young men, in particular, and consider how the education service could assist with that. We want to take that point forward alongside the Bill.
The Bill on domestic crime and its victims will deal with the issue of multiple charges that we touched on at the end of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I confirm that we will introduce proposals on that issue and reiterate that we shall take forward the Corruption Bill, which is being scrutinised in draft. We shall introduce proposals to fulfil the commitment that I gave two weeks ago in relation to serious fraud and we shall consider that matter alongside the other powers.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all these measures, including those that deal with domestic violence and familial killing. They are necessary steps. However, may I ask him about the Bill to deal with corporate killing? In particular, if a draft Bill is to be introduced, will it provide for the removal of Crown immunity?
I shall publish very shortly the draft legislation on corporate manslaughter. I do not intend to pronounce on it until we have put the draft together and introduced it in a way that will give all Members of the House the opportunity to scrutinise it. We are addressing the issues that have been raised by the Joint Committee and the point about Crown immunity that my hon. and learned Friend has just raised, difficult though it is.
To clarify the position, I am talking about the draft Corruption Bill and the draft legislation on corporate manslaughter. They are separate pieces of legislation, and I want to make that point clear because we have consulted on the scrutiny of one and are about to scrutinise the other.
Before the Home Secretary moves on from the issue of domestic violence, may I ask the Government to consider the point that far too many deaths of children have taken place at the hands of their fathers who, not infrequently, then commit suicide? Will the Government consider the possibility of denying any unsupervised access to his children by a father who has been guilty of violence—either physical or verbal—against the children's mother?
When my hon. Friend raised this point on the statement in July, I said that a lot depended on the definition relating to the severity of the crime committed. The protection of children from those who have committed heinous crimes is an absolutely prime requirement, but we also need—at the opposite end of the spectrum—to maintain contact whenever we can and rebuild the family whenever that is possible. We will seek to try to ensure that we meet that requirement and meet the difficult balance between the two objectives when the legislation goes through the House.
I now want to make progress by mentioning other legislation. The civil contingencies legislation will be taken forward by the Cabinet Office. It is not, of course, about anti-terrorism but civil contingencies. I make it clear that part 1 of the Bill will address the civil protection framework and part 2 will provide for the modernisation of emergency powers. The Bill will update the Emergency Powers Act 1920 and the Civil Defence Act 1948 but will not introduce dramatically new changes. It has already been scrutinised, so when we debate it we will be prepared to respond to that scrutiny and suggestions made by hon. Members of all parties. I hope that we can get the Bill right because it is important for it to have all-party support and for people to feel comfortable with the changes. The required measures for use in extremis will not necessarily be needed only due to outside intervention but sometimes because of acts of God.
Let me return to the asylum legislation. It represents the third strand of our process of establishing a set of building blocks to get the nationality and asylum system right. Balance is important and although some people say that they do not see balance in our programme, the White Paper that we published almost two years ago spelled out clearly our policy of balancing legal and economic migration, the UN gateway for asylum seekers, and the need to clamp down on clandestine entry and circumstances in which asylum is used as an alternative economic route. That is why the Bill will build on three key areas. First, the attitude and presentation of those who seek and facilitate asylum should be honest. We must ensure that people do not throw away their passports and documents when they get off planes or refuse to tell the truth about where they came from or their country of origin. Secondly, we must clamp down on organised criminals who traffic people throughout the world for considerable gain. Thirdly, we need to speed up the clarity and decisiveness of the system, including the process for appeals and removals. The Bill is concentrated entirely on those three reasonable and laudable aims.
Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about measures to clamp down on people trafficking? The Government consulted on proposals to require airlines to copy the documents of passengers who board planes on certain routes but such a provision is not in the Bill. Do the Government intend to make a decision on whether to include that measure before the Bill completes its passage through the House?
We are consulting with the carriers. If we introduce a measure to require copying, it should be universal so that all carriers that transport people into the country would be on equal terms thus ensuring that it would not disadvantage any carrier. We think that that would secure fair competition and ensure that no companies' commercial operations would be disadvantaged. There are different views on the subject but I hope that we will be able to resolve the matter quickly so that we may introduce measures.
Of course, 70 per cent. of those who claim asylum dispose of their passports or documents before presenting themselves. We accept the fact that some people would never have had passports or documents and that they would have been transported across the continent in the back of vehicles or another clandestine way. If those people explain how they got here, that will be sufficient to ensure that their claims are heard. However, many people destroy their documents to evade proper scrutiny of their claim and deceive those who undertake such scrutiny about the specific country in a region from which they came, and others do that at the behest of their facilitators' instructions. Such actions make the system difficult to operate. Every time that we close a loophole, a new one opens up, which is why it is necessary to continue, as this third strand does, to block loopholes and deal with the innovative ways in which people try to destroy a robust system.
In the end, the measures will need to be linked to proper methods of identification so that people who enter the country—legally or otherwise—and disappear into the community will not be able to draw on our services, get work or abuse our country's hospitality. Indeed, such methods would prevent the exploitation of people who disappear into the community to work to try to sustain themselves because they are not entitled to benefit, which was described earlier. The policy is all about developing stability and order and the difficult job of laying down the terms of the way in which we can establish foundations on which others may build.
This is not a job in which accolades are handed out for doing things that are immediately popular, with the exception of introducing welcome measures on sexual offences, domestic violence and, in the near future, I hope, the radical reform of our correction services. The job is about laying down requirements on which other changes can be built, on which safety, security and stability may be assured, and on which the progressive agenda that we want can be won. By doing what we have to do now and anticipating future changes and difficulties and likely points of attack, we can secure for those who come after us a platform to take forward many of the things that we hold dear. That is why we will ask the House to vote for the measures in the Queen's Speech on home and constitutional affairs today and why we shall ask the House to vote for them so that they become Acts of Parliament that will ensure that people in the communities we represent will know that we are on their side.
May I start by sympathising with the Home Secretary about his black eye? I have had one or two myself, so I know how he feels.
This year's Queen's Speech has yielded yet another bumper crop of Bills which, at the very least, confirms the Government's reputation for activism. During the course of the year, I intend to address the substance of Bills on home and constitutional affairs in the constructive manner characteristic of my predecessor as shadow Home Secretary.
Elements of the Bills will certainly find support on this side of the House. Conservative Members have, for example, long supported measures to tackle domestic violence. I understand only too clearly what the Home Secretary said about several of the issues being extremely difficult, so we shall help him to wrestle with them. We are pleased that the Government have found time to introduce a Bill on charities, and we welcome the Bill on civil partnerships. Both will allow the House to address and correct long-standing legal anomalies and unfairness. I also look forward to discussing with the Home Secretary, as he promised that we would at the end of the past Session and reconfirmed today, how we may deal effectively with serious fraud without losing the twin pillars of British justice—the presumption of innocence and trial by jury.
We are also pleased by the announcement of a civil contingencies Bill in the Queen's Speech. Despite what the Home Secretary said, action on that front should surely have been taken four weeks after
There are some worthwhile Bills in the Government's programme but we have been here before in previous years. Indeed, the Government have introduced at least 30 Home Office Bills, but their effect on crime has been far too small. Despite the Home Secretary's frenetic activism, the programme will do little to tackle the appalling levels to which crime has risen during the Government's tenure.
The Home Secretary obviously has a selective memory when it comes to statistics, so let me restate the facts. During the past century, recorded crime rose throughout the industrialised world, and Britain was no exception. However, between 1992 and 1997 the number of crimes committed in Britain dropped by almost 1 million. That was better than what happened in any other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which is a tribute to the energy, talent and commitment of the then Home Secretary, who is now, of course, the Leader of the Opposition.
This Government have achieved quite the opposite. Between 1998 and 2003, crimes recorded in Britain rose by almost 800,000. Violent crime alone has risen by nearly two thirds in just five years. Burglaries have almost doubled, and gun crime has doubled. Drug crime is up; theft is up; sexual offences are up. Some 60,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour—the insidious, corrosive behaviour that is tearing at the fabric of our communities—are reported every day. The only figure that has fallen is the level of crimes detected. Indeed, the Home Secretary's own figures report that the number of crimes detected in England and Wales has fallen to fewer than one in four. The Government have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. They have turned their back on an open goal and scored an own goal instead.
Let us be perfectly fair, however. The failure to stem the appalling rise in crime under the Government's stewardship has not been for want of activity on their part. In addition to the 30 Bills proposed since 1997, initiatives have been announced and re-announced weekly, if not daily. There have been cash-point fines, child curfews and night courts, all uniformly unsuccessful. To implement that initiative frenzy, the Home Office has recruited 20,000 more administrators. Those have, in turn, multiplied and divided into five groups, six directorates, 10 teams and 63 units. By 2005, the cost of simply running the Home Office will have gone up by 46 per cent. That is well over £1 billion, which could have paid for countless thousands of police.
I have listened quietly to most of the right hon. Gentleman's distortions, but I need to put the record straight on the last one before it gets legs. Much of what he describes is theoretically true but only because the national probation service, which was decentralised to a localised system, was brought back together in 2000. All the staff working for it and the resources applied to it were brought into the Department at the same time.
How many of the extra 20,000 administrators does that account for? Not that many. I note that the Secretary of State did not challenge the idea that we might have got more policemen for that £1 billion, because he cannot.
It is certainly my party's policy to have an extra 40,000 police funded from savings made on the Government's disastrous asylum policy.
What is the result of the prodigious explosion of energy and public spending? It is declining confidence and rising crime. The people of this country are losing confidence in the ability of the police to protect them and to deliver criminals to our courts for justice. A recent ICM poll shows that in two thirds of crimes reported to the police, officers tell the victims that little or nothing can be done to apprehend the perpetrators. That may be why one victim in seven does not bother reporting crime to the police even when it is a serious offence. Half of them decide not to report it because they believe that the police would not catch the person responsible.
Nothing in the Queen's Speech will seriously remedy that situation. There is a Bill that is designed to provide increased support to victims of crime and witnesses of crime. If it provides victims with more help than they currently receive, we will support it and try to amend it to ensure that it is more effective than previous legislation from this Home Secretary.
There is also nothing in the Queen's Speech to reduce the appalling amount of paperwork that ties policemen into sub-beat offices and police stations. Surely more can be done about that.
The first thing to do would be to cut the 20,000 extra bureaucrats that the Home Secretary has taken on.
I can tell the Home Secretary what the victims of crime really want: criminals to be caught and punished. At the moment, 97 per cent. of crimes go unpunished. No wonder public confidence in the criminal justice system is at an all-time low. What the public want, in short, is more police—40,000 more police in case the Liberals are interested. What the Home Secretary offers instead is more and more draconian legislation that impinges on the liberties of ordinary citizens but does little to catch real criminals. Those measures were corrected in the last Session only by the House of Lords, which brings me to the next subject: constitutional change.
Again, I am afraid that there is no evidence in the Queen's Speech that the Government have managed to produce any meaningful or coherent policy. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister embarked on a programme of fundamental change to our constitution as a spin-off from a botched and mismanaged Cabinet reshuffle. Proper consideration of the judiciary and the Executive, and the role and position of the Lord Chancellor, was thrown out of the window in favour of a blatant exercise in cronyism and power politics.
Let me remind the House how the Government dealt with our constitution. The Home Secretary made it clear that he did not have even a little conversation on the subject. On
The Prime Minister has treated our constitution with an arrogant disdain that is shocking even by the standards of new Labour. Let me emphasise that it is our constitution. The Prime Minister seems to have forgotten that it belongs not to him, his Government or, indeed, any Government, but to the people of the United Kingdom. It is, of course, quite in character that he should deliver his proposals with no consultation, no debate and no thought for the consequences.
The Government now claim that their proposals are all about modernising the constitution. I wonder whether Labour Members remember their manifesto commitment to make the House of Lords "more democratic and representative". Perhaps they remember the pledge:
"We will abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a proper democratically elected second chamber with a new electoral system to go with it".
In case they have forgotten, those were the words of the Prime Minister.
What happened to those promises? Are the Government planning to make the upper House democratic? Did I miss that aspect of the Queen's Speech, or have the Government redefined, in some Orwellian fashion, what democracy means? If the Prime Minister does not stand by his commitments, the House and the people of Britain will be left with no other conclusion than that the Government's reforms are simply a sham. They will be seen as nothing more than an attempt to bring to heel an upper House with principles and powers that have proved inconvenient to the Government, and nothing more than an attempt by the Prime Minister to stuff the upper Chamber with yes men who will do his bidding.
Will the right hon. Gentleman bear it in mind that for 100 years or more the House of Lords has been nothing other than a constituency Conservative party? Will he also bear it in mind that it is the right of the two Chambers to reform the House of Lords, and this Chamber failed to find a satisfactory solution? Perhaps he might like to consider a real option, which it is for both Houses to propose, of a hybrid chamber—my preferred option—that would represent us in this century.
Plenty of options are available. This House did not reach a majority on any of them. However, many are much more popular than the Prime Minister's proposals. As for the Tory upper Chamber, the Government have been defeated 78 times in the House of Lords. On only six of those occasions were there more Tory than Labour Members of the House of Lords in the No Lobby. On 72 out of 78 occasions, they were defeated by their own Members, Cross Benchers and others.
What is the rationale for the Government's attack on the House of Lords? Is the problem that it is not democratic? No, it is not, because the Prime Minister has no intention of making it democratic. Is the problem that it is full of political appointees? No, it is not, because the Prime Minister wants more of those. Or is the problem that the House of Lords has actually done its job and stood up to an arrogant and over-mighty Executive?
Were it not for the House of Lords, we would already have lost jury trials for countless offences. Without the House of Lords, the Government would have assumed huge powers to intercept private e-mails under the snoopers charter. Without the House of Lords, we would have seen draconian legislation, with everybody from church choirs to pub pianists being covered by the Licensing Act 2003. The House of Lords does its job every day, revising legislation and making it better and stronger. The House of Lords remains a practical check on Government, working not on the basis of party politics but on the basis of what is right for Britain. No wonder the Government want to see it permanently neutered.
The Government claim that their proposals are about making the judiciary independent of Government. I would have thought that anybody who has witnessed the arguments of the Home Secretary, or indeed of previous Home Secretaries, with the judiciary could hardly doubt its independence. Perversely, the Government's proposed judicial appointments commission could undermine the independence of the judiciary, unless there are transparent safeguards, and we will work towards that.
Would not my right hon. Friend include in his list the role of the House of Lords in stopping the draconian ban on hunting with dogs, which was a defence of the individual liberty of sportsmen and women in this country?
I have no difficulty in welcoming all actions of the House of Lords in defending liberty. It is one of its important functions, and one not understood by Members on the Labour Front or, indeed, Back Benches.
The Government have consistently undermined the powers of the Commons; they must not undermine the Lords simply because it is an effective check on an arrogant Executive. What is so wrong with the constitution that there is this sudden, urgent need for change? It may be a depressingly conservative question for Government Members, but it is not one that they seem ever to have asked. They see something old, and with the well-honed intellect of one of Pavlov's dogs, they conclude that it must be bad. It is not necessarily bad because it is old; indeed, it might well have become old because it is good.
I have covered a number of subjects and a number of Bills. Where it is appropriate, Conservative Members will not hesitate to support the Government. I have referred to a number of such Bills. There is one, however, that I have not yet covered. This year, we have another asylum Bill—the Home Secretary told us about it—the third under this Government. Again, I remind him of the figures. In the last full year of the Conservative Government, 37,000 asylum seekers entered the UK. Last year there were 110,700—a 200 per cent. increase. Responsibility for the shambles in the asylum system belongs to this Government. Since coming to power, their record on asylum has been a dismal litany of failure.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on further developing Conservative asylum policy on this morning's "Today" programme. I understand that he will not want to name the islands or peninsulas that are being targeted by the Conservative party as a dumping ground for asylum seekers, but it would be useful to the House and the electorate if his party could produce a shortlist of islands or peninsulas that the current residents could examine in the run-up to the next general election so that the electorate may make an informed choice.
I would be careful if I were the hon. Gentleman—he will get into the bad books of the Home Secretary, who gets very upset when one does not read his press releases and statements. On
Last week, the Government boasted that the number of asylum seekers had halved. [Interruption.] Labour Members do not want to hear this either. However, the number remains 50 per cent. higher than it was in 1997. After losing any grip on the system, this Government have wasted billions of pounds of taxpayers' money that might otherwise have been spent on schools, hospitals and the police. The Home Secretary has brought the numbers down only by reintroducing Conservative measures—measures that his party slammed as "racist, uncivilised and unjust" when it was in opposition, so I will not take too many lectures on responsible comments from Labour Members.
Now we come to the third asylum Bill, the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, Etc.) Bill, which was announced in the Queen's Speech last week and mentioned by the Home Secretary today. I should put it on the record that much in the Bill sounds eminently sensible, such as measures to penalise those who destroy their travel documents, about which the Home Secretary talked today. I understand from the papers that he has had difficulties with his Cabinet colleagues, but there are practical ways of taking those measures, so we will support the right hon. Gentleman on that.
Frankly, however, despite the Home Secretary's protestations, there has been nothing sensible or responsible about the way in which the Government have handled the announcement of the Bill. The way in which the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have treated the issue over the past days shows the depths to which they have sunk for a quick and easy headline. On Sunday, under the headline, "Asylum children may be taken in care", The Observer, the Home Secretary's favourite document, reported:
"Asylum seekers will have their children taken into care in a draconian attempt to force them to go home."
Throughout the week, similar stories and headlines appeared in the press and on the airwaves.
May I just ask one simple question? Is it the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman's query that I, or someone working on my behalf, placed that story?
Well, somebody in the Government did, that is for sure. I shall come to the right hon. Gentleman's Department in a moment. The Home Office had plenty of opportunities to deny the story. At any time, the Home Secretary could have gone on air to set the record straight. This, let us remember, is the Government who invented rapid rebuttal. They rebut things between the first and second editions, when they want to, not between Sunday and Thursday. They could have used their armies of spin doctors to knock the story down. Instead, they chose to defend it, and now I turn to the Home Secretary's question, because a Home Office spokesman described the measure as
"an incentive for people to return voluntarily before removal is enforced".
That was crass, insensitive and profoundly distasteful. On Wednesday, the Leader of the Opposition challenged the Prime Minister on those reports. He made absolutely no attempt to deny the allegations.
We now know that the Bill makes no mention of taking children into care. This was an exercise in grabbing the headlines. It was designed to make the Government sound tough. It was a calculated effort by the Government to cover up their failure to manage an orderly asylum system.
No, I will not. I am coming to the end of my remarks.
Is not this evidence that the Government have sunk to a new low, even by their own shabby standards? How can anybody trust or respect a Government who are willing to chase headlines at the expense of innocent children?
The Home Office's motto is
"Building a safe, just and tolerant society", but what is safe, just and tolerant about the Bills in this Queen's Speech? What in these Bills will make our citizens feel safe on the streets of our cities? What is just about risking the independence of the judiciary? Who would say that forcing the children of asylum seekers into care is an act of tolerance? We have a Government and a Home Secretary who are addicted to posturing: posturing on asylum, grand gestures and meaningless initiatives on crime, and pointless grandstanding on the constitution. The Home Secretary's reckless comments on the individuals arrested in Gloucester last week were the latest example of an addiction to cheap populism.
The British people are sick of grandstanding. They want results. It is time for this Government to get off the stage and make way for a Government who will deliver.
Contrary to the remarks of David Davis, I think that the Government have done remarkably well on constitutional reform. We are embarked on a course that we need to spell out in more detail, and we must pace ourselves rather well over the coming years.
The quest or the plan for a supreme court is precisely right. Our judges are not failing in any way, but the system is seriously out of date and puts us at risk of being in breach of article 6 of the European convention on human rights. We have signed up for a clear distinction between the legislature and the judiciary. We have judges sitting in our second Chamber and we need to bring that to an end. I do not want to go much further down that road. The Select Committee whose remit is constitutional affairs, of which I am a member, is considering, for example, the issues of independent selection measures for judges, where the proposed supreme court should sit and the way in which it should be organised. The Committee will report in due course.
It is important to modernise the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature. As I have said, that is not because of any criticism of our judges, but because time has moved on and we need to move with it. In a sense, the criticism of the British system is not that we do not have a written constitution; in many ways I regard it as an advantage to have an unwritten constitution. However, we have not made enough changes in recent times. There have been changes, of course, and we are now embarked on the right track. I shall focus mostly on reform of the second Chamber. Contrary to what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden was saying, I think that the House failed, not the Government, to produce a workable proposal for a second Chamber.
The Joint Committee of the two Houses sat for a long time to contemplate a number of options. In my judgment, the Committee was too large to come up with really good suggestions on which the House could have voted with more effect. I suppose my main appeal is that we should reconstitute that Committee early next year with fewer members who are drawn from both Houses, with a duty to continue to explore reform of the second Chamber.
I believe that there is a majority in this place and, I suspect, in the second Chamber who know that reform cannot stop. The reality is that we cannot leave the second Chamber as it is. There are, for example, some relatively minor issues such as the size of the second Chamber and whether there should be a retirement age, but the much bigger issue is how the Chamber should be constituted. Other issues that we are addressing elsewhere in the constitution indicate to me that the second Chamber should be a hybrid Chamber. I shall return to that.
The hon. Gentleman rather reinforces my view that the constitution should be changed carefully and slowly in order to get the outcome right. It is difficult to reverse the process. The hon. Gentleman is right in the sense that the House did not provide a clear decision when the issue was debated previously. Would it not be better to start with decisions that were the most popular—maybe they did not get a majority vote—and principally were the most democratic?
I understand that approach and I have some sympathy for it. I believe that for the best part of 100 years the big bang approach has failed when it has come to solving the problem of the second Chamber. Time and again, attempts have been made by Labour, and in the early part of the previous century by the Liberal party, to reform the second Chamber. Those attempts never really worked. Big steps were taken when the Liberals appointed more peers to get legislation through. There was the introduction of life peers, and so on, but the reality is that any attempt to arrive at a total solution, which is then imposed on the second Chamber, is unlikely to get support in this Chamber or in the other Chamber. That is why we constantly run into trouble. In that sense, I think that the right hon. Gentleman is right in his intervention. We need to pace ourselves on progress and reform.
How do we do that? I do not think that there is any real chance of a fully elected second Chamber being voted through in the two Chambers in the near future. Nor do I think that there is any credibility in a system that is wholly appointed along the present lines. We must move forward differently. It seems that everybody is signed up to an independent appointment system. In terms of the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, we are moving fairly rapidly towards a system of devolved regional government. We have it in London and we have it in Scotland and Wales in the form of devolved assemblies. It is to be hoped that there will be such an assembly in Northern Ireland in due course. It is a matter of time before the English have devolved government. Some English regions will go for it quicker than others, but I guess or estimate that the idea will catch on and that we will have devolved regional government.
Around the world, many second Chambers are not made up of wholly elected Members. Instead, they are in some way made up of local regions. In a sense, the prize for Britain is to create an elected part of our second Chamber that represents the regions. The beauty of having a hybrid Chamber—by that I mean part appointed and part elected—is that it is made clear that the second Chamber is junior to this Chamber. The problem of having a wholly elected Chamber when we do not have a written constitution is that power could move between the two Chambers without let or hindrance. In a way, that is what happened in the 19th century. At one moment we had the then Prime Minister in the second Chamber, and then he was back in this Chamber. If we do not want to go back down that road, we need to make it clear that the House of Lords is a second Chamber and not the first Chamber.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will clarify for me what he means when talking about his hybrid view for the future of the House of Lords, or the second Chamber. What exactly does he mean in taking that hybrid view? Is he talking about a directly elected part, or would he consider an indirect election for certain Members chosen from the regions, and perhaps for particular interest groups?
My hon. Friend helps me in my argument. If we agree to set up the Joint Committee of the two Houses again early in the new year, as I would wish, I would like it to consider the advantages of direct as opposed to indirect election in the second Chamber in representing the regions. I would not go down the road of interest groups—that would be full of problems. The key is to recognise that the Government have devolved a great deal of power. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a centralising Government of the sort that we have had before. If we continue down that road, which English regional government moves us along, we must bring the United Kingdom back together again in the second Chamber. That is the reason for having the regions—in the widest sense of the term, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also the regions of England—represented in the second Chamber in some way. In that way we would strengthen the constitution.
My plea to this Chamber and to the second Chamber is to allow thinking to develop within the Joint Committee, if it is set up again. It would be a Select Committee and would be able to take evidence on, for example, the virtues of direct versus indirect election. It could then make proposals a step at a time to the two Chambers. I believe that we would get through a reformed House of Lords over the next few years. We will not get a reformed House of Lords by trying to push through a wholly appointed Chamber. Nor will we get through a wholly elected Chamber. That is why I argue that we should allow ourselves to be paced by a Committee that reports regularly to the House and puts proposals to both Houses on which they can vote.
I do not believe, and have never believed, that we can leave the House of Lords as it is. It needs to change, and that is the way forward. If we take the judges out of the second Chamber, questions are raised about who else should be there. There are difficult questions, including those about religious representation in a society that is much more diverse in its religious views. I am talking about one of the core ways forward.
We should not divorce what we are doing on constitutional change from what we need to do on the Floor of the House and elsewhere with the modernisation of this place. If we compare the House now and in 1979, when I became an MP, we can see that it is radically different and, in many ways, much better. The Committee structures work better and Westminster Hall, to which I can claim to have given birth, if that is the appropriate phrase—[Laughter]. It is probably not, but never mind. However, the introduction of debates in Westminster Hall was a useful development that has proved its worth. There are other options that we ought to look at. For example, I have already suggested to the Leader of the House that we ought to look at whether, in Westminster Hall, it is possible to allow Members of the Commons to question Ministers who are Members of the Lords. That would give a clear signal that the House of Lords is a second Chamber, but it would also allow hon. Members to cross-examine Ministers from the other place.
We also need to look at ways of allowing MPs to cross-examine European Commissioners as part of a wider examination of our constitution. I am not suggesting that those Commissioners should be called over here—not because they would not attend, but because if they had to attend assemblies in every country there would be a problem. However, sessions could be held in which European Commissioners would be questioned in an open format by Members of Parliament—that would be another useful step forward. My plea generally is that we should recognise that the way in which we modernise our constitution will have dramatic consequences. Although it may not be the burning question of the moment and may not cut much ice on the streets of Shepherd's Bush, Acton or indeed any other constituency, it affects everyone in the country. The way in which our constitution works determines the quality of our democracy and Government. We should therefore replace the Joint Committee early in the new year, but we should also be careful not to take our eye off the ball when taking a genuine opportunity that we have not had for at least 100 years to make basic, major reforms to the constitution and the way in which the two Houses work.
I congratulate the Home Secretary on his incredible energy levels and those of the Home Office. Once the Bills piloted by his Department are introduced, 48 Home Office Bills will have been introduced since the Government came to power. There is a growing tendency for politicians to do too much. While some of the Bills include measures that the Liberal Democrats have supported in the past, Members on both sides of the House share a genuine concern that far too much legislation is being introduced.
There is, however, much on home affairs and constitutional matters in the Queen's Speech that Liberal Democrats support. In particular, I am pleased that a civil partnership Bill will be introduced, as its content was originally worked up by my colleague, Lord Lester, as a private Member's Bill. Proper legal rights should be in place recognising those individuals and couples who live together. We therefore very much welcome that legislation. We also welcome, as I think all parties do, the proposed legislative changes affecting domestic violence victims and witnesses. Those measures are long overdue, as the Home Secretary said. Domestic violence is an awful crime and, sadly, leads to a number of deaths every week. It is often a hidden crime that goes unnoticed, so it is important that measures should be in place so that we have recourse to positive action to try to tackle the problem. I also hope that, simply by having legislation in place, awareness will be raised among the police and society in general that those issues need to be tackled. I welcome, too, the establishment of the post of an independent commissioner for victims.
On the code of practice for victims, I have been lobbied about the issue of victims of road traffic accidents. The draft code did not deal with some of the big concerns of the many victims of road traffic accidents, so I hope that the Home Office can look at it again. On domestic violence, I hope that the Government can look at prevention. Many of the measures that we are discussing will kick in once an attack has happened, but we need to do more to prevent attacks in the first place. I therefore hope that the Government will address the issues of proper marriage counselling and mediation.
Liberal Democrats welcome the measures on charities, as there is clearly an enormous need to modernise charity law. I also welcome the proposals for much greater integration of the work of the voluntary sector with that of other sectors, giving the voluntary sector an enormous opportunity to play a much greater role. Members on both sides of the House have big arguments about our public services and whether they should be run privately or by the public sector. However, a third way is to include the voluntary sector much more in the provision of those services. I hope that in a small way the measures in the charity Bill will result in a big growth in the embedding of voluntary groups in the running of our public services.
We welcome some of the measures introduced by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We certainly support the abolition of the post of Lord Chancellor and the creation of a supreme court. I hope that colleagues will have a chance to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to expand on that. However, there are two measures in the Queen's Speech with which we fundamentally disagree, the first of which is the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill. We have major concerns about some of the provisions that are being introduced. Last week, there was an announcement about the reduction in the number of individuals coming to this country. First, I should like to raise with the Home Secretary the folly of going down a route that establishes targets on those issues. The Government have achieved their target, and I do not question it or the way in which they have counted the numbers. According to their own measurement, they have achieved their target. However, is a new target going to be put in place for next year? If not, why not? According to their own judgment, a target-based approach is desirable. However, the folly of targets is that they do not take into account international circumstances that may vary from year to year. For example, situations may arise in various parts of the world that will result in a different demand on the asylum system. I am pleased that the Home Secretary has said that there will not be any more targets, so I hope that, now the reduction has been achieved, we have seen the last Government target in this area.
Turning to the measures that the Government are putting in place, does the Home Secretary expect that the proposals on children will be debated in future? Will he give us a categorical assurance that there will be no more references to the issue? We have had a debate about it this afternoon, but one way or another, whoever is right, and whether or not it was the Home Office that was briefing The Observer, there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that, regrettably, the issues of children and asylum were linked last week.
I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not intend to return to the issue. It was never in the draft legislation. As I said, it was referred to on
I am grateful for the Home Secretary's clarification of the fact that we shall not be hearing about these issues again. However, does the right hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that the question of whether a child is taken into care or given support has nothing to do with the Home Secretary but everything to do with the social services system? With that in mind, it is critical that social services decide whether or not children are suffering or are in need, particularly whether they have financial needs. Does the Home Secretary accept that usually when social services get involved to try to help a child in such circumstances their initial response is to try to find financial support for that family? By taking away that financial support, which is what he is doing, he is creating a problem for social services—[Interruption.] If the families are creating the problem, that is not, to some extent, their choice. Society must help to solve the problem. The instinct of any social services department will be try to put money back in, putting the children first and reducing the chance of their being taken away.
On the question of appeal, we are playing a numbers game, and I should like to probe the Home Secretary a little more. We all agree that a number of decisions, about 20 per cent., are overturned during the first stage of appeal, which suggests that the current system is failing and incorrect. The Government plan to take away, in crude terms, the second stage of appeal. The Home Secretary gave a figure of 3 per cent. for success in that second stage. I would welcome clarification as to whether that is 3 per cent. of the overall cases—in other words, the cases that presented for the first appeal—or whether it is 3 per cent. of the cases going through to the second appeal.
To be helpful to the hon. Gentleman, I am talking about 3 per cent. of those who were allowed to be referred from the first immigration appellate authority appeal to the third stage of decision making.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for clarifying the point. The briefings that I have been given—I accept this openly—suggest that the figure is much higher at the second stage. Some of the figures presented to me by legal teams working on such cases are indeed as high as 20 per cent. When we consider the matter in Committee, we will want carefully to probe the Government to establish what is happening at that second stage of appeal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as it may help hon. Members for me to explain. Following the first decision, a large number of cases go to first appeal with the immigration appellate authority, as the adjudicators. Some 20 per cent. of those appeals are currently allowed. A further tranche seek to go to the next round of appeal. A large number are currently allowed to put their case, and 3 per cent. of them are successful.
We seem to have reached a point at which the Home Secretary may be telling me that 20 per cent. of those people are allowed to put their case. We will clearly have to revisit the issue in some detail. I would have extreme concerns about moving a tier of appeal that could be accessed in at least 20 per cent. of cases.
I suspect that there may even be consensus between all three parties on this matter. The implication of what the hon. Gentleman has described—the one-in-five failure rate in the first round—is that the quality of decision making is too poor at that stage. Effort should therefore be focused on that round, rather than on infinite extensions of the appeal process.
There is full agreement on that issue. I am sure that we will return to the figures later, as I want to be clear that we are not ruling out the possibility of appeal for a number of individuals. I think that there will be agreement on all sides, however, about the principle of establishing a proper, fair and effective system much earlier.
With that in mind, there are concerns that the Government's proposals on legal aid and its reduction—they are not in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, but have been announced elsewhere—will have a negative impact on getting the decision right in the first place. We all agree that that is our objective, and, as a layman, that suggests to me that proper legal aid should be in place at an early stage. That should ensure that no individual is left without the legal aid that they need or finds that the team that is briefing and advising them is not of the quality that would have been provided if full legal aid had been made available.
"The Government's original proposals were hurried and not obviously thought through and its 'alternative approach', proposed to us at almost the very last stage, is unhelpfully vague."
I hope that the Home Secretary can give us some indication of the current thinking on plans to change legal aid. Perhaps there is a case for not making such changes until we have seen how the changed system, with the reduction of appeal—or streamlining, if he wants to call it that—has bedded down. Making a fundamental change to the appeal process while also making the changes that he is planning in respect of legal aid seems to be folly. There is a strong case for delaying the legal aid changes until we see how the matter develops.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The other risk is that many well qualified solicitors who should be giving legal advice under the legal aid scheme are withdrawing from it simply because of the limits that are placed on it. The applicants are left consulting people who are simply not qualified to advise them.
If we have consensus on the requirement to improve the process in that first stage, I suspect that, when we explore what is going wrong, we will find that the hon. Gentleman's point is accurate and that the quality of the advice given at the first stage is not as good as we would like. I suggest that the planned legal aid changes will not help that situation, but make it worse.
There could be broad support on the Liberal Democrat Benches for introducing some form of punishment for individuals who burn their documents and are clearly trying to abuse the system. We obviously want assurances about ensuring that people who have genuinely fled their countries and got rid of the documents that they brought with them on the plane because they were nervous about arriving in this country will not end up suffering severe punishment. None the less, subject to a bit of probing, I think that we would be broadly supportive of what the Government are suggesting.
I should like to make a couple more points about the same issue. I welcome the statement that the Home Secretary made three or four weeks ago, I think on "Newsnight", in which he spoke very well about the tolerant attitude that this country should have about asylum and talked about welcoming economic migrants to this country. I was impressed with what he said, as he spoke in a tone that many Liberal Democrats have wanted to hear much more from the Government. The announcements hidden away in the Bill, however, which include the power to increase charges for immigration visas, contradict some of the language that he was using only a few weeks ago. It would be helpful for the Home Office to confirm that it is now planning to charge more in relation to immigration visas than the actual cost of the process itself. That is wrong, as it could mean that people coming to this country for perfectly good reasons, such as attending a funeral or visiting family members, are turned into a money-making scheme for the Home Office.
Let us hope that we can have a sensible debate about asylum. It will be a much more mature debate if the Home Secretary can confirm that the 28 clauses currently in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill will remain as such, and that we will not see all sorts of right-wing, headline-grabbing initiatives being tagged on to it at various points.
I turn to identity cards with some trepidation, as the Home Secretary had great sport and fun when I last raised the issue, when he pointed out that I had expressed support for a private Member's Bill introduced a year ago. I admit that the view that I took is slightly unusual on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
Indeed, I could be slightly cruel and point out that, in 1989, the Home Secretary himself voted against a Tory private Member's Bill involving the introduction of a personal identity number in an attempt to tackle fraud. I shall not go down that line, however, as I suspect that he has better researchers than I have and could probably come back at me with things that I have done in the past. [Interruption.] I was not here in 1989.
If I could be convinced that there was a system that could do all the things that the Home Secretary would like and guarantee an ability to tackle crime, more security from terrorism and major benefits in respect of benefit fraud, I might be prepared to set aside some of my concerns about civil liberties and consider such a proposal. However, I am not convinced.
I do not blame the hon. Gentleman for changing his mind. In an era in which massive issues such as 9/11 have come along, those of us who were nervous of ID cards have become more cautious. The sensitive issue, however, is the holding of a database and how the Government database is dealt with. That is much more sensitive an issue than carrying a card in one's wallet. It is in that area that civil liberties come into play. I tell him now that that is where Opposition Members will focus most of our concern—on protecting individuals from misuse of the information held about them. I hope that that his party will support us in that.
There would certainly be support on the Liberal Democrat Benches in relation to the database.
I want to take on some of the myths about the ID card. David Davis mentioned 9/11, and the first point is the concept that ID cards can stop terrorism. We know anecdotally that some of the terrorists involved in 9/11 had fake cards. Despite biometric technology, I am concerned about whether a full sense of security can be created by introducing ID cards. The biggest myth relates to benefit fraud issues. There will be some cases in which people create false identities, but in a vast number of cases individuals do not pretend to be somebody else, but claim benefits to which they are not entitled.
The biggest problem that I have with the proposal is cost. I am convinced that the scheme will run to £1 billion or £2 billion. From my perspective, much more could be done to guarantee safety and security in this country if those billions of pounds were fed into providing more police and technologies such as closed circuit television. Initiatives of that kind would have a real day-to-day impact on crime, as opposed to introducing a Bill that will cost billions. Implementing a scheme on that scale will be virtually impossible. No party has had a particularly good record in government in that respect. The scheme would be complex enough if it merely required every citizen to have a card, but that is not all—if it is to work, every hospital, post office and benefits office will need a system to read the cards. Nobody seriously suggests that those two things can be put together in a way that has any serious impact on crime or benefit fraud.
I hope that my hon. Friend will bear in mind the experience of those who have suffered from errors and delays by the Criminal Records Bureau or the Child Support Agency and recognise that it is unlikely that it will be possible to manage an operation on such a scale without transgressing the rights of individuals who find that their identity is not properly recorded.
No, I must make some progress.
This issue will come back to haunt the Home Secretary as it lurches from disaster to disaster.
I want to conclude by highlighting a number of issues that are not in the Queen's Speech. It is disappointing that the Government chose to focus on asylum and ID cards when there is so much that still needs to be done in relation to crime and disorder. Once again, we have had a debate about whether the figures are up or down. One could welcome the fact that they are down, according to the British crime survey, or be disappointed that they are up, according to the figures on recorded crime. I do not want to get into a Dutch auction, but the figure that sticks in my mind is that last year 5.5 million offences were committed. Whether the figures are marginally up or marginally down, that is an awful lot of offences. The public want to see those issues being tackled effectively, not debates about asylum or ID cards. That means that we must somehow get more police on to the streets. It also means that—as the Home Secretary would wish—the police should be more visible as they are out doing their work. I should like to hear the Home Secretary and the police Minister announce more measures to take away the 41 per cent. of a policeman's time that is tied up—and completely wasted—on paperwork. The police could be making better use of technology—I have been handed a list of 72 technological innovations that could be put in place—but the Government have been far too cautious in that respect. There may be a case for introducing a system of national procurement to ensure that our police are "teched-up" to allow them to be out on the streets tackling crime, and to be seen to do so, instead of filling in bits of paper back at headquarters.
The best way to start making a big impact on tackling crime is to reduce reoffending rates. Politicians do not talk enough about that, but it could have a dramatic impact, because 58 per cent. of prisoners go on to commit another crime. If that could be tackled it would have an enormous impact on reducing crime. The figures are even higher for young offenders. It is a national disgrace that we have a captive audience of prisoners but cannot do something sensible with them, with the result that more than half come out and reoffend. That leads not only to rising crime, but to a rising prison population. It is a disgrace that the Government have not got a grip on the situation: apparently, their solution is either to have more sentences that require people to go to prison or to build more prisons. Will the Home Secretary think again and start to put into our prisons a serious, radical programme that builds on education and training? The Government have made some progress, but they need to do much more. For example, if the ability to take and pass exams were linked to early release dates, that would build an incentive into the system.
The reoffending rate is indeed approximately 58 per cent., but is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Reading prison it is 7 per cent. as a result of various Government-backed initiatives on work training for inmates?
I fully support what is taking place in Reading. Indeed, I took time to see it at first hand with Transco, the organisation that is doing that work. It is a fantastic scheme—well done to the Government for supporting it—whereby prisoners go out to work for Transco on a day-to-day basis, so that many of them end up with jobs when they leave prison. My complaint about the Home Office is its caution and lack of investment: I should like more Readings and more Transco schemes.
Mention has rightly been made of Reading prison, but is the hon. Gentleman aware that the scheme is rolled out much farther than that? At Wymott prison in my constituency, people have got full-time jobs through National Grid Transco. Those on the scheme are not only getting educated, but have jobs at the end of it. It is a super scheme that has had such a success rate that only 7 per cent. of participants have reoffended.
Both hon. Members make the point that such success levels mean that we should be less cautious in doing more faster. Many prisoners spend 23 hours a day in their cells and half of them share a cell. At one end of the corridor there is a classroom with a computer, and at the other end there is a prisoner in his cell, but there is no prison officer to get him from A to B. That is a ridiculous situation that shows that something has gone wrong with the system.
I must get on.
I want to conclude with two brief observations. First, we wait with interest to see where the Government are heading with their review of police authorities. I suggest that it would be a mistake to assume that many of our policing problems could be resolved by establishing a new directly elected police authority. There is not enormous enthusiasm for elections in this country, and the idea that people on run-down estates will suddenly think, "Yippee—this is a fantastic chance to have a say in our policing", and run to the ballot box is flawed. I urge the Home Secretary to think carefully about using the existing system by enlarging the number of members and making the chief constable and those on the elected police authorities much more visible. The Conservatives suggest that an elected mayor—some kind of "Deputy Dawg"—would be a solution, but that is not sensible: the best way forward is to use the existing structure. Failure to do so could lead to members of the British National party becoming elected mayors—if the Conservatives had their way—or dominating directly elected authorities, because BNP-like areas would tend to get involved in such elections.
Finally, I put on record the fact that Liberal Democrat Members will be looking with great interest at what happens to trial by jury. I welcome the Home Secretary's compromise—I will not say backing down—on that issue a few weeks ago. We will play a full part in the discussions and negotiations on how we move forward. I hope that in the case of this Queen's Speech, we will not end up facing the situation of two weeks ago whereby the compromise had to come at the very end of the process, but that there will be close co-operation with all parties along the way to try to make genuine progress, particularly on immigration and asylum.
I am glad to be called to participate in today's debate on the constitutional and home affairs section of the Queen's Speech. There is much to welcome, including the changes to the House of Lords to get rid of the final group of non-elected Members. Reflecting the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Soley, there are a variety of views in this House on that issue. I am an abolitionist—I should like to see the House of Lords abolished and the functioning of this House more radically reformed. I hold on to the hope that perhaps in my lifetime I will finally see that wish granted.
As a Member of Parliament from Aberdeen, I hope that by the end of this legislative year we will see a measure on the statute books with regard to corporate killing. That has been a live issue in Aberdeen for the past 10 years since the Piper Alpha disaster. It would be nice to believe that this Labour Government are able to introduce a measure that can be applied in such circumstances.
The legislation that I want to consider is cross-cutting, and although the legislative competency for the Bill rests with the Department for Work and Pensions, it is also relevant to the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Home Office because that is where all the other equality legislation resides. Indeed, that is where the responsibility for the measure on civil partnerships lies. The issue of equality that I want to consider affects me personally: it is the proposal to introduce a draft disability Bill.
Disability is a civil rights issue and an equality issue, and it relates to access to democracy. While disabled people do not have their full rights, we will never be full citizens of this country. I welcome the Government's intention to introduce a draft Bill in the Session, but I make a plea that we speed its passage as fast as we can so that a new disability Bill will soon be on the statute book.
Why is a disability measure necessary? This morning, I was with representatives of the charity, John Grooms, which provides housing for people with disabilities. We were handing a letter to No. 10 Downing street that pointed out that many people, especially those in wheelchairs, live in unsuitable accommodation. There are no rights for those of us in wheelchairs to have accessible accommodation, yet that should be an expectation. Local authorities and others should have a duty to ensure equality in housing provision for people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities.
It is also pertinent that the celebrations that mark the end of the European year of disabled people take place this week. Tomorrow has been earmarked as the European day for disabled people. Such events—I was going to call them celebrations, but they are not—highlight how far we still have to go to achieve equal rights and full civil rights for disabled people in this country.
The Government's proposals are in draft form and I hope that the Government will listen to disabled people before they introduce a Bill. I am making a bid to be involved in the draft process either as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions or of any Committee that is especially set up. It is important that the voices of disabled people are heard.
I pay tribute to what the Government have already achieved. At such times, it is useful to reflect on the achievements of the six years in which I have been a Member of Parliament. The Disability Rights Commission has been established, and I am using its briefing today. It is therefore fulfilling one of its functions of ensuring that hon. Members are well informed about the issues that affect disabled people.
Access to education has now been included in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which means that an enormous omission from the legislation has now been righted. In October next year, part III, which covers physical access to goods and services, will be implemented. That is perhaps the most revolutionary measure in that it will affect the lives of disabled people possibly more than any other. It means that, for the first time, we will have access to many of the things that other people take for granted. Part III of the 1995 Act is challenging and I am not sure whether many shops and businesses are truly geared up for it or aware of its obligations. At least the legislative framework exists for businesses and public bodies. If they do not fulfil their obligations, they can be taken to court.
The Government have also acted in many other ways to help disabled people, for example, through the new deal for disabled people and the work on pathways to work. Yesterday, I attended the launch in Aberdeen of "Progress to Work", which is a specific scheme that was set up to help recovering drug addicts to work. It was one of the most up-beat, energetic events that I have attended for a long time. A group of young people, who believed that their lives had come to an end, and had no expectations for their future, suddenly thought that they were starting their lives anew. For them, it was the first day of the rest of their lives. I pay tribute to the Government on the spread of such new deals throughout the country. Many relate to disabled people and many to those who are hard to place in work. They are working and delivering.
The disability Bill is intended to fill the gaps that continue to exist on a range of issues, for which different Departments are responsible. The measure will therefore be cross-cutting. The first issue is definition. Disability is currently defined as an enduring, long-term and possibly permanent impairment, but that is not necessarily the case in real life. Someone who has cancer may be severely disabled by the disease, but luckily medical science has advanced to the extent that we expect people to recover from cancer and a range of other debilitating conditions. Existing legislation does not cover people who have a variable condition, from which they expect to be cured. It is important that the definition is wider so that disabled people can have access to the cover of the law. That would mean that if an employer sacked someone for having a condition such as ME or cancer, the employee would be covered by the anti-discrimination legislation that currently covers those of us who have an enduring condition.
I should like a single equality Act, and it would be up to the Home Office to introduce it. That legislation would deal with many of the problems in existing law to do with the definition of disability. If someone is discriminated against, the grounds do not matter—it remains discrimination. A single equality Act would mean that the Government did not need a workable definition of disability because discrimination would be the determining factor.
I also believe—
I should like to deal with several themes, although 10 minutes is not long to cover them. My remarks must therefore be brief, broad and impressionist. For all that, I hope that they are worth while.
First, I want to consider constitutional affairs and especially the abolition of hereditary peers. There is no doubt that the old system was irrational. However, in a strange way, it worked, perhaps because the weight of tradition was behind it. There is no evidence that the new system, which is based on the Canadian Senate, will work any better. That Senate, which is entirely appointed, is probably the weakest and least well regarded upper Chamber in the world. We are creating an upper Chamber of the great and the good and, of course, the party faithful—and perhaps some of the small and the bad. It is not clear to many of us that what we throw out will be worse than what we gain.
Let me try, in a spirit of being positive, to take up some of the wise remarks of Mr. Soley. I hope that I can support him. We will not achieve consensus on a big bang solution. Although it may be desirable to have a wholly democratically elected upper Chamber, we shall not achieve that. We have to proceed by small steps.
The first step we might take could be a moderate injection of democratically elected Members. In the modern world, I suppose that they would have to be elected by proportional representation—I hope under an open list system, so that individual characters could break through from the party ranks. I hope also that when elected they would be in place for at least a couple of terms. This is a well-worn debate, however, and we are going to get no consensus this afternoon, but what a pity that in the Queen's Speech we do not at least have some road map—some way forward—that would give us hope for the future of achieving an upper Chamber that we could all be proud of.
I want to make one point that I think is particularly important, but which is not often made in debates on reform of the upper Chamber, although it interests me and therefore I want to stress it. Were we to proceed down the route of injecting democracy into the other place, there would be no point in creating elected clones of Members of Parliament. There would be no point in having in the other place people who are young, ambitious would-be Ministers controlled by the party Whips. Therefore, there is a lot to be said for learning from the American experience of a Senate that is there to advise and consent.
People who are placed in that upper Chamber cannot become Ministers. Once we had that simple device in place for elected Members of our upper Chamber, they would instantly become more accountable to the electorate, more democratic and more able to take a wider and broader view. There we are—we must wait for progress to be made. Of course, there are some who argue against a democratically elected upper Chamber, saying that it would somehow affect the dominance of the lower House, but what dominance? We have one of the weakest Parliaments in the western world.
This year, I would also like progress to be made on lessons to be learned from the Hutton inquiry, when it finally reports. Eventually, we may have to pass legislation on that. The Hutton inquiry has shown up the weaknesses of our Select Committee system. The way in which Hutton was able to require whatever persons and whatever papers it wanted to achieve a first-rate investigation of a national issue will be taken up by the media. When there is a similar disaster, the media will ask for—demand—a Hutton-type inquiry under an independent judge and will reject the predominance of our own elected Chamber.
We should reassert the predominance of the elected lower Chamber, and I speak as a Select Committee Chairman. A lot of progress needs to be made in reviving and reinvigorating the Select Committee system to give the Committees real powers to conduct Hutton-like inquiries.
If the Hutton inquiry has shown up those weaknesses, has it not also shown up the strength of the way in which we select our judges? Lord Hutton is a product of that judicial selection system, and does he not demonstrate precisely why it should remain as it is?
My hon. and learned Friend speaks on those matters with a great deal of personal experience, and I would not want to deny for a moment what he says. The fact is that our judicial system is second to none in terms of skill. There is no question of it being corrupt and no question of people being appointed for political reasons, as happens, for instance, in the United States. We are embarking on a very dangerous course indeed.
Enough of constitutional affairs. May I turn to home affairs for a moment and support what Mr. Oaten said, particularly on prison overcrowding? The Public Accounts Committee paid a visit recently to Her Majesty's prison Altcourse, which happens to be a private finance initiative prison, but that is irrelevant to the point I am making. The fact is that it is one of the best-run prisons in the country, and prisoners there are given time to exercise, train, study and be rehabilitated.
I do not know how many Members have walked round a prison recently, as we have, to talk to prisoners. They refer constantly to the other prisons in the Liverpool area, where people are banged up for 20 hours a day and where there is no prospect of training or rehabilitation. That leads directly to these appalling reoffending figures—over half the people who pass through our prisons reoffend. Members on both sides of the House have to ask the Home Secretary whether we really think that a prison population of more than 73,000, rising to 78,000, in ancient, underfunded, overcrowded prisons where people simply learn to reoffend is the best way forward. I put that question and hope that we might get an answer.
On another Home Office point, we have heard today from the shadow Home Secretary about the call for more policemen. Of course, there is one type of policeman who is very cheap indeed, although we hear so very little about him. There is a need for new special constables. I wish the Government would offer more incentives to encourage special constables. I favour a Territorial Army-type system, whereby people would be given a payment to encourage recruitment, which is a problem.
May I put one idea of my own to the House? Some people wish to serve as special constables, but in their own area, their own village or their own community. We should create a new type of special constable who is not required to serve in the wider community, but will serve in his own village.
Turning from home affairs, may I make one comment about the civil partnerships Bill, which I do not think has been mentioned but which we will consider later in the year? I do not want to say anything about gay marriage, but I want to say that the fact is that traditional marriage has been supported because it is a unique institution designed to nurture children. If we are to make special rights in respect of gay marriages, what about other co-dependants? Should we not also bear in mind examples involving a daughter with an infirm mother whom she looks after for many years, a disabled person with a friend carer, and two sisters? Under the Bill, they will have no rights whatever. One does not need to make any statement on gay rights or not to raise this question: if we establish new rights for particular people in society, we have to consider the denial of rights to other, very worthwhile people.
In my remaining minute or so, let me say a word about health and education, on which the Government are somewhat schizophrenic. On the one hand, they pay lip service to local action and local democracy; on the other, a blizzard of targets is tying our education and health systems up in red tape. The PAC has studied the French and German systems. I do not believe that there is any big bang solution that we can impose, but we can have confidence in local decision making in our schools and hospitals.
We must try to free local democracy, especially local government, from ring-fencing and targeting, which are destroying and inhibiting it. Therefore, we must have Bills to create schools, and perhaps hospitals, that straddle the public-private divide and perhaps Bills to enable universities to charge different fees, as long as that is not a hidden tax on middle class people. We recently visited Ravenscourt Park hospital, which is an NHS hospital that is dedicated to one type of operation. That is what we do in our own lives—mix and match, jumping from the private to the public sector—but what is so sad and disappointing about the Queen's Speech is that there are no dynamic proposals to make that possible in our legislation this year.
It is the Government's intention, as outlined in the Queen's Speech, to open up and amend the Scotland Act 1998 to retain the 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament. That, I fear, could open a political Pandora's box. I do not wish to refer to the issues that may or may not arise on opening up the Scotland Act, but rest assured that many will see this as an opportunity to amend other aspects of it.
The emphasis of my speech will be on maximising voter participation and the direct consequences for the United Kingdom of retaining 129 MSPs while simultaneously reducing the number of Scottish Westminster MPs from 72 to 59. I fear that everything is undermined by the unnecessary haste in implementing changes to an already unwieldy, confusing and inefficient collection of voting systems. The way in which we organise and set up our constitution and methods of election strengthens and secures our commitment to democracy. It is the responsibility and duty of this House to use all the powers at its disposal to ensure that democracy prevails over hereditary patronage and privilege.
An ever-decreasing number of people are exercising their right to vote, at a time when the number of voting systems in the UK and of ways in which people are expected to cast their vote is ever increasing. Voter participation is low, and voter apathy high. We must act to put matters right.
On the question of the democratic process, was the hon. Lady as disappointed as I was that the Queen's Speech contained nothing about the West Lothian question? Does she think that it is democratic that people are sent here from Scotland who can vote on issues that affect only England or England and Wales?
We need to create a uniformity that is understood and endorsed by the populace, rather than a plethora of systems that confuse and switch off the electorate. At the moment, we have one system for electing European representatives, but a different one for electing UK representatives. Different again are the systems for electing people to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Stormont, and for electing local government councillors in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We have single-member, multi-member, list-member and additional-member systems.
An example of how confused things can be is Pinkie road in Musselburgh in my constituency. Its 381 voters are represented by two local councillors voted in by the first-past-the-post system, two Westminster MPs voted in by the same system, eight Members of the European Parliament voted in by the party list using the d'Hondt system, and—the daddy of them all—16 Members of the Scottish Parliament voted in by the additional-member system, two of whom are constituency Members, while seven have second-vote and seven list-assisted places. As it stands, 28 people have been legitimately elected to represent the 381 good voters of Pinkie road. If my maths is right, that works out at an elected representative for every 13.6 voters. All 28 representatives can claim a mandate from the electorate, but most are disconnected, invisible and unknown to them. Quite simply, it is a dog's breakfast.
Not only do the people of this country have a fundamental right to participate in a democratic process and to vote for whomever they want to govern them, they also expect a system and method of voting that facilitates and accommodates their right to vote and that at the same time is understandable and transparent to them. What people do not deserve—and I cannot emphasis this enough—is to be part of a suck-it-and-see experiment in the pursuit of political purity that ends up missing the mark completely. It should not be in the gift of, or to the advantage of, any political party to dictate what our electoral processes should be.
I recognise that this House determined the system for electing representatives to the Scottish Parliament, and I further recognise our right to change it, especially when the system is seriously flawed, as in my view it is.
Did the hon. Lady see any interviews with voters coming out of polling stations in Northern Ireland? When asked whether they found the single transferable system confusing or difficult to manage, they all said no, not at all. One said that, as long as people are able to count from one to 10, it is perfectly all right.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that contribution, but the people of Northern Ireland have had so many difficulties in respect of how to cast their vote over many hundreds of years that they have taken it upon themselves to know exactly how and when to vote to maximise the effect. Unfortunately, the same enthusiasm is not evident in Scotland. That is why we should improve the system.
I know that the voting system in Northern Ireland was established before I came to the House, and that there was a degree of negotiation and consensus to it. Also, a review was promised. In contrast, blatant political opportunism in Scotland has led to proportional representation being foisted on Scottish local government. That was achieved through threats that measures and policies that were good and which would benefit all Scots would be abandoned. No pretence is made that that will create better local government, or that it will lead to greater voter participation, or that it will make the process easier or even fairer. The Liberal Democrats are prepared to sacrifice the welfare of Scots for the chance of political advantage by the back door.
It is now long overdue for this House to face up to the situation, and to take control of it. We should delay—and I mean only delay—the implementation of any boundary changes or any reduction in the number of Scottish MPs. I understand that we have given a commitment, but there is no obligation to fulfil that before 2006. Acting before the next general election would add to the already rapidly growing problem that I have identified.
Further serious consideration needs to be given to the merits of coterminous boundaries. Why should such boundaries be introduced in Scotland at a different time from in England and Wales? The whole sorry mess should be referred to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which should initiate and organise a review of electoral procedures throughout the UK. It is more important to get it right than to do it quickly. Continuing with the knee-jerk, piecemeal approach would only exacerbate the problem.
Does the hon. Lady accept that a solemnly promised consequence of devolution was that there would be a reduction in the number of Scottish seats in this House?
Yes, and I agree with that. To make matters clear, I was speaking about the timing of that reduction. We should not implement it before we need to, and I believe that there should be a review of all electoral systems. I say that as someone who will gain by the proposed boundary changes, not as someone who will be adversely affected. The House should move as quickly as possible to take the steps necessary to halt any further expansion, before the review is complete, in the number and type of electoral systems that are deployed.
Finally, apathy is the enemy of democracy. We ignore it at our peril.
I want to touch on some of the issues on which the Constitutional Affairs Committee has been working, and which fall within the ambit of the Queen's Speech. I also hope to squeeze in one other matter before I end my contribution.
I shall begin with asylum. The Constitutional Affairs Committee reported very quickly, at the request of the Lord Chancellor, on legal aid in asylum cases. We were very concerned about the Government's original proposals. The Government have now responded, in some ways helpfully. The five-hour cap has now become a threshold, although we still do not believe that that five-hour period is based on either principle or evidence.
However, some puzzling features remain. We are told that consideration has been given to whether legal aid is needed at the initial stage in all cases. In other words, it could be completely withdrawn at the initial stages, when it might be very significant. In addition, we know that the Government propose to remove a tier from the appeals system. No consideration has been given to the consequences that might ensue for the legal aid system, and no explanation is forthcoming.
Those two factors have not been taken into account, even in the Government's revised proposals. One can only assume that the removal of a tier from the appeals system might lead to a significant reduction in legal aid costs, and therefore render unnecessary some of the unwelcome limits on legal aid. The Government need to come clean on that.
I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman and Mr. Oaten have said about the quality of legal advice given to applicants to immigration and asylum tribunals. That is the key to good decisions being made in respect of such matters. However, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, not only is there an artificial limit on the amount of time that lawyers can devote to such matters, but that there is a growing desert in the legal aid map—that is, people cannot get access to lawyers because those lawyers increasingly refuse to take on that type of work?
The Committee intends to move on to more general matters to do with legal aid. However, the problem is at present exacerbated by the concerns to do with asylum. The Government are trying to make an announcement quickly, in the hope that a number of lawyers will be persuaded to remain in legal aid work. However, there is considerable doubt about whether that will work, as the changes are not sufficient.
I turn now to the constitutional changes featured in the Gracious Speech. The real problem is that the changes were introduced as part of a reshuffle. Major constitutional changes require the widest possible consultation and discussion, and the one thing that a Prime Minister does not consult widely about is a reshuffle. Prime Ministers tell nobody anything, until they get to the moment when they point out to people that their services are no longer required, as was the case with the former Lord Chancellor.
In reply to my question at the beginning of the debate, the Home Secretary implied that he read about the changes mainly in the papers—or at least, he read speculation about what might happen to his Department, so he made his views clear, and, it appears, changed the eventual outcome. However, neither he nor anybody else read in the papers—because it was not said—that the Government were thinking of abolishing the position of Lord Chancellor entirely, so that was not the subject of much discussion. There was no discussion at civil service level, nor, so far as I know, among Ministers, or with the devolved Administrations—who have a very relevant role in the matter—on such issues as the supreme court.
That means that we are trying to legislate on those matters with a tight timetable for carrying out the consultation that normally precedes such fundamental changes. The consequence is a feeling, even among supporters of the principles of change, of whom I am one, that this has been mishandled, and the perception among the judiciary that the abolition of the Lord Chancellor will upset a delicate balance, to the detriment of judicial independence.
It could be said that the office of Lord Chancellor has found many more friends since it was condemned to death than it had before, and that far more speeches in favour of the office seem to have been made than at any time in the past, certainly in my political lifetime.
Perception is the key to this matter. The Government are not creating a new judicial appointments system because of any feeling that the present system does not work impartially or that it cannot respond to the desire for a bench that more fully reflects the whole of society. The first aim is already achieved, and the second can be achieved, with the present system. The Government are making a change because of the perception that a Cabinet Minister could, at least in theory, exercise improper influence over judicial appointments, so they ought not to be in the hands of a Cabinet Minister. We would recommend to any other country in the world, and certainly to any new democracy, that it did not set up its system in that way.
Perception is certainly the key. Yet the perception that Cabinet Ministers could wield too much influence over judicial appointments—although in England in recent years, in practice they have not—is not dispelled if it appears that under the new system the Prime Minister, or another Cabinet Minister who, unlike the Lord Chancellor, does not have a special role and responsibility, will exercise influence. He could do so by choosing names from a shortlist of candidates, or by deciding not to accept the names put to him by the judicial appointments commission.
The Government must recognise that they have to refine the proposals so that the new proposals do not give rise to a perception that they could be open to political influence over appointments. We have to ensure that that perception does not carry over from the old system to the new, or the whole point of the exercise will be lost. The Government must therefore examine the crucial part of the process when the commission puts forward names and somebody has to advise the Queen whether to accept one name, or one name from a group of names. That fundamental point must be addressed.
The Select Committee reported on the experience of the Judicial Appointments Board in Scotland, which had to face some of those issues, and some of the other issues that we are now concerned with, and we found that it appeared to be working well. Personally, I am convinced that a judicial appointments commission is the solution, but we need to get it right.
The same goes for the supreme court, which represents an important and far-reaching change. That change, too, is about principle and perception, not about any failure of the House of Lords to carry out its judicial functions effectively. It is about separating the judiciary from the legislature. However, even the early evidence that we have taken in Committee, which has been published, reveals complex issues that are difficult to resolve under the very tight timetable of the proposed legislation, with a Bill due to come before us early in the new year.
One example is the situation in relation to Scotland. If the new supreme court is to be compliant with article XIX of the Act of Union, it must not be an English court, and cannot be administered by the Court Service as an English court. If it were, it would contravene a fundamental principle of the Act of Union. It has to be a very different animal, as the House of Lords recognisably is, not part of the court system of England and Wales.
There are questions about whether the supreme court should take over the functions of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in relation to devolution. There are different views about that. So far, there seems to be a majority in favour of its assuming that role, but that is not universally accepted. The assumption that the Judicial Committee was a body to which we could safely entrust questions about powers under devolution was very much part of the devolution settlement. Furthermore, Scottish criminal cases do not come to the House of Lords. Many such decisions are matters for the Scottish Parliament, which needs to debate them. Scots law and the Scottish judicial system are devolved matters, so they cannot simply be dealt with in United Kingdom legislation without certain procedures being followed in Edinburgh, and time must be allowed for that.
There are also questions about where the new court will sit, and how it will be resourced. I have pointed out that it cannot be administered simply as part of the court system of England and Wales. The Government have not so far convinced us that there is a building available in which its functions can be carried out. We already have a commercial court in London that does not have adequate accommodation. Accommodating judicial functions is already something of a problem for the Department that deals with it.
There are questions about how the supreme court, as opposed to other levels of the judiciary, is to be appointed, and also about whether retired, or even current, supreme court judges could be appointed to sit in the House of Lords, where their equivalents have certainly given good service in the past.
That, of course, brings us to the fundamental issue of the House of Lords, because that question could not be raised at all if the House of Lords were elected rather than appointed. That, in turn, brings me to my personal view on House of Lords reform, which is shared by my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Select Committee has not considered the issue, because a Joint Committee was considering it until recently, and the House itself was seeking to make decisions about the fundamental issues involved. The Committee may well get involved with that issue in future, but so far we have not done so.
The one decision that this House clearly did make was that it did not want a wholly or predominantly appointed House of Lords. A Bill to remove hereditary peers, which is mentioned in the Gracious Speech, is simply a device to remove one of the obstacles to the Prime Minister's preferred solution, which is a wholly appointed House. I want no truck with that, and I do not think that my right hon. and hon. Friends do, either. Only a Bill built on cross-party consensus, which results in a more democratic House of Lords, makes sense. I am very much in favour of removing hereditary peers from the House of Lords—but only if they are replaced by an element with some kind of independence. In my view, that can best be secured by some kind of democratic mandate.
Another issue that I want to mention comes not from the Select Committee's areas of concern, but from the part of the Queen's Speech that refers to the "other measures" that may be laid before us. Since the day that the speech was made, it has been suggested that a draft Bill might lead to fundamental changes in people's rights in respect of school transport—a Bill that would allow local authorities to withdraw free school transport from children living more than three miles from school, perhaps as part of a pilot scheme.
In rural areas such as Northumberland, in which many pupils have to travel 10 or 20 miles to the nearest school, often using a combination of taxis and buses, it would be totally unacceptable for free transport to be withdrawn. It already has been withdrawn for pupils over 16, and the severely stretched funding of rural local authorities could put them under pressure to be one of the pilot areas for the withdrawal of free school transport. That would have a disastrous effect on families, who might have to pay as much as £10 or £20 a day to get their children to school. It would also destroy the long-standing principle that transport is provided for those who opt for Church schools, including Catholic schools—
I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to those on both Front Benches and to the whole House for the fact that regrettably, because of a previous engagement, I will not be present for the winding-up speeches. However, as little that I heard emanating from my Front Bench gave me much pleasure, and I am sure that what I am about to say to them will give them none either, perhaps it all evens out in the end.
The issues that I want to talk about have to do with the welcome that I give the Government for tackling—after more than 30 years, I believe—a law that I hope will begin to eradicate the terrible scourge of domestic violence. I welcome that proposal wholeheartedly. I understand from reading my newspaper that the issue of the law of provocation, about which I am concerned, is still being debated in government. As I understand it, that law currently affords to a man who murders his wife or partner a defence that cannot be exercised by a woman who is defending herself against an abusive partner, because in the latter case we are talking about an abuse that has taken place over some considerable time. So I sincerely hope that the Government will examine the issue of provocation.
There is another issue that I hope will be examined in no small detail, and which I raised in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary: the apparent ongoing willingness of society at large and the law to allow fathers, however abusive they may be on occasion to their partners or their children, to always have access to those children, in the great good name of balance. I am somewhat bemused as to how balanced a relationship can be if the power of the father is such that he is allowed unsupervised access to his children, culminating—as we have regrettably read far too often of late—in those children being murdered. Indeed, in one particularly ghastly case, the mother of the children in question was informed at the time of precisely what her ex-partner was doing to their children.
Such cases are clearly extreme, but they are not isolated. I know from my constituency experience of the damage that can be inflicted on a child when a court automatically, in the name of the great cry of providing balance in a familial situation, affords the father access to that child. In many instances, the mere realisation that they will see the individual who caused them great trauma, and who subjected their mother to physical and verbal abuse, can increase such trauma. So I hope that this issue will be examined in truly serious detail. A bulk of evidence exists to support my argument that the actions of violent men—the violence is not exclusively physical; often, it is verbal and mental—have a desperate impact on children. There is no balance involved in underlining that relationship.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend's argument, and in large part I agree with what she says. In such cases, visiting fathers do great damage to children, and often there is not the protection of another adult being present. But should we not listen most to the children themselves? When, in giving evidence, such children say that they do not wish to see the father, their request should be taken seriously, as should their saying that they do wish to see him.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's observation that it is the child who should be listened to. However, I am aware of cases in which the child has said that they wish to see the father, only for it eventually to materialise that no small pressure was brought to bear on that child. Of course, the wider family grouping can also bring pressure to bear. As I have pointed out before in the House, it is not only the individual who may exert abusive power on a woman and her children. An abusive partner may well be visited with the power of the law, so that he may not approach his former home, partner and children, but there seems to be little that can be done to preclude members of his family from taking on that particular aspect of a broken family relationship. I hope that a measure to deal with that can be incorporated into the legislation when it reaches the statute book.
The central issue that I wish to touch on has been raised by Members on both sides of the House this afternoon. It is the marked failure of the power of the state to live up to what it claimed was its basic approach to the issue of asylum: to ensure that asylum applications can be dealt with in a firm, fair and fast manner. When the state markedly failed to deliver in that regard, it decided to exercise its power and deliberately break up families by making them destitute. It then argued that its reason for taking the children of such families into care was to protect them. I listened to Government Front Benchers put forward that argument this afternoon with no small bemusement. The suggestion that that approach is the one that the state takes to every native-born British child, if their family should become dysfunctional is quite amazing. My experience of social services—I should hasten to add that those in my constituency are excellent—is that they work endlessly to attempt to keep a family together. I have certainly never known social services to take it upon themselves to be the hired help and to take children into care, while the state takes a path stemming from its inability to deliver on its policies.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the role of the social services in this regard is not only to offer support, but to advise on the best way to proceed? Where such a family has gone through all the processes, do not meet any of the criteria and can be flown home freely as part of the support package, would not the advice be, "Why not fly home?"?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I do not see the need for such advice. If someone has pursued all the avenues currently within the law in order to make the case to the state that the family are genuine asylum seekers, and the law says, "I'm very sorry, but you do not meet the criteria", the next step, so I thought, was that that family had to be removed from the country.
We have heard the argument that we as a society do not like deportations, but society would like even less the sight of crying children being dragged from their parents and placed into care. On the issue raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Prosser, I should point out that I do not have a vast number of failed asylum seekers in my constituency, although I do have some. They have known of their failed state for some time, yet no official has made any attempt to remove them. Not a single such step has been taken. They come to see me regularly, I ask whether they have been given a date to leave the country, and they say, "No". In the main, they still have to report to police stations or to some other authority.
The Government's basic argument is that they are offering a choice to failed asylum seeker families by saying, "We'll give you a ticket and send you home. We'll give you money to set up in your native country, if you have a native country to go back to." That is a big "if", because in many instances the country from which they fled has disappeared during their time here, and according to them they no longer have any rights in that country. If they come from a safe third country, it tends to be one in mainland Europe. Even in such cases, it is difficult, so I understand, to ensure that the journey can be completed in time, and negotiations with other Governments have to take place.
Plunging failed asylum seekers into penury and destitution is not the only alternative to returning them to their home country, or to a safe third country. The history of the 20th century offers examples of what parents will undergo if they believe that their actions will save their child, even if they themselves may be lost. Perhaps failed asylum-seeker parents, once plunged into penury, will allow their children to be taken into care because they believe that, even without them, life in this country is infinitely preferable to life in the country to which they may forcibly be returned.
What happens in cases where such children were actually born in this country, which is not unusual? We know of the example of the Government announcing an amnesty for 15,000 families who have been in this country for a considerable time, but who are still waiting for an absolute definition in terms of whether they will be allowed to stay.
It is monstrous that a nation state that failed to deliver on its avowed policies should attempt to shift the blame and the responsibility on to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. In that regard, I exclude adult asylum seekers, because it could be argued that they knew what they were doing, but their children certainly had no say in what they were doing. The children who were born in this country, and who had to wait for the nation state to decide their status, certainly had no say. So I hope that when that piece of legislation presents its shameful face in this Chamber, Members on both sides will categorically and absolutely say no.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to have a big conversation with the Chamber. However, as we are limited to 10 minutes, it will be only a quick chat. I applaud some aspects of the Queen's Speech, which is not all useless and vindictive. For example, the children's commissioner for England is long overdue, as we already have them in Scotland and in Wales. I welcome the tackling of asylum fraud. Passenger passport copying has been mentioned, and that is a great idea. I cannot understand why it has not been done already. The airlines have claimed that it will cause great problems, but that is pathetic. There is a real problem that can be tackled by copying passports and it should be implemented as quickly as possible.
In the main, the Government's legislative programme for the forthcoming Session lacks coherence. The Prime Minister did not sit down and plan to upset great sections of society, but that is the unintended consequence of much of the Queen's Speech. One Labour Back Bencher told me on the day of the Queen's Speech that he was going to read it to see whether it contained anything that he could support. I wish him well. I looked hard at it for any reference to a big conversation, but the prospect of Her Majesty saying, "My Government intend to conduct a big conversation with my people", is even more ridiculous than the Prime Minister sounded when he said it. It might be contained in the catch-all phrase,
"Other measures will be laid before you."
That was probably put in just in case there is a group of people who have not had a beating from the Government in the past seven years. We have an inclusive Government: they are at pains to ensure that everyone gets beaten equally and that no one is left behind.
I have studied early-day motion 7—I am sure that the Government have done so time and again—and the signatories are not just all the usual suspects. Some 147 Members of Parliament have signed it, of whom 145 are Labour Back Benchers. Some of them are former Cabinet Ministers and some are former junior Ministers. It is not just a protest, it is the House of Commons saying no to variable top-up fees. The Leader of the House thinks that the legislation can be tweaked and everything will be okay, but it is he who will be tweaked, not the legislation. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills hopes to buy off the protesters by diluting some of the worst excesses of the proposals. He does not have a chance.
The top-up fee proposals are not the only problem. Students already have debts, even before the top-up fees are introduced. I received a letter from a constituent on
"After two years my daughter owes over £7,000 and the monthly interest, on the old rate, is £7.50. I dread to think of what it will be on the new rate . . . I feel we are 'selling our students down the river', we are saddling them with major debt. When they Graduate they will have no chance of affording a home of their own with the debt they already have."
That is the situation even without tuition fees. I remember sitting on the Government Back Benches between 1992 and 1997 and hearing the bleating and howls of protest from the Opposition Back Benches about the student loans that we introduced. We were told that they would prevent students from poorer backgrounds from going to university. The present Foreign Secretary, a former president of the National Union of Students, said then that students would have to choose between books and food. Now, they will have to choose between books, food and tuition fees, except that they have to pay the tuition fees. I applaud Labour Members who remember the protests at that time and who have signed the early-day motion.
Members are always talking about parliamentary democracy, and the House can be effective in ensuring that the policy on top-up fees is dumped. We do not want it moved to after Christmas: we want it moved to the dustbin of political mistakes. The Government are keen on having a big conversation. Well, the National Union of Students is coming tomorrow and I hope that the Prime Minister will make himself available for a big listen to the students and then a big climbdown. If we had tried this policy between 1992 and 1997, we would have been completely slaughtered. It is a tax on education and it will hit everyone, except the very rich. The vast majority of people will be hit by this policy.
Middle Britain is hit time and again. The Queen's Speech contained another measure, which the newspapers have dubbed, "The means-testing of free school buses." The very people who will be hit by that are the ones who pay full prescription charges. They receive no council tax benefit or other housing benefits. They pay the full cost of school meals and they will pay full tuition fees. They will be hit yet again by the means-testing of free school buses. Why do the Government have so much against middle Britain that they want to whack those people time and again? I wish that they would stop.
As for the proposed legislation on the House of Lords, is that vindictive or what? It is time that the Government made up their mind about what they want for the second Chamber. So far, their reforms have been nothing short of constitutional vandalism. The Government started on a journey with not the faintest idea of where they were going. They wanted to get rid of the hereditary peers, and they ended up with 92 hereditaries—funnily enough, they are the only elected element of the Chamber now. Baroness Jay said:
"The House of Lords without the hereditary peers will be more legitimate because its Members have earned their places and therefore more effective in playing its part in our bicameral constitution."
That was said by the totally unelected Baroness Jay. The Prime Minister called the old House of Lords an insult to modern democracy. In 1994, in a speech in Cardiff, he said:
"The House of Lords should be replaced by an elected second Chamber."
We know that the Prime Minister has made an art form of changing his mind, but that change is breathtaking. It seems that he can find reverse gear when he wants to.
Whenever the Leader of the House mentions the House of Lords, he spits out the word "unelected", as we saw on Thursday. We can only assume that he wants to see a House of Lords with a larger elected element, if not a fully elected House. We know that there is no unanimity on the issue, but to remove vindictively the only elected element is spiteful, wrecking and mean. While we are at it, let us chuck in the word "ignorant" as well to describe what the Government have done to the second Chamber. We should have a joint Committee of both Houses to work out a destination for the House of Lords, not merely a transition. Let us have a big conversation with the people about what they want to happen to the second Chamber before it is wrecked further. I can only imagine the planning that must go on in the Prime Minister's household about his summer holidays, when he says, "Where are we all going to go? I haven't got the faintest idea. Transitionally, let's go to Tuscany, before going on somewhere else." The whole thing is ridiculous. People should know their destination before they start on any journey.
It would also be useful if the Government were to have a big conversation with the people about Europe and the European constitution, which is totally absent from the Queen's Speech. Let us find a few reverse gears for the Prime Minister on that issue. He should just get the manual out: every vehicle has a reverse gear; even the bandwagon has a reverse gear, as the Liberal Democrats will no doubt soon find out. The French and the Germans have found their reverse gear on the stability pact, and I have read what Ruth Lea of the Institute of Directors and Digby Jones of the CBI have said about the threat to this country from the European constitution. The people want a say; they want to have a big conversation with the Prime Minister, who has got it wrong—very wrong. We are to have a referendum in the north-west about the lousy, useless regional assemblies, which we do not want, and about the break-up of local government, but no referendum on Europe. I want my say, and I want the people of Ribble Valley to have their say, too.
While we are on the subject, let us change the hours of the House back to what they used to be on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, so that we have decent opportunities to discuss everything that we need to discuss. Let us bring the voice back to Parliament, and change the hours.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman and his entertaining if contentious speech.
Legal aid was introduced as part of the great welfare state revolution of the Labour Government after the second world war. Labour's Prime Minister then, Clem Attlee, valued legal aid, as does today's Prime Minister, who, speaking before coming into office in 1997, said:
"Labour's goal of improving access to justice is an essential part of our commitment to social justice".
Legal aid, however, is a public service that is often overlooked. Perhaps it is seen by some as having less immediate benefit than education and health, but surely the rule of law and access to justice are essential features of a working democracy. Perhaps support for legal aid is tempered by the knowledge that it is delivered largely through a network of private lawyers. I can understand that argument, although I declare that for 20 years before coming to Parliament I was a solicitor in private practice.
Not all delivery is by private lawyers, however. In round figures, about 4,000 lawyers and 400 not-for-profit organisations provide legal aid services, and the community legal service is achieving universal coverage across the country, bringing together the providers and other key players such as local authorities. Anyway, legal aid lawyers are a different breed: they provide legal aid services not to become rich—they do not—but because they genuinely care for public service and justice. This year, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group introduced awards for legal aid lawyers of the year. My congratulations go to the first year's winners: Jeffrey Gordon, Richard Egan, Belinda Greenwood, Nicola Mackintosh and Mark Jewels. I particularly praise Mark Jewels for the family award, because when I was a solicitor he was my partner in private practice. I also congratulate the Legal Aid Practitioners Group on arranging this recognition for an important group of people.
To refrain from mutual admiration, does my hon. Friend not accept, from another lawyer, that there has been abuse of the legal aid system, and that the Government are right to take that on board?
Yes, my argument is about those good lawyers who often get no recognition at all, not those few who come to the headlines because of abuse of the system. Abuse is always wrong and should be rooted out, but as Cherie Booth, QC, who chaired the judging panel said:
"The work of the legal aid lawyer is a vital part of our justice system. Yet practitioners are often maligned, underpaid and misunderstood in the press. I am delighted to take part in these awards, which highlight the true story of the dedication, determination and professionalism of men and women up and down the country who provide a vital service to those in need."
In the last decade, the cost of running a solicitors' practice has risen by about 67 per cent., but legal aid rates have increased by 26 per cent. The legal aid budget is restricted, but I am not arguing for more money for legal aid. Instead, I want the Government to get a grip on what they want legal aid to pay for. The Government must then ensure that the budget is adequate for the work required. The current set-up is a fixed amount of money in the legal aid budget but growing demands upon it. I therefore have the following observations.
First, criminal defence legal aid is demand led. The Government's welcome get-tough approach to reducing crime nevertheless creates a greater demand on the criminal defence legal aid budget. Secondly, on top of that growth in existing criminal defence legal aid, the Government continue to create new offences, adding to the demand. This Queen's Speech includes a new offence of asylum seekers destroying their documentation and a new offence of breaching a restraining order to prevent domestic violence. Have the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs assessed the extra expense in relation to criminal defence legal aid and made provision to meet the extra costs? Alternatively, will civil legal aid simply be squeezed again?
Thirdly, civil legal aid has been withdrawn from claims for compensation for personal injury, except in clinical negligence cases. It has been replaced by the conditional fee arrangement. What is the assessment of this change other than those great demands for extra fees about which we heard at Question Time today in relation to miners' compensation claims? Civil legal aid remains for very important issues, however: challenging public bodies including Government through judicial review; resolving disputes and property rights when couples separate; protecting consumers from deceit and rip-off; and defending the poorest in society from social exclusion in areas such as housing and welfare rights.
So, fourthly, year-by-year, money for civil legal aid is being constrained, limiting access to justice. That brings me, fifthly, to the fact that the Government continue to create new laws affecting civil rights and hence the civil legal aid budget. Again, there is no apparent assessment of the extra expense and compensating adjustment to the budget for that.
The Queen's Speech contains a welcome clampdown on domestic violence, but that will create more civil legal aid cases, and a new registered civil partnership, which, sadly, will sometimes go wrong, creating the need for new dispute resolution procedures at the expense of legal aid. The Government know about the problem. It is not new; I am not saying something surprising. The previous and the present Lord Chancellor have both commented on it.
"It is absolutely critical when changes to the substantive law are being made, particularly in the criminal field, which have downstream consequences for the courts, that the thing should be looked at end to end and the downstream consequences should be funded."
The present Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, speaking at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group annual conference on
"It is important that we rigorously cost all policy change within Government so that we can estimate and fund consequential legal aid costs. This will not be a public process. But you can have my assurance that I will pursue this with vigour. The legal aid budget cannot indefinitely absorb the knock-on effects of changes in the law across government."
So, please, Government, may we have more rigorous legislative impact analysis and proper provision for the effects on the legal aid budget?
The Government can do more to help. They can fund more alternative dispute resolution procedures. They can consider no-fault compensation, and I volunteer clinical negligence as the first field for such consideration. They can separate the criminal defence legal aid budget, which is demand-led, from the rest of the civil legal aid budget.
Legal service providers themselves must change too. They should work with the community legal aid service in matching the appropriate supply to the need for their services, giving the best value for money. They should consider alternative ways to fund access to justice, including more use of salaried services and legal expenses insurance.
The Law Society itself has been considering alternative ways to fund lawyers for legal aid work and has come up with ideas such as a GP-like contracting system and even competitive tendering. What we need from legal aid in the future is a diverse supply of legal services, so that we can offer comprehensive access to justice for all our citizens. In that way, we will tackle social exclusion most effectively.
Most of my colleagues on the Northern Ireland Unionist Benches will vote as conservatives should do when we consider the destructive reforms—they are not really reforms—of the Lord Chancellor's office and the replacement for the present House of Lords, and I hope that many right hon. and hon. Members will vote accordingly, especially if there are a large number of conservatives in the present Conservative party.
I was unable to be present in the Palace of Westminster to hear the Gracious Speech because Her Majesty's Government decided that most of my colleagues and I should be in Northern Ireland on that day. I thought that that was quite an insult to Her Majesty. I was fighting an Assembly election last Wednesday and visiting polling stations. The Gracious Speech refers to the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. I can tell the House that the Good Friday agreement will not be implemented because I topped the poll in South Antrim and, last Wednesday, the vast majority of the Unionist electorate withdrew their consent for the Good Friday agreement and its implementation—a clear, unequivocal result—and I hope that the Government will listen very carefully, for two reasons.
Last week, the Unionist people spoke very clearly. They replaced my party, the Ulster Unionist party, with the Democratic Unionist party, as the leading party. In the republican nationalist vote, Sinn Fein ended up as the leading party—a party still committed to violence and terrorism, still with a private army. I am very sad that my fellow countrymen vote for a party like that.
We have stalemate and no progress has been made on achieving devolution in Northern Ireland, and devolution is the objective of Her Majesty's Government for all parts of the United Kingdom. We are not achieving devolution in Northern Ireland, because the republican side—Sinn Fein-IRA—has not become a democratic political party. The Ulster Unionist population have become totally disillusioned. Terrorists were forced into government and on to my party in the attempt to create an inclusive Executive with Sinn Fein. Promises, promises, promises were made, but there was deception, duplicity and double standards.
Sinn Fein is still involved in Colombia, in Florida and in arms importation. It was involved in the special branch break-in at Castlereagh and Stormont-gate, and last weekend reports in the Republic of Ireland suggested that the Garda are saying:
"IRA tax scam helped fund Sinn Fein".
I will be going to the appropriate authorities in the House and the Electoral Commission to see that such funding of a political party in the United Kingdom is properly investigated.
I want to be constructive. On behalf of my constituents and all the people of Northern Ireland, I want to see whether there is a way forward from the stalemate that there is now in Stormont. The way ahead is to replace the d'Hondt system for an inclusive Executive. Those who understand proportional representation know that Northern Ireland uses a d'Hondt system whereby all parties are put into the Executive on a proportional basis. That is inclusive, but there is no opposition and no collective cabinet responsibility. It is therefore unstable and unworkable.
The system is especially unworkable in Northern Ireland because one party—Sinn Fein—stops devolution taking place. It has not become a democratic political party, so it stops all the rest of us making devolution work. I and my colleagues who were at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, yesterday cannot create an operational Executive unless we have the okay from the political wing of the Provisional IRA. The d'Hondt system must go.
We cannot have a Stormont Government or a devolved Assembly on the basis of simple majority rule. There must be cross-community links and consensus. I recommend that we move away from a d'Hondt all-inclusive Executive to a voluntary coalition between the two Unionist parties—the UUP and the DUP—the constitutional nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour party and the small but still representative Alliance party. Such an Executive would have cross-community support and could give us the benefits of devolution tomorrow. The Assembly and the Executive could be up and operating within weeks, but we are being held back by the veto that the Government still give to Sinn Fein-IRA on devolution in Northern Ireland.
If the SDLP will not break away from the veto that it is giving to militant republicanism, so be it. We cannot have consensus, devolution and an Executive. We cannot have the benefits of a middle tier of administration between our local government on the ground and the Westminster Parliament and Government. We would like that middle tier in Northern Ireland to have a cross-community basis. If the SDLP will not separate itself in the republican community from Sinn Fein-IRA, I say to the British Government, "Let us stop the farce; let us bring it to an end."
We have an Assembly, but it was embarrassing for all my colleagues in all political parties to sign on at Parliament Buildings yesterday and to be told that we could not even table a question to a Minister. As a Member of the Legislative Assembly, I cannot table a question to a Minister in a way that I can today to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office about issues that affect my constituents—education, health, transport and so on. That is a farce.
Her Majesty's Government should give the Assembly a maximum of 12 weeks—three months—to see whether it can come together with a voluntary coalition and then transfer powers to an operating administration in the Executive and the Committee system of the Assembly. If it cannot do that within 12 weeks, we would be better closing Stormont. I, as an Ulster Unionist, would be more than happy to promote the policy of the forefathers of Ulster Unionism and to say that I want to be governed in the same way as England and Wales with a reform of local government powers down to a local government structure in Northern Ireland, or a sensible Assembly.
The Welsh Assembly is sensible. It has 60 seats and departmental Committees with Ministers being called to account. We do not have that in Stormont. We have independent Ministers taking decisions irrespective of cross-community support in the departmental Committees. The Assembly is too big, cumbersome and expensive. If we cannot make it work in three months, Her Majesty's Government should close it down. We, as Ulster Unionists, will try to get cross-community support for something better for the government of Northern Ireland.
Let us be governed like England and Wales. Let us be Unionist and let us have an Administration that is accountable and democratic rather than a bloated, unreal and inclusive Executive with a veto on the government of Northern Ireland—the veto of Sinn Fein-IRA. Irrespective of the promises and commitments that they gave at the time of and since the Good Friday agreement, they are playing a double game and holding up democracy in Northern Ireland. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will separate from Sinn Fein-IRA and start to work with the democratic parties in Northern Ireland—the two Unionist parties, the SDLP and the Alliance party—to find a better way forward. I want Stormont to work, but if it does not work in 12 weeks, let us close it down, go for full integration with the United Kingdom, and allow Ulster to be governed in the same way as England and Wales.
I want to give a few words of welcome to the civil partnerships Bill that was announced in the Gracious Speech last week. Hon. Members might recall that I had the privilege of introducing a Bill on civil partnerships in October 2001 under the ten-minute rule, which included some provisions that were announced last week. It included provisions to give rights and responsibilities to gay and lesbian couples who chose to register their partnership, and I am pleased that the Government have decided to espouse such rights. I understand why they have not been persuaded to go down that route for all couples, irrespective of gender, although my Bill included such a provision.
I am a little disappointed that almost no other hon. Member has mentioned the civil partnerships Bill.
I am glad to hear it.
I mentioned Reading young offenders institution, which is in my constituency, during my intervention on Mr. Oaten. That fine institution is better known by the name with which it was immortalised by the beautiful genius Oscar Wilde in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol". Reading has to make some amends for its treatment of Oscar Wilde under the regime of the time, so it is fitting that I speak as a Reading Member.
Reading and the issue of homophobia have appeared in the news more recently. We have no bishop in Reading. A bishop was appointed, but he was hounded out by the unsavoury tactics of the group known as the militant tendency in the Church of England, which was shameful. We hope to have a new bishop to conduct his ministry for us.
The civil partnerships Bill will be welcomed by my constituents, including a couple whom I shall call Ed and Tony—largely because those are their names.
I counsel the hon. Gentleman to be calm.
Among my many constituents who will support the Bill is Wyndham Clampett, the supremo of the Reading gay men's chorus. I wholeheartedly recommend the performances of the chorus to hon. Members and I am pleased to say that it will sing at my 50th birthday party, which will take place soon.
I reiterate my welcome for the civil partnerships Bill and look forward to being involved in the debate on it. It represents a great step forward for social justice not only for gay and lesbian people, but for all of us.
The series of days when the House considers the Queen's Speech is always illuminating. The proceedings started with a superb response by Mr. McFall, who did himself and his constituency great credit. His delivery was excellent, but I think that the story of the cardinal and the nun will come back to haunt him. No doubt the rest of us will regale it on the dinner-speaking circuit. The hon. Gentleman demonstrated by his competence that following his move, from a Minister to Chairman of the Treasury Committee, he remains an effective Member of the House.
More politically illuminating was the opening response by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard. In his devastatingly competent critique of the Government's performance, he showed that the governing party of this country has a real challenge on its hands. It is encouraging to those of us who believe that the Labour party has had its moment to see that there is an alternative Government—
Well, I take no part in such matters.
It is encouraging that an alternative Government are ready and waiting to take up the challenge. In fairness, the Queen's Speech programme is evidence of a tired Government. I know: I served in one. There is no doubt about it: political parties run out of steam after a while. Not only do they run out of ideas but they end up with too many former Ministers on the Back Benches and too many frustrated would-be Ministers sitting alongside them, which is when the fun and games begin. There is ample evidence that that process has started. The Queen's Speech programme has enormous pitfalls with which the poor Whips on the Treasury Bench will have to cope.
The Government were elected full of promise and full of promises. They have failed on the first and not delivered on the second. I have to be careful because if I comment on individual Bills as a member of the Chairmen's Panel I might not be able to play my part in their scrutiny subsequently—[Hon. Members: "Go on."] I reject the encouragement of my hon. Friends.
My right hon. Friend David Davis, in a typically robust and incisive contribution, made it clear that the Opposition will offer constructive support for many Home Office Bills. We will see a contrast between the way in which the Home Secretary behaves and the incisiveness of my right hon. Friend. The Home Secretary sometimes gives the impression of a man under considerable pressure. His is unquestionably the most awful brief. One can only feel sympathy for that challenge, which he willingly accepts, but the fact is that he is not doing the job.
There have been 30 bits of Home Office legislation from this Labour Government, yet crime is still up by 800,000. Gun crime has doubled. I remember sitting on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill on firearms, which was loathed by just about everyone in the House of Commons. We were assured by those proposing it that it would solve the problem. Of course, it has not and gun crime has doubled from what it was under the last Conservative Government.
More importantly, for many of our constituents violent crime is now at its highest level. It does not matter how much Back Benchers or Ministers massage the figures, the truth is that the public do not care about our version of them and they do not believe the Government's version of them. What they believe is what they see in their communities. Increasingly, certainly in Old Bexley and Sidcup, as part of an outer London borough, more and more of my constituents think that the police are no longer accountable. The Home Office, the Chamber and its Select Committee are involved in policing. In my constituency, the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly are also involved. Many tiers of democracy mean that the people are still not getting what they want, which is more police officers on the beat. Nothing can make up for that.
We are lucky in the Bexley Metropolitan police division because we have a superb chief superintendent, Robin Merrit, who commands a dedicated force. My criticism of what is happening with policing is not directed at them. They do their very best in the most difficult circumstances, but there are simply not enough of them. Any measures that the Government introduce to increase the number of police officers will have my wholehearted support and, I am glad to say, that of my party.
It is a great pity that there is no Bill on defence matters, in particular the reinstatement of abolished regiments. Sadly, both under my party when in government and under the current Government, there have been endless defence cuts at a time when we expect more of our armed forces. The reduction of infantry regiments is putting immense strain on the system.
Our troops have been deployed in war zones for five out of the six years that this Government have been in power. With that record, it is unacceptable that we see more and more being hacked off the defence budget, fewer and fewer soldiers being recruited and more and more traditional regiments being up for the axe. It simply will not wash.
My hon. Friend Mr. Duncan, who is sitting on the Front Bench and will respond to the debate, I am sure, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will put forward the Opposition policy and response to the constitution. I hope that whatever I say will not be too far adrift from what he has in mind. Regrettably, I have form on the matter of the House of Lords.
Back in 1972, when I was a brisk, thin and hairy 19-year-old—difficult to believe, perhaps—I had strong views on the House of Lords. I was national vice-chairman of the Young Conservatives, which then probably had more members than the modern Tory party has today and was a thriving youth political organisation. I could not believe how, in modern Britain, as it seemed then to be, we could possibly have an unelected Chamber of Parliament that worked on the hereditary principle. I made a speech on a quiet weekend at a Young Conservatives conference that gained some notoriety in the Sunday papers because they had little else to cover.
It was arranged by the party chairman, Lord Carrington, that the Duke of Northumberland—the former one, not the present one—should put me right on these matters. I was summoned to his Northumberland castle for a glass of sherry and a civilised lunch, and the duke proceeded to say, "Peter Carrington said that I should sort you out on this House of Lords thing. Never go near the place. I am sorry if you got yourself into trouble, but I think that changes will come." He was right: changes were to come.
Although I can understand the views of others, particularly my hon. Friend Mr. Evans, who made a telling speech about hereditary peers, I suspect that hereditary peers will go. I will play my part in whatever line my party wants to take, but I suspect that the institution of Parliament will cope when they are gone. The more difficult problem for every Member of this Chamber is what replaces them. I do not think that we should be scared of democracy, and I hope that we in this Chamber will not be, but we should be scared about how many levels of democracy are coming into existence.
An earlier contribution from Anne Picking was evidence of the difficulties being experienced both in Scotland and in Wales. However, there have also been difficulties in England. In Old Bexley and Sidcup, my electorate are represented by borough councillors, who in the main do a good job and are very effective, but there are a lot of them. We have a Greater London Assembly man, who is also elected and very competent and popular. I hope that he will be re-elected with a handsome majority in the summer.
We also have a Mayor, and although I must not trespass on your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by talking about the future of the Mayor of London, I can say that under the constitution, he is there, he costs us a lot of money and he is more interested in demonstrations and self-promotion than in looking after the outer London boroughs. However, I am sure that either the Labour party or the Tory voters will solve his problem for him in June. My electorate also have Members of the European Parliament and a Member of Parliament.
That is very kind of my hon. Friend. In addition, my electorate may or may not, in the fulness of time, have elected peers. [Interruption.] I had better be careful: my boss is coming back in now.
Although no one will decry democracy in this Chamber, we have to be careful about the tiers of democracy and what they are doing for the competence of and confidence in the system. We will not resolve the issue of the House of Lords until we address the size of this Chamber and what it does. Many right hon. and hon. Members, certainly since I walked in here in 1983, have become glorified social workers and councillors. I probably handle more local authority cases than I do anything else.
If the United Kingdom is to remain united in any description, we should find a way of involving representatives from Scotland, Wales and the regional assemblies—if indeed they come about, which undoubtedly, under this Government, they will. We could then have a system more akin to that in Germany which would ensure that the different parts of the United Kingdom have a place in our legislative Assemblies. None of this, I suspect, will be remotely the policy of my party or my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, when he makes his much more distinguished contribution.
This piecemeal reform of our constitution, with the Government clearly having no idea where they are going—I will find out later whether my party does—means that the Chamber is completely divided about the solution. I do not think that the public care overmuch. What they would really rather have is effective public services and the lowest taxes possible, and how many politicians are messing around in the pond to make that happen is a matter of supreme indifference to most of our electorate. We face an interesting Session, particularly on the constitution—
It is always a pleasure to follow Derek Conway. I am not surprised that he praised the speech of the Leader of the Opposition because the right hon. and learned Gentleman would not have been there without the hon. Gentleman's help. I missed him, with his trim frame, from the nine o'clock news. He worries about being a glorified caseworker or social worker, but in the history of the Conservative party he will be remembered as a glorified king maker for what he has done for his party. Having left a tired Government, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, he is back to join a tired Opposition.
I shall make a couple of points on a local matter before turning to the issue of the Home Office and constitutional affairs. I welcome the Queens' Speech and I shall vote for it enthusiastically in the Lobby tomorrow and the day after. I particularly welcome the Government's decision to press ahead with the new road traffic management Bill. Those of us who are avid readers of the Leicester Mercury—I see present Mr. Duncan and Mr. Garnier, and we obviously get the newspaper daily—will know of the long-standing campaign by that newspaper to try to do something about the number of roadworks in Leicester. Leicester is the second most congested city in Britain, and I think that the proposed Bill will help us enormously as we seek to try to make it less congested and try to ease the burdens that are placed on householders.
Before my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary left the Chamber, he said in answer to my intervention that he was upset that those of us who were criticising the new proposals on asylum and immigration did not give him credit for what he has done so far. I am the first to congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he did last year in allowing British overseas citizens to have full citizenship. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Leslie, who was then a Back Bencher and a campaigner for that measure, was supportive of it. I supported what my right hon. Friend said in early October when he allowed an amnesty for 15,000 people who were already in this country. The problem is that they do not have the necessary letters and they do not know whether they will stay here.
My criticism of the proposed immigration and asylum legislation—I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will listen to it and I hope also that the Government will react to it before we reach the end of the Session—is that it is designed to try to solve a problem that the Government have failed to solve over the past six years, and that is the complete failure of administration on the part of the immigration and nationality directorate. There is a huge backlog at the IND. Cases are processed far too slowly and there has been a lack of resources for dealing with cases efficiently.
I suppose that the situation is summed up by a case that I dealt with last Friday. Someone, who had originally come from Somalia, had made an application for asylum three years ago. In those three years he had had, with his wife, three children. He had finally received his final determination from the immigration appeal tribunal. He came to me to ask for my assistance, to see whether I would help him stay longer in the country. Obviously as a Member I stand in the shoes of my constituents, and I wrote to the Home Office. What surprised me was his attitude. Basically, he felt that it was the Government's fault. If his case had been dealt with properly, swiftly and efficiently three years ago, he would not have been in a position where he had stayed for three years while waiting a decision. Uprooting him and his wife and family now caused him the greatest difficulty.
That is the problem that we have, and that is the problem that has been handed from the Home Office to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is being asked to do the dirty washing for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. He is being asked to solve the problems caused by administrative failure, and as a result the proposals that will have to be taken forward by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs will curtail people's rights of appeal. If we take away a tier of the immigration appeals system, we are curtailing people's rights. If, at the same time, as Mr. Oaten said, we reduce the resources available for legal aid, people who could get proper and effective legal aid at the start of the process are left trapped in a system that will end at the appeal tribunal, subject to judicial review. They will not even be able to make an application, because legal aid will not be available to them. People whom we ought to help will therefore be left in a vulnerable position. I hope that the Government will therefore reconsider the position of the immigration appeal tribunal, and introduce a much more effective package allowing us to support enthusiastically their immigration and asylum policies. We will not, however, accept the package of constitutional and court reform introduced by the Department for Constitutional Affairs unless the Home Office gets its act together.
As for the legislation that will abolish the office of Lord Chancellor and lead to the creation of a commission for judicial appointments, that major constitutional reform was proposed in the middle of a reshuffle and has not been handled particularly well. I pay tribute to the work of the previous Lord Chancellor, under whom I served when I was a Minister in his Department. His departure should have been handled much better, and he should have been given the plaudits that he deserved for the way in which he modernised his Department over the previous six years. However, even though we did not handle that particularly well, I am glad that we now have a Lord Chancellor who is committed to ensuring the modernisation of his Department and the justice agenda. My right hon. Friend Lord Falconer has the skills and ability not only to discuss these matters in Parliament with Members of the Commons and the Lords but to go out to the country to work with the judiciary and the professions. That will enable him and the Government to listen to people's concerns and help them to develop a package that will result in a more modern and diverse judiciary.
We surely all share that hope, but I am not convinced that we are going to meet the Government's timetable. I would be happy to keep the Lord Chancellor's role until the end of this Parliament, enabling us to think carefully about what will replace the present system. We are in favour of a commission for judicial appointments, but we want it to be truly reflective and representative of society as a whole. If that takes a little longer, we will have to delay the legislation and allow it to be carried over to the next Session, keeping the Lord Chancellor in post until the end of the Parliament. Let us get this right because the new arrangement will be with us for an extremely long time. However, I support the thrust of the reforms introduced by the Lord Chancellor.
Finally, I am delighted that the draft euro referendum Bill has been published, but I am extremely disappointed that we will not have a referendum this year. Although the Chancellor said that he will look at the tests next March when the Budget is published, I do not believe that we will have a referendum during this Parliament, and the Government and the Prime Minister have a duty to tell the people of Britain so. I think that it is grave mistake not to have a referendum—the issue should be put to the British people and we ought to allow them the opportunity to endorse the work that the Government have done in Europe over the past six years, being at the heart of Europe and controlling the agenda.
I do not think that it will happen that quickly. We did not have a referendum on Maastricht and there is no need to have a referendum on the European constitution—[Interruption.] Well, Opposition Members did not hold a referendum on Maastricht when they were in government.
In conclusion, we welcome the Queen's Speech, and I shall support it enthusiastically in the Division Lobby. However, I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will take to heart the points that I have made.
My hon. Friend and I have both noticed that the Prime Minister is offering us a conversation—a conversation with trumpets and fanfares. I think that the Prime Minister does not need those trumpets and fanfares. Indeed, if he held a real conversation with virtually anybody in this country today, he would be told that Labour's performance and delivery are considered inadequate on everything except raising taxes. I fear that the Gracious Speech does nothing to improve that performance or delivery. My own test for the Gracious Speech is whether it faces up to the problems that my constituents face, and whether it comes from the caring heart or the calibrating head.
The Prime Minister weekends in my neighbourhood, but he reveals no understanding of what people in the Chiltern hills are up against. The people whom I represent in Buckinghamshire are neither poor nor fabulously wealthy; they are just a part of the public whom public services are supposed to serve. They pay their rising taxes and hope that their needs in health, education, security and transport will be met. Under this Government, however, the vigorously rising curve of taxation finds no parallel in useful public service. There is a great gap between taxes paid and what the citizen is getting in return. One does not need to be a Marxist to talk about alienation in my constituency.
In Buckinghamshire, despite devoted health workers, we have a crisis in health care. The trusts are running out of money, hospitals and wards are threatened with closure, and services will face some intolerable choices. What the Government so amusingly call extra money has been swallowed up by extra national insurance costs, high agency nursing staff costs, the increasing cost of drugs and eternal Blairite targets forced on the NHS. If we have a flu epidemic this year in Buckinghamshire, I truly do not know how we will cope.
That is the rough-edged reality of which the Government seem to know nothing. Perhaps that is why we are receiving 18 per cent. less health care funding per head than the average spend in, say, the north of England. That is a type of political favouritism at the expense of my constituents. An excellent educational performance in Buckinghamshire brings in families who move to take advantage of schools staffed by incredibly talented teachers that equip youngsters to a very high standard, but they are being betrayed. Under the examination boards, school examinations are being marked incorrectly, blighting children's lives. Teachers have their skills called into question, and funds to repair buildings fail. Meanwhile, as I have seen with my own eyes, taking a class of children half a mile down the road to study at an environmental centre is, thanks to the paperwork, a challenge beyond bureaucracy.
The council tax goes up locally, but money flows to the north and the Labour seats, while the Government slap down the shires. Requests and even pleas for a reduction in bureaucratic control, inspections and so-called initiatives are ignored, and costs, and therefore taxes, continue to rise. In my constituency, pension increases cannot absorb those rises, so older people with years of work behind them now dread the thud of the bills that edge them towards poverty at the latest and cruellest moment. There is no peace in retirement for them.
Does the Queen's Speech help? No. What we have is some 30 Bills that will add to bureaucracy, increase the costs of administration, invigorate the means-testing industry and leave the citizen finely controlled, minutely managed and paying for it. There is an armed forces Bill that will leave pensioners worse off; a housing Bill giving the Government ever more control; a higher education Bill to mug our students; an immigration Bill that will snatch children; a European Union Bill that will hand over more decisions to remoter control; and a school transport Bill to get our children off the buses—just putting Tiny Tim on thinner gruel is not in it.
If that is not sufficient, the Queen's Speech contains a new tranche of bossy intrusions and regulations to keep all the extra officials busy. There is a charity Bill to threaten independent schools; an Employment Relations Bill and a companies Bill to harass and suffocate business; a Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill that increases the powers of central Government; and, supremely, an identity cards Bill that will affect all our civil liberties. The litany of extra powers will make the Home Secretary into a true Minister for the interior.
So, we are faced with a plethora of legislation, and we confidently await guillotined timetables denying it sufficient time for proper consideration. A parliamentary guillotine working at Robespierre's rate is a malevolent and crippling assault from a Government who despise this House: they defeat the working of the democratic process and have regularly dumped in their basket inadequate legislation that is in constant need of correction by the courts or Parliament.
I have a response. Very little of what really needs to be done requires any legislative action. I suggest that we take a leaf from the book of an American President whom we can all admire—Franklin Roosevelt. When he came to power in 1933, and faced a slump based partly on a bank crisis and panic, the first thing that he did was to declare a bank holiday—a pause from selling and running. To put it simply, why do not the Government pause and stop selling my constituents down the river? Why do not they revisit this Queen's Speech and extract only the absolutely essential Bills, which this House would then have time to scrutinise properly? Why not concentrate on making what we already have work properly—plain, practical things such as hospitals, schools, transport, police forces and courts? One does not need a big conversation to discover that that is what people want—just a cosy fireside chat. Nothing would serve Britain better or please its people more.
I apologise for having been absent from the Chamber at 3 o'clock. Unfortunately, I will not be here for the winding-up speeches, either, as I have another appointment at 6 o'clock, but I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate.
If we compare reactions to the Queen's Speech, we find that Mr. Oaten was very positive, while official Opposition Members constantly carped about everything that is wrong with the Government and what they have delivered. That seems incredible when one looks at the record of this Government and contrasts it with 18 years of previous Tory Administrations. There is just no comparison.
Last Wednesday, a Member asked whether anyone could name a single Act from last year that has made a difference. Given that the Fireworks Bill passed through this place, I must admit that I was terribly hurt by that, but I got over it.
To be serious, we should consider what the Government have delivered on employment and the economy. We should consider European Union expansion and what that will mean for the future of Europe. We should consider the rail accident investigation branch, which was recommended by Lord Cullen. We should consider the new powers given to the police in respect of antisocial behaviour: that is a major problem, but we are dealing with it, and it is important that we continue to do so.
I welcome the measures that the Government have put forward for this year. Unfortunately, much of the media focus has been on negative aspects, and some of my own colleagues have concentrated on the more contentious parts. Although that is understandable, it obscures the real strength of the proposals. The Government have done much in the past six years, and the Queen's Speech represents a continuing commitment to stability, fairness and a bright future for all, building on what has already been achieved. I want to refer especially to the employment relations Bill, which, I hope, will make a genuine difference to trade unionists in this country.
Under the heading of constitutional affairs, I should like to focus on the implications of what has been announced for Scotland. Given the sniping of the past few weeks from English nationalists and Scottish nationalists on the Opposition Benches about the role that my colleagues have played north of the border and in this place, I should like to comment on their perceptions. The Westminster leader of the Scottish National party—I keep mentioning that party—and his colleagues voted against the Government, yet criticised 43 Labour Members for voting with the Government. Their argument would have more credibility if the SNP had decided not to participate, then criticised Labour Members for voting.
There are rumours—I do not know whether they are true—that one lone Tory, whom I regard as a friend, despite his political persuasion, was put under tremendous pressure by the Tory Whips to participate in the vote. If there were 10 Conservative Members of Parliament and an opportunity to defeat the Government, I wonder what sort of pressure would be put on them.
We must consider where we are and how we shall develop. I reject the notion of two-tier, in-and-out Members of Parliament. I was elected as a UK Member of Parliament.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we already have two-tier Members of Parliament? Scottish Members of Parliament vote on English matters but cannot vote on the same issues as they affect Scotland. The West Lothian question must be answered. Is not it time that we ensured that English Members of Parliament determine English matters?
I shall deal with that point shortly.
It is disturbing that the hon. Gentleman's argument ignores the fact that 6,000 Scots a year are admitted to national health service hospitals in England. I therefore believe that I have a right to participate. The Standing Committee that considered the Health (Wales) Act 2003 was populated by English Tory Members of Parliament, and they were also involved in the Sunday Working (Scotland) Act 2003. They accept that, yet claim constitutional outrage when others are involved. I accept that the West Lothian question poses problems, but we will reduce the number of Scottish Members of Parliament from 72 to 59.
The Scotland Act 1998 provides for that, and I accept its terms. I hope that, long after I am gone from the House, the majority of hon. Members will acknowledge that there is a role for Members from all parts of the United Kingdom in determining the way in which we deliver for the people we should represent.
The Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill was announced last week. The devolution settlement remains under discussion and is evolving. As such, I was not surprised but a little disappointed that we decided that we would change the Scotland Act 1998 and retain 129 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. That will be discussed on the Floor of the House. Although I was not privileged to serve in the House at the time, I found the debate on amendments Nos. 62 and 63 to the Scotland Bill on
I do not wish to marshal arguments on that basis here today, but there is an issue as regards the Scottish Parliament. I am worried that we will disconnect its work from the interests and aspirations of the electorate through a rather confusing electoral system and will also risk contributing to the campaign to undermine the Scottish presence in this place, which is being orchestrated vocally from the Opposition Benches. I am much more enthusiastic about the European elections pilots Bill, which I raised today at Question Time. We may have the opportunity for a fully postal vote in Scotland for the European elections, and I certainly would welcome that.
Let me turn to another issue in Scotland. I want to talk briefly but more widely about the situation as regards manufacturing industry. Time is running out, so I will get to the point quickly. I was going to say that I worked in a Hoover plant, but I was employed there as a trade union official—a full-time convener. The plant is under threat, and we are going to lose about 300 jobs, some to China. I do not know the answer on how we compete with the wages that are being paid in places such as China, but I commend the intelligent campaign being led by the convener there, young Edward McAvoy. It has the support of Amicus and of the area's MP and MSP.
One of the issues is that 70 jobs would move to Wales. I hope that the Minister will get involved in that discussion and that campaign and try to ensure that we are in a position where we do not lose those 70 jobs. This is a crucial manufacturing industry for Scotland, and we must ensure that we have as much support as possible.
I will finish on that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have had a good-humoured debate, and I hope that my contribution has added to that good humour.
One advantage of failing to catch your eye until this stage of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is that I have been able to listen to every word that has been spoken from Front and Back Benches. Two particular speeches drew themselves to my attention. One was that of Glenda Jackson, who made a critical and devastating analysis of the Government's proposals with regard to asylum. She is to be congratulated on that. I could see that she was very angry and she is justified in that. I trust that the Government will have the common sense and decency to listen to such speeches.
The other speech to which I listened with rapt attention was that of the Home Secretary, because the poverty of his language—he used such expressions as that he could not give a toss about others' opinions—demonstrates to me the poverty of his thinking on home affairs and constitutional affairs. I contrast that with the speeches of my right hon. Friend David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, and, if I may say so, of Mr. Oaten, who made a thoughtful contribution.
I am particularly attracted to the argument that the hon. Gentleman made in relation to the absence of legal aid in matters of asylum cases. If we fail to allow those involved to get the proper advice they need, we will simply bung up the system later on. The Government's attitude towards the whole issue of legal aid was touched on by Mr. Kidney, who reflected all that I said in the debates on the Access to Justice Act 1999. It demonstrates the futility of much of what the Government have done and the damaging effect that it has had on that area of public policy.
In the few minutes that remain, I want to concentrate on one aspect of the constitutional affairs debate—namely, that regarding the Lord Chancellor's office and related subjects. On
Thrashing around to catch a populist headline is not a good way to reorder the British constitution, any more than the Home Secretary's crashing about like a bull in a china shop on matters to do with the arrest and investigation of suspected terrorists is sensible. In fact, the Home Secretary's recent outburst illustrates a theme behind these reforms. The Government do not trust the judges to bring in judgments that reflect their political opinions and aspirations. They, and the lawyers who argue their clients' cases in court, are in the way and must be tamed. Any objections put forward by those who disagree will be written off as lawyers' whingeing and the wailings of vested interest groups.
That demonstrates a total failure to understand the delicate balance that any democracy that survives through respect for the rule of law needs to maintain between Parliament, the judiciary and the Executive. For six years now, this Government and the Prime Minister have enjoyed more or less opposition-free supremacy, both here and in the country. So over-confident and arrogant with unchecked power have the Government become that they have begun to resemble, and to sound like, the strutting rooster on the farmyard midden. However, may I remind the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, that today's rooster is tomorrow's feather duster?
The Attorney-General is right to be concerned about the Home Secretary. His is an office that does not fit the strict concept of the separation of powers. He is a member of the legislature, the head of the state prosecution service, the Government's chief legal adviser, and the protector in the courts of the public interest. That is not very neat and tidy, and his office must be in danger now that the Government have arbitrarily decided that the office of Lord Chancellor must go.
As recently as
If Lord Irvine was the catalyst for discussion about his office, that discussion has been misguided, and has led to the wrong answer to the question of whether that office could be sustained, especially in the light of the European convention and its application to this country through the Human Rights Act 1998. There is, in my judgment, no provision in European Union law or under the European convention on human rights that requires any of the changes that the Government propose to the office of Lord Chancellor, the removal of the Law Lords from the House of Lords, or the creation of a judicial appointments commission.
It is undeniably true that the Lord Chancellor's Department has taken on many new responsibilities since 1997. Until June of this year, it was headed by a man who was not known for his political skills and sensitivity. The new Department for Constitutional Affairs covers the courts and tribunals, freedom of information and data protection, human rights, Lords reform and other constitutional reform, judicial appointments, party funding, electoral law and policy, civil and criminal law, legal aid, and royal, Church and hereditary issues. Its budget is measured in billions of pounds and, like all spending Departments, it is now a resource-hungry leviathan. Increasingly, it is moving into the executive and political arena. That shift means that, more and more, the Department's executive responsibilities are being carried out by an unelected Minister, whose territorial boundaries are imprecise and subject to adjustment at his and the Prime Minister's diktat.
One of the strengths of our constitution is that it is different from every other constitution and yet is completely capable of protecting the rights and interests of the citizen. We live by what is reasonable, not by what is necessarily rational. The common law has provided as much protection—if not more—for the individual against the over-mighty state as have the judgments of the supreme courts of other countries with written constitutions. No amount of fiddling with the role of the Lord Chancellor or the Law Lords will make a worthwhile difference to that.
I accept that the Lord Chancellor untidily bestrides the constitution. We do not have a Minister of Justice. A judicial appointments commission does not appoint our judges—a politician does that. An unelected legislator exercises executive power. Are we the worse off for that? Is our democracy the feebler for that? Are our judges Government stooges, who do no more than the bidding of the politician who appointed them? Are they appointed for their political or legal expertise? How many times since—let alone before—the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998 have the courts decided cases against the Government? Does not the Home Secretary fulminate against the judiciary for applying against the Government the very laws that the Government passed? Do our courts never award damages against the police or Departments? Has not a private citizen been granted £1 million in compensation against the Ministry of Defence for nuisance this year—while our troops and the Royal Air Force were engaged in the Iraq war—because of noisy low-flying RAF fighter jets passing over his house near Stamford?
Is not the right to strike and to demonstrate protected by the courts? Has the current Lord Chancellor, the previous Lord Chancellor or any other Lord Chancellor given judgment in the House of Lords on political as opposed to strictly legal grounds, or ever threatened the legislature that, unless it did his party's bidding, he would give judgment to redress the matter upstairs? On all those questions and many similar ones, the previous Lord Chancellor—a man with the political sensitivities and diplomatic skills of a rhinoceros—can justly claim to have behaved entirely properly. Like him or hate him, whether he made us laugh or cry, he was subject to the control of Parliament in all that he did as Lord Chancellor.
Speaking at the Council of Europe in 1979, one of our former right hon. Friends, the late Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone, said:
"We have an omnipotent, omnicompetent and sovereign parliament and, to some extent, it reflects the will of the executive, but we have an independent judiciary and the function of the Lord Chancellor is precisely to maintain the independence of the courts of law and the judges. We have no written constitution and in the absence of a document we must rely on the integrity of a man. It is the function of the Lord Chancellor to fight, to his last gasp if need be, for the independence of the judiciary. He can perform that function only if he has a foot in all three camps."
I accept that politics is a business susceptible to fashion; the names and remits of Departments change as frequently as their political masters. However, the vital and central role of the Lord Chancellor, which requires him to tread carefully along the three parallel but invisible lines of the British constitution, is justified and justifiable, even in the face of demand from the political fashionistas.
Earlier, we had the treat of hearing a Member confess to changing his mind, and when Mr. Oaten, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, said that he used to be in favour of identity cards but is now against them, it struck a chord; I, too, have changed my mind on that issue. I used to be against them, and against CCTV cameras and intrusive searches, but we live in a changing and dangerous world. It is right that we should change, but most of us change in the right direction.
I want to put on record my support for most but not all the measures in the Gracious Speech. If I were speaking at another time, I would put on record my opposition to tuition fees and my disappointment that there was no mention of a ban on fox hunting, but that is for another day. Today, I shall limit my remarks to the new Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, Etc.) Bill, and the many measures in it designed to stem abuse. However, I also recognise the welcome development of managed legal immigration that the Home Secretary has been brave enough to introduce. That is a path on which we have just embarked, and we will watch with interest.
When I was first elected to this place in 1997, almost immediately—within weeks or months—the issue of asylum reared its head in Dover and caused major problems and difficulties, mostly because large numbers of people from central and eastern Europe were coming across on the ferries to the port of Dover, and then being settled in small and not particularly wealthy areas of the town that did not have the capacity to receive them. That gave rise to all sorts of friction and concerns. People were genuinely alarmed; they felt threatened, and no matter what the real numbers were, perception is important in such matters.
At the time, the local authorities did not have the resources or the housing to support those arriving, nor the power to disperse them or share them across other parts of the area, so problems began to arise. On the south-east coast, there were unwelcome visits from the far right. The British National party marched on the seafront, and the National Front came down and leafleted at the weekend. They inflamed the problem. Many people felt that the situation was out of control. At that time—1997 and 1998—and under those measures, they were largely right.
In due course, the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was introduced, which greatly relieved the situation. In those early days, I felt that, although this was a major problem that had to be tackled—not just in my constituency but elsewhere—it would abate and go away, like other political storms. But it has not gone away, and to be frank, in gateway constituencies such as mine it probably never will. However, the various legislative provisions are beginning to bear down on the problem, and to deal with it in a responsible and balanced way.
The 1999 Act relieved the situation by allowing dispersal, and by introducing support for asylum seekers. The whole process became more structured and people began to have more confidence in it, but the numbers remained high.
The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 continued the process of bearing down on abuse of the system. It is very difficult to talk to those in the front line about what are, in their terms, almost academic issues. They know that we need to support asylum seekers, and that we will always give support to those who are genuinely fleeing for their lives. But they reply by saying, "Yes, but what about the Dublin convention? What about other countries? What about our borders and security?" Over the years, most, if not all, of those issues have been addressed in some measure. The new Bill will continue to close the loopholes and to bear down on the abuse of asylum, while at the same time preserving the basic principle.
When I talk to immigration officers in my constituency—the people on the ground who meet asylum seekers, and who take the initial decisions—they express bemusement at the fact that, after all these years, they have no sanction to operate against those who deliberately tear up their documents and hide their identity cards and passports. No such sanction has ever existed, and such behaviour has almost become part of the process of claiming asylum, be it genuine asylum seekers, economic migrants or those moving to this country for less savoury reasons. I have received anonymous calls and letters from people who work at the Dover port, telling me that the practice of destroying passports is so common that the remains can be picked up on any day of the week. Just last week, someone sent me two partly destroyed passports, with a covering anonymous letter. That puts the issue into context. We are talking not about the theory of immigration and asylum, but about the practice that local immigration officers have to deal with. Being on the front line in places such as Dover is a very difficult job. We should at least offer some support, and introduce measures that will bear down on the abuses.
We know that some who flee their country genuinely need to travel on false papers; indeed, they might not have papers at all. As long as they can prove a genuine purpose, that is a defence in itself. But it is not a defence to turn up at the immigration desk at Heathrow—having travelled on an international airline, and having de facto bypassed all the required documents and security measures—and say, "I've got no passport, and I'm not telling you where it is, how I came here or where I've come from." That is not acceptable. Such behaviour is designed only to deceive and frustrate the system, and it makes matters more difficult for genuine asylum seekers. The reality is that the great majority of people who try to destroy their documents do so partly to deceive, and partly under the instruction of their traffickers. They want to protect their traffickers and the criminal gangs behind these rip-offs.
I welcome the Bill and the other new measures to crack down on criminal traffickers. We should remember that currently there are very few sanctions that can be used against people smugglers. The crime of trafficking people is difficult to define, and the Bill tries to do that, but this is not a victimless crime. We need only think back a few years, to the tragic and horrific story of the 58 young Chinese people who were found dead in the back of a container lorry in Dover, to remember the background to this shady business.
I give qualified support to the acceleration of the asylum appeals process. The system is abused by stringing out appeals. That costs a lot of money and people use it as a means to stay here for longer, not to get a just result. When we look back at the claims, we find that they had hardly any chance of success from the outset. Again, I have had unhappy experiences in my constituency. In one case, an asylum seeker family were—outwith the norm—an especially objectionable group. Most asylum seekers are courteous, friendly and co-operative, and make good neighbours. However, this particular group were the ultimate neighbours from hell, to the extent that even the charitable institutions and asylum support groups wanted to see the back of them. They were undermining community relations by their behaviour. It took more than three years to remove that large extended family because they took every recourse of law.
The withdrawal of benefits from those asylum seekers who have run out of time is a vexed subject. I share some of the concerns that have been expressed, but I have talked to Ministers who have convinced me that the effect will be marginal and that the consequences of withdrawing benefits and then possibly taking children into care will be minimal. If that is the case, perhaps we should at least give those involved the option of choosing to go into safe detention, instead of being separated, which could appear draconian.
I welcome in principle several of the Bills in the Gracious Speech. The first is the charities Bill, which will provide an important legal framework for regulating the charitable and voluntary sectors. The voluntary sector wants the Bill, and that is all-important. It will remind us of the importance of the voluntary sector, which plays a role in areas covered by many of the other proposed Bills. For example, where would we be on the issue of domestic violence without all the voluntary work that has been done over the years? It is the same with child protection, and there are other examples. I would like to see even greater input from the voluntary sector in the future. When we talk about public provision of services or private provision of services, or even a partnership between the two, we miss out on an important dimension. I hope that discussing the voluntary sector will enable it to progress further and provide even better services.
I welcome the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. It has been a long time coming and it is a great credit to the Government that they have finally introduced it. However, I share the reservations of those hon. Members who have mentioned the protection of children, especially in cases of access visits for parents. Many people say that it is up to the courts, but we all have examples of cases that have torn at our heartstrings and not only aroused great concern, but involved physical harm to children. Children must be at the heart of everything we do.
I also welcome the children Bill, although it has taken so long for it to be introduced. I visited Sweden earlier this year and discovered that it had had a children's ombudsman for 20 years. We have finally reached that point, and I am delighted. Other countries put children first and listen to them, and we have taken a long time to get to that point.
The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill contains not only measures on domestic violence, but provisions for witnesses and victims. I welcome those provisions also, because I recently visited Dorset Victim Support on its open day for Members of Parliament. I was very impressed by all the work that it did. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the staff pointed out problems with funding. I mention that because I am not sure exactly what role Victim Support will play after the introduction of the new provisions. I tabled a parliamentary question earlier this year, which showed clearly that while funding to Victim Support has increased, because it has been providing this incredibly important witness protection service and helping witnesses, its core activities have been squeezed in terms of money. I do not think that its activities have been cut, but volunteers have been asked to do more and more, and barely get expenses for the work that they do.
Many Members welcomed the fact that trafficking will be addressed in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, but I fear that the important aspect of trafficking for child labour may not be included. We have moved so far by including trafficking for sexual purposes in the Sexual Offences Bill, and many Members would also have liked trafficking in child labour and trafficking in children's organs to be dealt with at the same time, although, of course, that was not possible. I hope that in the near future it will be possible to address those important issues.
As many Members have mentioned, there have been many Bills on crime, yet the public's perception is that crime is going up and they do not feel entirely safe. Whatever the statistics, we must take on board the fact that people have a fundamental need to feel safe in their communities. It comes down to not only legislation, but police personnel engaged in prevention and successful detention. I am afraid that I will touch on funding again, because, like most other Members, I have received representations from my police authority, Dorset, which tells me that although the percentage increase in funding is perhaps a little more than it had hoped for, it is not enough to cover unavoidable cost increases, and certainly not enough to address what the public want. Dorset police have carried out a thorough consultation, and, not surprisingly, the answer has come back that people want a more visible, uniformed presence on the streets.
I want to mention a specific issue relating to my police authority. I was fortunate enough to have an Adjournment debate on funding for Dorset police not long ago. On their behalf, I raised their concerns that £1 million in fines from the safety camera scheme was being returned to the Treasury. The Minister said that that was not the case, and that the money was allowed to stay in Dorset for use in safety schemes. I was delighted to hear that. I have received a further representation from Dorset police, however, which tells me that that is really not the case. It states:
"these criteria have subsequently changed and we are not able to seek the use of the fines revenue for anything other than safety camera enforcement. This has fundamentally undermined our approach to road safety."
It is really worrying that so much money is being channelled back into the Treasury and is not going into safety schemes. The mission of every Member of the House is crime reduction, but surely preventive measures are best. We need openness and honesty about what is happening to the fines. Most of all, the people who pay the fines and have got caught out would like to know what happens to the money that they are paying.
Ironically, the success of our police forces in reaching their targets means that we have the current crisis in prisons, to which Members have referred. We must remember that there is a crisis—some wonderful projects and wonderful work take place within the system, but the overall situation is appalling.
I visited Finland earlier this year to look at different criminal justice systems. I want to quote briefly one statistic—while we were there, just one woman under 21 was in prison. Even multiplying that to take account of the size of the respective populations, it tells us something very sad about our own society that we have so many women in unsuitable prison settings, often miles from their homes and families. Equally, although we have made progress in reducing the number of children in prison, we still have 2,000 children in adult prison settings, which is completely against the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. We must think about a whole package of measures in relation to children when we consider all the Bills in the Queen's Speech.
Community sentences will become much more frequently used when the proposals in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 come on stream fully, but community sentences can play a greater role now and more should be done with them. The public do not seem to have confidence in community sentences. They see them as a soft option, but why should they be a soft option? Surely, if people can see something being put back into the community and offenders can be supported with education and drug treatment programmes and other forms of support, we will have a cheaper, more effective sentence that will, I hope, cut reoffending and certainly be far less disruptive to the social make-up of our society. It would be good to see Ministers visiting good community sentence programmes and showing people that such sentences work and that we can stop simply putting people into prison for more minor offences and genuinely address crime in this country.
The debate has provided a broad canvas, as with all Queen's Speech debates, for right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to address it on matters of general principle and detail, but I should like to confine my remarks to general principles, particularly in the context of today's debate on home and constitutional affairs.
This challenging, perhaps over-ambitious, programme of reform certainly gives the lie to the suggestion made by Derek Conway that this is a tired Government. Far from it—this is a progressive, forward-looking and bold programme. In my view, it is a good programme and I welcome it. It does not shy away from some very contentious issues that the Government have to address, such as the higher education funding gap, and, in the context of this debate, our constituents' very real concerns about asylum and immigration.
It is essential that we have a tolerant and multiracial society. To underpin that, I must congratulate the Home Secretary on his approach of trying to establish a balance between setting up a transparent, open and managed immigration system, while bearing down, with tough and sometimes controversial measures, on what my hon. Friend Mr. Prosser, who spoke from experience, said was the outright abuse of the present system. That balance must be established, and I congratulate the Government on bravely going down that path.
The measures have to be tough, but I share the concerns expressed by many hon. Members on both sides of the House that some of the measures in the proposed asylum legislation may be a step too far. However, I am fairly confident that the Government will have carried out a human rights audit, as is required for all legislation under the Human Rights Act 1998. We know that, when introducing the Bill, the Secretary of State will have to declare that it is compatible with the Human Rights Act, but when the Minister sums up, he may be able to cast light on the Government's current thinking on whether there is a need to derogate from the European convention and the articles in it that deal with the privacy and sanctity of family life. That is a real concern. However, I agree with the thrust of the proposed measure and the Government would be shying away from people's real concerns if they did not act robustly to deal with what is perceived to be uncontrolled abuse of the asylum procedure.
I congratulate the Government on introducing the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. It is entirely right that we should rebalance the criminal justice system rather more in favour of victims by keeping them informed and by acknowledging the damage that crimes, particularly violent crimes, can do. We can do that without undermining the guarantees of human liberty that are enshrined in our criminal justice system.
I was impressed by the speech of my hon. Friend Glenda Jackson. She referred to those heart-rending cases of death or injury that are occasioned to children by fathers who have been given unsupervised access. That is a real problem and I am sure that the proposed Bill will go some way to dealing with it. I have experience as a lawyer of dealing with cases of domestic violence and I place considerable trust and confidence in the ability of the courts—if they are properly advised and have before them sufficient material from social services departments—to arrive at right and just conclusions. It is right that contact should be given to fathers; it would be a draconian step to stop them seeing their children.
I also welcome the proposed children Bill, which would bring to England the benefits that a children's commissioner has brought to Wales and Scotland. There is a need to address some of the issues that we face relating to the abuse of children, particularly those in care.
I now turn to the general principles behind the draft Bill on identity cards. I do not object in principle to the idea of identity cards and I accept the Home Secretary's contention that such cards can be an effective tool in combating identity fraud, the growing threat of international terrorism and organised crime. However, the devil is in the detail and much more practical work needs to be done. The last thing we want is such a measure to fail because of practical difficulties in its implementation.
I wish to mention a cause that is particularly close to my heart—the problems faced by people with disabilities. I represent an area with a large pensioner population in which disabilities are a matter of concern. We know that 8.6 million people in the United Kingdom have disabilities, but the Government have an excellent record in dealing with the issue. Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Miss Begg, will come into force later this year. It will require shops and services providers to make adjustments to their properties to cater for disabled people. We welcome that, and I welcome the proposals in the draft Bill to extend the scope of disability protection to transport operators and to widen the definition of disability.
I shall deal briefly with constitutional reform. I tend to agree that the whole business of reforming the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords and abolishing the post of Lord Chancellor could have been handled better, although it is necessary to address those anomalies. I welcome proposals to introduce a supreme court but firmly believe that any legislation on that should be informed by the underlying principle that the independence of the judiciary should not be undermined. We cannot exaggerate the value of an independent and high-quality judiciary, and that is crucial if we are to maintain the rule of law in a mature democracy such as ours.
I accept that there will be contentious aspects of the Government's programme, but it is none the less courageous and forward looking.
I shall address my remarks exclusively to one aspect of the Queen's Speech: the announcement of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. I shall also refer to the comments of hon. Members who spoke about the Bill.
I congratulate Mrs. Brooke on her remarks about children, with which I concur. I disagree with some points made by hon. Members about contact with and access to children, because we must be careful when dealing with children. We should not adopt a one-size-fits-all policy or trust a system as though it could never fail. I tell my hon. Friend Gareth Thomas that the courts can make mistakes, such as giving schedule 1 offenders unfettered access to their children with no other people present. Children have suffered terrible harm as a result of that, and such mistakes will continue to happen unless we take the problem seriously.
It is, perhaps, not well known in the House that I have had an interest in domestic violence for more than 30 years and that I work closely with the victims of that crime. However, my interest in the matter developed earlier than that. Many hon. Members will have seen an interesting television programme that recently featured in the top 10 of TV cop series—"Dixon of Dock Green". When we watched the programme, we heard the familiar strains of the theme followed by the words, "Evenin' all". There was a little homily at the end of each show, one of which was, "Well, of course it's been a quiet night, but if I had to go to every house where a chap thumps his wife of an evening, I'd have nothing else to do." That attitude was considered the normal state of affairs in the 1950s and 1960s, and I am glad to say that I think that few police officers have such an attitude these days.
I would like to think that our attitude to domestic violence could change as swiftly as people's attitudes to issues of equality, such as homosexuality and the rights of people who undergo gender transition. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, people never dreamed that such important changes of attitude were possible. The attitudes of people to ethnicity and race have altered completely and radically, in such a way that the majority no longer consider some people to be part of a sub-culture. However, domestic violence is still a huge problem, which shows that attitudes to that have not changed at the pace that I would like.
We must think carefully about what the Bill signals. After my 30 years of working with women who are victims, it represents one of the most tremendous changes heralded during my short time in the House. In the past six years, I have, perhaps, been too quiet a campaigner—but a campaigner nevertheless—for the quiet victims of what is too quiet a crime. Too often it is hidden away. Neighbours turn their heads, ashamed. The victims and their families are ashamed. I have heard it said that people from a particular ethnic group are more ashamed than others. That is nonsense. All victims of domestic violence feel ashamed. It is a pernicious and horrible situation that too often is condoned by the victims' families, neighbours and communities. It is the only crime for which we think the right course of action is to move the victim, not to deal with the offender. That is why the Bill is so important.
The victim needs to find sanctuary and to be supported by the law. The Bill will do much to achieve that, but it does not go the whole way. The Government might want to consider other measures as well. Although the Bill will protect people who come forward for help and treat them as victims, we should relieve them of the burden of going through the courts knowing that the offender will retaliate. Incidentally, domestic violence offenders are easy to identify. In other crimes, we have to look for the offender. In domestic violence cases, the offender is well known, although we still find it difficult to put him through the court process. A person is likely to have been offended against 35 times before a successful prosecution is brought. That is a terrible state of affairs. In addition, the victim has to make difficult choices in the period when those crimes are being committed.
I accept that the Bill is gender neutral and that men sometimes suffer at the hands of their partners, but I shall concentrate on women, especially mothers. The effect on them and their families is so tremendous that it is right that we are at last taking a careful and considered approach to an important problem. At the moment, the message we give to such women is, "You have no choice." I have heard council officers tell them that unless they are prepared to move within 24 hours to a hostel, a refuge or a homeless centre, the crime that they report will not be taken seriously. Have those council officers visited a hostel, a refuge or a homeless centre? If so, would they choose to make that move for themselves? The accommodation is not desirable. The furniture is in such a state that we would not want our children to sit on it. Drug abusers might live opposite or prostitutes might be down the road. Is that a real choice for women?
The answer is not simply to invest in better standards in refuges. We must also tell local authorities that they have a duty of care. Part of that duty of care is to protect a woman in her home so that the members of the community can support her. They know the woman and the offender. They will notice him if he enters the street and be part of her protection package. The school that her children attend can also be part of that protection package. Her children will be comfortable in that school and protected because they are well known to the teachers. It is a safe place. Why move them away from it?
We should be telling doctors that they, too, have a part to play in protecting women in the community. It is not difficult to do. In fact, it is relatively inexpensive to prepare accommodation so that it has safe doors, CCTV and panic buttons. It is important that women should be protected in their homes. It costs £600 a year less per family to make people safe in their homes than to move them on and on.
It is time for this madness to stop. It is time for people to be safe and protected not just before the law but by society. Now is the time for the public campaign to say that this is a crime that is recognised by us all, not only Members of the House, the judiciary or the police. We should all band together and say that this is something that we will no longer accept in our society.
I want, in closing, to thank Kate Flannery and other members of the domestic violence unit, particularly Thelma Singleton, for all the hard work that they have done and the support that they have given me in our quiet campaigning over many years.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on the Queen's Speech. I apologise now for the fact that I may not be able to stay until the end of the winding-up speeches, as I am due back in my constituency for an important meeting regarding potential school closures.
I welcome many of the measures introduced by the Government in the Queen's Speech, in particular those relating to asylum and immigration. I regularly see constituency cases involving people claiming asylum. Some are in a position to obtain the right to remain in this country, while others, their first application having been refused, apply under the appeal procedures, and are refused again. They then continue to follow the appeal process, right through to the stage of judicial review, which may take many years.
The difficulty in those circumstances is that we are not providing a system that is efficient and fair to all those who apply for asylum and who wish to remain in this country. Our system is not fair to those individuals who find that their lives are on hold for a number of years while their case is determined. Many will want to work and to build relationships, and some will have children while they are here, so as the years go by it becomes even more difficult to enforce the refusal notice that was originally applied to them. I therefore welcome the Government's attempt to make sure that we have a fast, efficient system for dealing with asylum applications.
Britain has a long history of being a safe haven for people who are fleeing from persecution in their country, and rightly so. I certainly wish that to continue, but if our system is to have integrity and to be fair to all those who apply, and if we are to be able to secure our borders as necessary, people need to feel confident that when they apply for asylum, their case will be considered and they will be given opportunities to appeal, if necessary. However, those appeals should not go on for years, as they do in many cases. I therefore agree with the Government's proposals to restrict some appeals and speed up the process.
It has been very interesting over the past few days to watch the media coverage of the Government's policy on the children of asylum seekers. I think, with great disappointment, of the coverage that has completely misinterpreted the Government's view on the issue—deliberate misinterpretation, in some cases, by those who want to make political mischief. I say to those who oppose the Government's policy, particularly those on the Opposition Benches, that they should take their opposition to its logical conclusion.
If we have asylum seekers whose applications have been assessed and refused, what do we then do? Do we continue to pay them benefits and completely undermine the whole of the asylum system, or do we remove the benefits? In my view, we should remove state support if the whole application and appeal process has been completed and the applicant has not been permitted to remain. Having removed benefits, should the Government then leave the children of asylum seekers to become destitute when their parents have refused the opportunity of a flight home and money for resettlement? That would not be in the interests of the families and their children.
I am following the argument that the hon. Lady is advancing. Surely if all the benefits are stopped and the parents are not allowed to work, that means that they get no money and they are destitute. How does she think that they will survive?
Adults make a choice. Parents make a choice and they accept the consequences. If they have had their application refused and they refuse the opportunity to be returned to their country of origin, and a resettlement grant, they must take the consequences of the laws of this land, as we would expect them to be implemented. Their children do not have the same opportunities to express themselves. While parents can make such decisions and accept the consequences, children cannot. If parents are not in a position to look after their children, it is right that the Government, in these circumstances, should take the children into care. I regret that the Conservative party, in particular, has sought to make mischief on this issue and to call it an unacceptable policy given the history of its own policies on asylum.
We need first to improve the quality of initial decisions. It is clear from the many appeals that are won by applicants that initial decisions are not yet of an acceptable quality.
It is to be welcomed that the Government will look to impose a criminal offence upon those who destroy their documents on entering the country. Like many other colleagues who deal with asylum cases, we come across those who apply for asylum, only to find it difficult to be certain from which country they come. That makes it difficult to ascertain whether they are entitled to asylum. In those circumstances, where they have arrived in the United Kingdom on international flights, I think that it is right that the Government should consider imposing a penalty on those who have deliberately destroyed their documents.
We should do that in dealing with asylum applications in those circumstances, and to protect those who are exploited by traffickers of asylum seekers because in many instances we see the consequences for those who are the result of illegal trade in humans.
I welcome also the proposals that relate to domestic violence and the need to address the problems that we face when one in four women over their lifetimes will be subject to domestic violence, with two women dying every week as a result of it. The proposals will be greatly welcomed by women in my constituency and throughout the country, and also by men who are subject to domestic violence. We must ensure that such men are included in our considerations.
I am pleased that we are seeking to protect victims of crime and ensuring that their rights and views are part of that process. I recently met the victim support organisation that is based in Watford. I listened carefully to those who expressed the concern that often they believe that victims do not get consideration during court cases. I am pleased that we shall have an opportunity to address that in legislation.
Many Members have referred to children's rights in terms of adults who may have been convicted or where there is evidence of domestic violence within a relationship and the question of access arises. I agree with that approach, but this is an opportunity for the Government carefully to examine the issue when a parent wishes to have access to their child and the other parent, who has custody, is continually taken back to court to try to enforce rights of access. It is a scandal where unfortunately, in many instances, mothers who have custody of children do not allow fathers who have rights of access to see their children. Those fathers have continually to take mothers back to court, at great expense, but the court orders are not enforced by the court. I hope that the Government will look at that carefully and, as a result, perhaps fewer people will have to climb cranes to make the issue a priority.
The Government have introduced a number of very good measures in the Queen's Speech, some of which are controversial, such as the measure on tuition fees. I support the principle that students should pay for their education once they have graduated, but I accept the concerns of people who are worried about the impact of variable fees. However, I hope that the Government will not only address the need for more young people to go into higher education, and provide funding for that, but will provide opportunities for people who want to develop vocational skills to do so. Such people should not find themselves in a position in which they not only have to pay for their course but, by paying taxes when working, have to pay for students pursuing academic studies.
Overall, this is an excellent legislative programme for the year ahead, introducing lots of good and interesting measures that will significantly help my constituents in Watford.
Out of courtesy, may I tell you that I will be present for the winding-up speeches, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and very much look forward to them?
I disagree with Mr. Oaten that the public are not in the mood for another debate on asylum. I represent a Glasgow seat, and Glasgow city council is the only local authority in Scotland to participate in the Home Office asylum seekers' dispersal scheme. About 75 per cent. of my constituency case load concerns asylum seekers, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that people in Glasgow and, I believe, all other constituencies want a serious debate on asylum. The Government have helped to achieve that by introducing the Bill, which I welcome.
Asylum as such is not a controversial issue. I do not believe that there is a single hon. Member who would argue against the principle that anyone who genuinely faces persecution on the grounds of race, religion or politics in their own country should be given sanctuary in the UK. However, asylum has become a controversial issue or a political hot potato because the Government, like their predecessors, have recognised the fact that there is a large number of economic migrants among those who come to this country claiming political asylum, and have decided that they have to do something about that. They have decided to interview people and separate genuine asylum seekers from economic migrants. We must accept that has consequences, but that is the source of the controversy, not the fact of asylum itself.
I welcome strongly a number of aspects of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill. They have already been mentioned, but I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I briefly go over them again. It is unacceptable for people arriving in this country, largely by air, to tell immigration officials at the airport that they have misplaced or destroyed their identity papers. I very much welcomed the Home Office announcement that proposals to tackle that would be included in legislation introduced this Session. I do not understand why we have not previously introduced a measure to clamp down on such behaviour, but the Bill is nevertheless extremely welcome.
Is there not an alternative way of dealing with the problem of papers destroyed in transit? Carriers could be required to make facsimiles of papers presented on boarding, retaining them until passengers have completed immigration procedures at the other end. In that way, we would always have a record that would also be useful for counter-terrorism purposes.
My understanding is that the legislation will introduce obligations for carriers, or at least some carriers from some countries, to duplicate identity and travel papers where necessary, so that they can be shown to immigration officials in Britain. That should be welcomed. None of my constituents would show any tolerance of the brazen practice of accidentally losing identification and travel papers.
I welcome the Government's plans to clamp down on the number of appeals. I hope that they will take notice of the fact that the judicial review process is slightly different in Scotland. If we are to streamline the appeals process in England and Wales, it must be done effectively in Scotland as well. The current arrangements have meant that, in Scotland, almost every application for judicial review is agreed, which is not the case in England. I have been pressing for change for some time.
On the controversy that has erupted about the Government's alleged plans to abduct the children of asylum seekers whose applications have been refused, would it be possible for debate in the House, including on Second Reading of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, to concentrate on what Ministers and the Bill say, rather than on what The Observer says? I do not think that it helps the debate in this country to focus on an unattributed source reported in The Observer and copied by other media outlets. The Home Secretary has explained the situation, and I hope that Opposition Members will accept what he says.
The Government have made some improvements in the asylum process. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, who probably has the most difficult job in the Government. She has never failed to treat me with the utmost courtesy and helpfulness whenever I have consulted her. Because of the type of constituency that I represent, she has had to provide such information to me on many occasions. I am extremely grateful to her for that help.
I wish briefly to mention the proposed amendments to the Scotland Act 1998. I was one of the MPs who contributed to the consultation led by my right hon. Friend Mrs. Liddell when she was Secretary of State for Scotland. My contribution was to say that the Scottish Parliament should retain 129 Members, even after we have reduced the number of Scottish MPs in this place. There are many good reasons why I take that view, but I urge hon. Members to visit my website at www.tomharrismp.com if they want further explanation.
When the measure comes before the House, hon. Members in all parts of the House will no doubt table a huge number of amendments. The Scottish National party, which obviously has something better to do today, will undoubtedly produce a plethora of amendments, probably focusing on full fiscal freedom or any other alliterative—if I can say the word—[Interruption.] Thank goodness for alliteration, I was going to say. No doubt, the Conservative party will try to incorporate its own amendments. I understand from reading The Scotsman last week that the Conservative party will table an amendment that would restrict the rights of Scottish Members in this place to vote on English legislation.
May I make a genuine appeal to Conservative Members? I am glad to see that Mr. Evans is in his place at this point. I ask them please not to go down the road that the Scottish nationalists want them to go down. The Conservative party used to call itself the Conservative and Unionist party, and I want it to reinstate that full title rather than call itself the English national party. For 50 years, Northern Ireland MPs came to this place and took a full part in the life of this House, voting on everything that came before it. For 50 years from 1922 until 1972, as far as I know, not a single Conservative or Labour MP ever objected to that, as Members of this House serve their constituents on any equal basis. It says something very profound about the attitude of those on the Conservative Benches that, at Prorogation a couple of weeks ago, they were fulminating against democratically elected Members of this House voting on English legislation, while welcoming the fact that hereditary peers along the Corridor were blocking democratically established law made in this place. What does that say about the democratic principles of the Conservative party?
The hon. Gentleman will know that an answer was not sought to the Ulster question during those 50 years; and why should it have been? Members of this House should be elected on an equal basis. For example, I am not gay, but I am happy to vote on civil partnerships. Why should I not vote on issues that do not directly affect my constituency? Will the next Conservative manifesto say that London MPs will not be allowed to vote on transport issues that are devolved to the Greater London Assembly? I suspect not.
I am rapidly running out of time—how time flies when one is having fun—but I want, at the risk of being accused of pedantry, to make one more point about the Lords reform Bill. The 2001 Labour party manifesto committed the Government to making the House of Lords more democratic and representative, and it is more representative today than it has been in its entire history. We should be wary of saying that because a House is democratically elected its Members are automatically more democratic or more representative—one has only to look at the Scottish Parliament, which, although democratically elected, has not a single black or brown face among its 129 Members. The Bill might not make the House of Lords more democratic, but it will certainly make it less undemocratic by removing the hereditary peers, and we should welcome that.
It is a privilege to be called to speak in the debate on the Queen's Speech and to talk about some of the proposals that affect the Home Office—some good, some bad, and some indifferent.
This Government's fight against crime will ensure that crime is reduced, and we want that to continue. What worries me, however, is crime detection—specifically, the role of the Forensic Science Service, which does an excellent job in solving crime. At Washington hall in Chorley, 240 people are dedicated to solving crime in the north-west. It is important that we listen to the voices of those who work in the Forensic Science Service: it is far too easy for us to dismiss their opinions. Sir Robert MacFarland and the National Audit Office reported that the FSS is a huge success and that it is good value. It is wonderful to have that endorsement, which Members on both sides should listen to. Because the FSS is a world leader—it is considered by many, including me, to be the best in the world—many overseas cases are brought to this country to be solved, including that of the tragic death of a Swedish Minister.
It is important to recognise what the FSS can do through its trading fund, which made profits of £10 million. If privatisation goes ahead, there is no guarantee that its work will not suffer. The FSS is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation: that on-call service is totally unprofitable. So will there be cuts? That is the big question to which we never get the answer.
How is privatisation to take place? Is it the case, as I suggested in an Adjournment debate, that each forensic lab will compete against the others for work? In fairness to the Minister, he said that that would not happen. Are we therefore to assume that a private monopoly will be created out of public ownership? That is absurd, because how would we achieve value for money? It is certainly wrong for labs to compete with each other, because, given that it is beneficial for them to share their knowledge, competing private companies would not be keen on doing so. If we are not careful, life will become even more difficult. We should put quality of service first, but a private company will want to make a profit out of crime. That would be intolerable, and I am sure that hon. Members agree that it is no way forward.
Many unanswered questions remain about the staff's pension rights, and we wonder when we can give the answers to those who work in the FSS. Of course, the FSS needs extra capital investment, and we are told that that is the reason for beginning part privatisation. The Government are normally the first to say that we use private finance initiatives. Why do we not consider such a vehicle to ensure the upgrade of FSS laboratories? That is a much better way forward than privatisation. Surely the Home Secretary, who led against privatisation throughout the 1980s, would not want his name attached to such a proposal now.
It is important, and in the public's interest, to ensure that the FSS remains entirely in the public sector. I note that Front-Bench Members, as they chat away merrily, are taking a great interest in hon. Members' comments. They should take note that even Mr. Bush has not privatised the forensic science service in America. No country in the world has privatised its forensic science service. Why should we do it? Why should we want to change it, and ensure a criminal's charter through privatisation?
Such a proposal is not a new idea or new thinking. It is a 25-year-old idea from a Thatcherite Government. In fairness to a former Home Secretary, Mr. Howard, I note that he threw out such a proposal and said that it was a step too far.
Many other issues in the Queen's Speech are important. One is the Government's support for neighbourhood watch. We have done well in extending it; it brings communities together and makes them safer. Keith Warren and Tom Watson in my constituency are at the forefront of leading neighbourhood watch in Lancashire, to the extent that it now covers railway stations in Chorley and operates on the trains. That is a new and good idea that will be replicated.
We also consider other places, such as cemeteries, where crime takes place. That causes much distress and the neighbourhood watch tries to ensure that people can feel safe when they go to the cemetery. We have prevented children from playing there and stopped the distress that is caused. That is important.
The Government are committed to closed circuit television. They have shown their hand by putting so much money into its extension.
The hon. Gentleman represents a constituency neighbouring mine. Like mine, his has many rural areas. Does he believe that CCTV should be rolled out in some rural areas and not confined to urban areas, and that special constables should be put into rural areas? Crime is as hard for those living in rural areas as it is for those in urban areas.
I could not agree more. Ribble Valley suffers the same problems as my constituency, although it is important to stress that the Government have played a major part in increasing the use of CCTV. However, the Home Office has a chance to go into villages by allowing town councils, parish councils and borough councils to bid for money that the Government have made directly available rather than getting messed up in different routes and ticking different boxes. Let us make the money available and ensure that the benefits in urban areas are introduced in rural areas.
We need CCTV in my village of Adlington. A robbery took place at the petrol station and the local bank, 200 yd away, was held up with a gun. We are near the city of Manchester, and criminals unfortunately come and take what they perceive to be easy pickings because there are not the same deterrents. I should welcome CCTV in Adlington and in the rural areas of the constituencies of other hon. Members. It should happen sooner rather than later.
Police cells are also important. We should ensure that they are available where crime occurs. Chorley has a population of more than 100,000. It is one of the fastest-growing constituencies in the country, yet we find that no police cell is available. That is absurd, and it must be looked at.
We need to show teeth and ensure that police authorities listen to the Home Office and that we are able to ask questions below chief constable level to find out what is going on in divisional areas. It is important that we are allowed to do that, and the sooner it happens, the better. It is also important that the courts and the police authorities are accountable to the House and that we can get down to the micro level, which is well below that of chief constable.
In fairness to the police, I say that they do a very good job, but they must get away from paperwork, which they spend such a lot of time on. I do not know whether Members have been out with the police to see what happens when they arrest somebody, all the paperwork that they go through and the time that is lost because they have to go to a station that is far away in case the arrest involves a lock-up. We must look at that, save time and let the police get on with the job that they are good at—getting on the streets and being seen. We must have a visible police force once again. That is so important.
We are up against the time limit, but I want quickly to mention that Victim Support does a superb job in Chorley. Also, the armed forces play a major role, so I am very concerned about the Queen's Lancashire Regiment. I do not want to see it merged. We do not have a retention problem, and we certainly do not have a recruitment problem. That proud regiment is one of the oldest, and I want it to remain.
I do not want top-up fees—that is where I disagree with the Queen's Speech.
The other problem is council tax. Rate support grant was not enough and Chorley council managed to get only 2.3 per cent. I would have liked it to get more. The county got 5.5 per cent. If we could have put its figure down by just 0.5 per cent., we could have made so much difference to the borough council—it could have extended its warden scheme, which has proved successful.
The other big issue is pensions. I would like all pensioners to benefit from free off-peak travel, and let us extend free TV licences as well. Those are omissions from the Queen's Speech. We must not forget older people: we have done a lot for them, but there is much more that we can do.
I have mentioned the Forensic Science Service, and The Observer on Sunday had a wonderful sub-heading saying, "The Forensic Science Service is a rare public service success story. So New Labour wants to privatise it". We ought to be ashamed of such headlines and articles—we ought to get away from that. We do not need to privatise the service, no matter what people might say. The bottom line is that we can keep it in the public sector. We can ensure that there is money through a true private finance initiative scheme. That is the road forward, and that is the vehicle we ought to use. We ought to ensure that that benefit comes through and that we do not see people losing their jobs and pensions.
I apologise for missing part of the debate as I was on Scottish Affairs Committee business. I will definitely try to make it to the summing up, but I will need to miss part of it.
My hon. Friend Mr. Tynan made an excellent speech. I am not going to repeat it, because he must have covered about the whole Queen's Speech. He made a slight attack on the two nationalist parties sitting opposite: the Scottish nationalists and the English nationalists, who are known where I come from as the Tories. They seem to be cuddly people these days. That brings to mind a film I once saw called "Gremlins". The gremlins start off cuddly, but then they get water on them, and they become monsters. I would love to throw water on the Tories to let the people see their true colours, because they have been monsters before—back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when they were real monsters who destroyed industry in this country and put unemployment up to an unbelievable figure that I hope will never be rivalled. Even if that lot got back into government, they could not manage to get the figure up to the 4 million mark, but I am sure that it will not prevent them from trying.
I want to talk about asylum. I have a problem with taking children from any parent—asylum seeker or not. Taking a child from a parent, whether that means a single parent or parents in a family, is abhorrent. I ask the Minister to reiterate what I think I heard the Home Secretary say, which is that children will be treated just as children, that their treatment will have nothing to do with their being asylum seekers or anything else, and that they will be taken into care only—I repeat, only—if they meet the criteria by which social services would normally take a child into care. I do not want to hear that children are being taken into care only because we have stopped giving a family money. That family might have means in another country, and children should not be taken into care simply because they happen to be asylum seekers.
Hon. Members of all parties have referred to the matter in various ways, but I want to attack another part of the problem. I asked myself what I would like the Queen's Speech to contain. One possibility would be the reintroduction of hanging—but only for lawyers: they are the ones I want to string up. I am sorry if that offends anyone, especially among Labour Members. However, the £81.3 million spent on asylum matters in 2000–01 rose to £174.2 million in 2002–03.
A lawyer who takes on an asylum seeker is able to claim £800 immediately. Like my hon. Friend Mr. Harris, I have many asylum seekers in my constituency. Half my work load is based on asylum matters, but the asylum seekers I speak to have more than one lawyer as, when I ask who their lawyer is, they produce a variety of cards. If all those lawyers are getting £800—and then £1,200 later for judicial review—it does not take a genius to work out why they all seem very happy to take on such cases. One lawyer in my area closed his business because he refused to take on asylum seekers, but another lawyer opened up the very next day. He made it blatantly clear that he was doing so because he could make a lot of money out of asylum seekers. That is an absolute disgrace, and we must do something about it. Asylum seekers are used by the people who get them into this country, and then they are used again by lawyers, who we might say are not so nice. Therefore, I ask that hanging be available as punishment for lawyers who profit from asylum seekers.
I turn now to the Scotland Act 1998. It may not mean much to members of the English national party, and it clearly does not mean a lot to members of the Scottish National party, who cannot be bothered to attend the debate. This is not the first time that they have slept through Bills; they did the same with the one that introduced the minimum income guarantee some years ago. They are up to their old tricks again, but that does not stop them having a go at Labour Members in this House, who are doing what they are employed to do—representing the people of the UK.
I have real problems with an electoral system based on a list, as it is open to much misuse. In Glasgow, 77,040 people voted on their ballot papers for the Labour party, while another party received 34,894 votes. The Labour party secured no seats, but the other party secured three. I do not know how the arithmetic adds up, but there is no point in having two ballot papers in Scotland—one for constituency members and the other for list members—if none of the Labour votes cast in Glasgow is allowed to count. If that is democracy, I am sorry, and I want nothing to do with it. It is time that we changed the system. However, the single transferable vote system being touted by the Scottish Executive does not meet my requirements either. In fact, in the case of the Scottish Parliament and, in particular, the Scottish Executive, it would appear that the tail is wagging the dog these days.
The Liberal party in Scotland would argue that in order to receive the guarantee of STV, it has capitulated on many Bills that it would normally have voted against, but I have to say that the Liberals have caused nothing but trouble by being part of the Executive in Scotland. If I were the First Minister, I would kick them out, and would work in a minority Government. They are absolutely no good.
Does the hon. Gentleman regard free personal care and no tuition fees as the kind of trouble that Liberal Democrats ought not to be making for the partnership Administration who have pursued those policies?
The Liberals will take credit for anything. We have to consider who is paying for the care—and not only that, but who is not being paid for. When we talked about that kind of care, I had my reservations, but—as with most things—I am willing to wait and see. I waited to see how the list system worked, and it does not. As for the right hon. Gentleman's other point, I just disagree with him; I am sorry, but I cannot agree with him in any shape or form.
Time is of the essence, and I call on my friends in government to look at the electoral system, because what happens in Scotland today could happen in the United Kingdom tomorrow. The STV system for local government in Scotland is not a way of democracy, and it is not wanted. Only four councils in the whole of Scotland suggested that they would like it, and 28 said that they did not want it; the system would be an imposition on local government in Scotland. I do not particularly want to impose another system on the Scottish Parliament, but if I were given the chance to get involved in opening up the Scotland Act 1998, I would reintroduce first past the post tomorrow, with two elected Members—one man and one woman—for each constituency. I ask my hon. Friends to support me when I table an amendment that says as much.
I shall follow my hon. Friend John Robertson in commenting on the proposals in the Queen's Speech to retain the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament, but, as my hon. Friend will not be surprised to find out, I shall take a different direction. I, too, must apologise to the House for having been away at a Select Committee for part of the afternoon, although I have tried to ascertain what comments have been made on the issue while I was away.
I support the proposals to retain the current number of Members of the Scottish Parliament, and if I have the opportunity to speak on the issue on Second Reading, I will expand on the reasons why. Today, however, I want to concentrate on the fact that the proposal to retain the same number of MSPs will undoubtedly have knock-on effects for the political system elsewhere in Scotland. When the Government take forward the Bill on Scottish parliamentary constituencies in the next few months, they will need to give the House some suggestion of how they will deal with those knock-on issues.
The first of those issues is the fact that there will be different boundaries for the Westminster constituencies and the Scottish Parliament constituencies. That would not be a major problem in itself but, as has been mentioned, there will of course be a multiplicity of electoral systems operating in Scotland, sometimes on the same day. If things develop as expected, there will be elections to the Scottish Parliament by a combination of a constituency first-past-the-post ballot paper and a list ballot paper on the same day. Also on the same day, there will be elections by single transferable vote to local government. At other times, there will be elections on the first-past-the-post principle for the Westminster Parliament and elections on a list system for the European Parliament. Also—in theory, in any event—if there are ever elections for community councils, they could be held on a multi-member, single-majority electoral system.
So this issue needs to be addressed. I have more confidence than do some of my colleagues in the voter's ability to understand different systems, but there comes a point at which one has to say that a system is getting too complex. If the electorate do not know who they are voting for and when they are voting for them, and if they do not fully appreciate the differences between the different systems, that in itself threatens their ability to hold elected politicians to account.
The system needs to be examined and now is the right time to do so. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland that the current system of electing MSPs is not achieving the intended results. By that I do not mean—as some of my colleagues occasionally do—the election of a Labour majority under any circumstances. The system was designed to be truly proportional, whereby votes cast by the electorate are roughly reflected in the number of seats won by the different political parties. Instead, we are getting an "Alice through the looking-glass" system of proportional representation, with an increased use of tactical voting. The thing that was meant to be good about proportionality in elections—that people vote for the party of their choice, rather than engaging in tactical voting—is no longer applying.
Primarily, that is happening not because of the list system, but because two ballot papers are involved. The electorate—along with the political parties, the media and the political system—are increasingly regarding the list ballot paper, which in theory should balance out any disproportionality in the constituency element, as the second preference ballot paper. As a result, voters' second preference is being given almost as much weight as their first preference—entirely the opposite of what any form of PR should mean. Unlike some Members, perhaps, I do not want the smaller parties to be driven out of the Scottish Parliament, but I do want them, along with the larger parties, to get the representation in seats that they ought to get, thereby reflecting voters' preferences. The current system is moving away from true proportionality and leading to a bizarre, inverse distortion of true PR.
Does my hon. Friend not accept that it is not right for 77,000 people voting on a ballot paper to receive zero representation? I could understand our having a single ballot paper and working out a system accordingly, but we have two ballot papers, including a specific paper for the party vote, and 77,000 people in Glasgow get absolutely no representation for that vote.
The weakness in my hon. Friend's argument, if I may say so, is that in that instance, one party—my own, as it happens—won every single seat in the constituency element of the election on the basis of securing less than 50 per cent. of the votes cast. That is equally problematic.
My hon. Friend suggests that one solution might be to retain the system of constituency Members and the list, but to have just one ballot paper. Presumably, the seats allocated on the list would then be awarded on the basis of the total votes cast on a single ballot paper in every constituency. As it happens, that was the system that I preferred when these matters were discussed some years ago. Unfortunately, my wise counsel was ignored on that occasion, as was often the case, regrettably. The other solution—it is supported by the Liberal Democrats and, I think, by the Scottish National party and an increasing number of Labour Members—is some form of single transferable vote for Scottish Parliament elections. There are arguments in favour of introducing that system as well.
The issue must be addressed quickly. We may have an opportunity to do so when the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill comes before the House, although it is very closely drafted. As I said at the outset, the Government need to address the issue and give an indication of how they will take the matter forward. Increasingly, people in Scotland want the matter to be addressed. There must of course be consultation among the political parties in Scotland and we should try to reach as much of a consensus as we can, in order to find a way forward. However, if we do not address the issue and change how the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament currently operates, we will discredit it. As somebody who wants the Scottish Parliament to do well and be successful, I do not want to see it discredited because of the inadvertent consequences of the operation of the electoral system. I hope that the Government will say tonight—or if not tonight, when the Bill is introduced—how they will move forward on such issues.
Over the past five hours, we have had a good-natured and enjoyable exchange of opinions on the Queen's Speech.
I certainly hope to keep it that way. The Minister has had a busy day, which is about to get busier. I must warn him that I have been informed that he used to serve on the Public Accounts Committee with my right hon. Friend David Davis. If the Minister continues to do as well as he did this morning, he risks being labelled a protégé of the shadow Home Secretary.
The agenda that we have been discussing this afternoon involves a long list of Bills and the legislative programme will keep us busy. The issues that we are bound to discuss over the next parliamentary year will profoundly affect the lives of many people. As such, we all have a heavy duty to ensure that we make the best possible law. On the Opposition side of the House—and, I sense, on the Government side—that is what we all want to do.
In his opening remarks, my right hon. Friend dwelt on areas that I do not want to dwell on again.
I can think of some very good reasons why not. In discussing crime and asylum, we have made our concerns absolutely clear. In simple terms, we want more police and better detection. On asylum, we want a system that meets our responsibilities to approach the issue in a dutiful and considerate way and which recognises that there is a problem with numbers and with process. However, we want to ensure that our discussions on the law that we are going to make are not infected by what has, over the decades, been a rather tarnished debate. We want to ensure that we consider the issues without any antiphony of nasty accusations and exchanges of abuse. We pledge ourselves to do that, as hon. Members have asked of us.
We will find common ground with the Government on some issues. In mentioning domestic violence, I acknowledge the quality and genuine nature of the speech made today by Kali Mountford. She has experience on the matter, which affects the lives of many people. There is no party disagreement about how we want to approach the issue.
I merely observe, however, that some vexed issues are bound to arise. One that has been mentioned is the question of whether provocation might be used as a plea of mitigation for someone who has murdered their partner. In reading the paper, I discovered that the Solicitor-General would like to abolish that plea. Glenda Jackson said that she wanted to abolish it because it was unfair to women. She explained that many women are victimised by their husbands. It therefore strikes me—this is only an initial observation—that the plea of provocation is more likely to be used in defence of a woman who has killed a man than vice versa. That illustrates the quality of the debate that we will need if we are to make good law. In principle, however, the Bill on domestic violence is one that we definitely welcome, and we should all look forward to applying our minds to make sure that we convert it into good, practical law.
Similarly, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition said in his reaction to the Loyal Address, we welcome the Bill on civil partnerships. May I ask the Minister to confirm that it will come under the responsibilities of the Home Office, and that it will not in any way be the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry, as the original consultation paper was? There has been some comment this afternoon that it may revert to the DTI. None the less, I hope that I can steer this measure through the House—perhaps, on my side of the House, I am uniquely qualified to do so, at least visibly—and again some important areas exist in which we can make a difference to people's lives.
For a long time, same-sex partners have felt that they have been discriminated against, as partners of different gender are able to marry and thereby guarantee their protection of assets and rights. Here again, there will be some important issues. We should all examine our thinking as to whether the religious significance of marriage should be respected and recognised and not rendered useless or less distinctive. Now that our welcome for this Bill is clear—and, as all Members will know, the Opposition will have a free vote on the matter—I hope that we can have a debate free of homophobia, and given that the Opposition have been accused in the past of a rather severe approach to this matter, a debate free of what I might call Toryphobia, so that we approach the matter in a constructive and sensible way.
Would my hon. Friend care to comment on the point that I made about co-dependency? For instance, sisters will be discriminated against if they have been living together for a long time, as will a daughter living with an infirm mother.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has beaten me by a whisker, as that was going to be my next comment.
As we look at same-sex relationships and the interdependency that we recognise exists, we can see that a similar interdependency exists in non-sexual relationships. In many cases, as my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh said, and as my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin pointed out in his original article in The Times last year, two sisters who have been living together for many years, in terms of their assets, tenancies and pensions, may be very interdependent and are at the moment discriminated against. We will certainly examine the Bill when it is published to see whether the provision can be extended more widely to recognise the kind of interdependence that we are told at the moment will not be contained in the Bill. I can cite the example of a neighbour who cared for an old lady for 17 or 18 years who was disabled, but as soon as that old lady died she was evicted from the council house because she was not able to continue the tenancy. That is a grave and unfair injustice, which perhaps this Bill should be extended to address. I therefore hope that the House will be able to consider the Bill in an equally constructive way.
Anne Picking and my hon. Friend Derek Conway pointed to a growing problem: too many layers of government, too many systems of voting, and too many structures of representation that are becoming increasingly incomprehensible to the voting public. Were we to look at a list of the issues that will appear on the radar in this field, we would see that it is long and complicated: local government restructuring, pilot schemes for 2004, the election regulations for 2004, regional referendums, all-postal elections, the frequency of local election cycles, the state funding of parties, voting age and the age of a candidate, political advertising, the role of television—I could go on. To any student of politics and anyone who is simply a participant, the system is becoming very difficult to fathom.
I put it to the House that that increasingly complicated picture may be an important reason in explaining the detachment from the political process felt by a growing number of people. All hon. Members would like participation, turnout and, indeed, membership of our own political parties to increase, but when things are so complicated, diverse and in many respects almost utterly inexplicable and inconstant, we ought to re-examine whether we are doing the right thing in many different ways.
The Home Secretary hopes that his proposed legislation is all about anticipating events, not reacting to them, but I am afraid many Opposition Members think that it most certainly is not. In some respects, the proposed asylum legislation is a sort of rehash of previous measures. The constitutional proposals that he advocates are very muddled and stem from no particular logical origin. Indeed, they may well lead to the supremacy of the Home Office over the judiciary, so it was an extraordinary admission by the Home Secretary to suggest that the constitutional change that we see arising from a botched reshuffle was indeed a shambles.
Today's most telling intervention came in the middle of the Home Secretary's speech, and it was made by Mr. Field, who referred to antisocial behaviour. All hon. Members have to appreciate that teenage disorder is becoming—indeed, perhaps it has become—the biggest issue of the time, and we all find it very difficult to address and find solutions.
Mr. Soley illustrated the difficulty of finding a clear solution to constitutional reform. He said that there was no chance of imposing a solution, no chance of having a fully elected second Chamber and no justification for having a fully appointed one either. He is at least trying to chart a course out of the stalemate, but we can all see that the mess we are in will be very difficult to step out of.
It vexes me ever so slightly—it is ever so slightly annoying—that I have to admit that the speech made by Mr. Oaten was one of quality. What he said today constituted an important contribution to our discussions. Of course neither any of my right hon. and hon. Friends nor I would agree with the way in which he wants to abolish the lord chancellorship and establish a supreme court. We agree with some aspects of what he said about asylum and identity cards, but we certainly agree with what he said about the need for more visible policing and, particularly, for education and training in prisons, given that illiteracy and innumeracy are the greatest problems faced by released prisoners. The Conservative party would want to consider schemes that could allow prisoners to earn their way out of prison early through educational achievement.
Corporate manslaughter was mentioned, but may I tell Miss Begg that we must beware of legislating in respect of gestures and anger? Not all accidents have someone to blame for them, and in considering such legislation we have to beware of creating a new injustice while trying to solve one that people feel deeply exists at the moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and I have exchanged views on civil partnerships, but he said that there was perhaps an argument for having an elected upper House with no Ministers in it. Again, that illustrates the danger of stepping down the route of constitutional change. Let me predict that, as soon as the upper House is legitimised in total and perhaps becomes one in which no Minister sits, we would next face the argument that we should therefore directly elect the Prime Minister. Out of such shifting change, we would then find that we would have stepped almost all the way towards a presidency on the American model. If hon. Members want that, they should say so, but I would argue against drifting into it unknowingly, which is to some extent what those gradual steps are pushing towards. My hon. Friend also spoke about overcrowded prisons and under-educated prisoners.
Mr. Beith admitted—this was telling—that reform of the House of Lords was not about actual failings in how it and the judiciary have performed. He was saying that, once again, we have to legislate based on perception and, as he put it, on principles. However, when it comes to the detailed work of the constitution, we have to legislate based on fact, practicality and what happens and not according to perceived qualities that do not suit a modern age.
I shall now concentrate for a while on the speech of my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Garnier. If people read it, they will see that he gave the House a forensic and devastating dissection of the Government's failure to think through constitutional reform. He outlined the serious consequences that will ensue, not as some charge, out of private pleading, but out of a genuine and informed concern for the effect that the proposed reforms will have on justice and judicial structures. We also benefited from his image of a rhinoceros as our Lord Chancellor.
It would be invidious for me to continue to pick out all the speeches or some of them, because I do not have the time. However, perhaps I can set the framework for the debate that will follow over the legislative year ahead. The Opposition regret the absence of any overarching principle in the way that the Labour Government have embarked on constitutional reform. They have stumbled into it through accident and out of anger and vindictiveness. However, on constitutional reform, we must remember that we are setting rules for all—for both sides and for a day on which the boot may well be on the other foot. It behoves us all to find a consensual approach to the setting of rules and to do that from a foundation of principle rather than party advantage.
The Opposition perhaps take a different philosophical approach. When it comes to constitutional reform, we look for evolution rather than revolution. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough put it, we look for reason rather than rationalism, with rationalism being the thought that one can go to a blank piece of paper and construct proposals from nothing. A system of government that has existed in democratic form for 350 years forms part of a continuum from which experience, knowledge and gradual change need to emerge without turning everything on its head in the meantime.
We can also see that there are severe differences even within the Cabinet. The Leader of the House bewailed the fact that the upper House was not legitimate when it tried to block the proposals for foundation hospitals. However, he voted against an appointed House in February and will now have to defend such a House as a plank—and an important plank at that—of Government policy. The members of the Cabinet who rail against us and the structure of the upper House will find that they are railing against each other if they examine the record of what they have supported in the past.
The performance of the upper House as an effective revising Chamber has shown up this Chamber for the deficiencies that, I think, all of us know exist. We are not as good at scrutinising legislation as we pretend. When we say to the sixth formers whom we address that Bills go upstairs to be examined line by line, let us not pretend that, sufficiently often out of that sausage machine comes the better law that we should all seek. Instead, we tend to see the rubber stamp of the dominant political party in the House at the time. It is thanks to the upper House that, more often than not, some of the idiocies that party pressure and the dominance of the Whips have enshrined in law are revised. It is only if we are to look to the interests of our constituents that we will appreciate the importance of that.
There is a looming threat of the invocation of the Parliament Act. Some of the language used by Government Front Bench has become too loose. The invocation of the Parliament Act is the nuclear button in terms of democratic conduct. It was designed to be used for key pieces of legislation that were critical to the Government's programme—it was used for a Budget, in the first instance, because a Government can do nothing without that. It has only latterly become a power that people think that they can invoke on smaller measures. I urge the Government to be careful about the way in which they think that they may invoke that Act.
When we consider judicial appointments, we shall apply with the same rigour the principles and purpose that we wish to display during the passage of all legislation because there are deeply important issues to consider. We do not want to be pushed into the creation of a supreme court, and the great expense of a massive building, if that has no advantage over the way in which our judicial system has operated in the past.
There is a busy legislative Session ahead and we shall approach it as honestly and punctiliously as possible. We shall set the highest standards of scrutiny and argument, and I hope that we shall thus show the House and all voters the deficiencies that we already see in much of the proposed legislation.
I welcomed Mr. Duncan to his post earlier today during Question Time. I do not wish to disparage him too much but he made a tired, thin and somewhat disappointing contribution in his first outing as shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. His policies were completely conspicuous by their absence. We heard no information about the way in which the Conservative party would implement the Bills that we set out in the Queen's Speech. Do Conservative Members want a Parliament free from hereditary peers? Do they agree that the office of Lord Chancellor should be reformed? Do they support the need for a full-time Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs? Do they agree that we need a clear separation of powers? Do they want a more pluralistic judicial appointments process? Do they want an end to the Prime Minister appointing the Lords Speaker? We heard no answers to any of those questions because they would probably answer no on all counts. They have no direction or vision and always want to return to the past.
The hon. Gentleman is always charming and I hope that he has forgiven me for asking him during the past Session whether his mother knew that he was out so late. When he addresses the points made by my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan, I hope that he will raise his argument to a higher level than that of the Home Secretary, who simply reduced his level of argument by saying that he could not give a toss.
I told the Home Secretary that the hon. and learned Gentleman was still smarting from the way in which my right hon. Friend put him down. My right hon. Friend summed up his views rather well in that respect.
Let us return to the truth about the coming legislative Session. The package of legislation in the Queen's Speech is planned to deliver safer and more secure communities, social justice, lifelong opportunities and better quality of life together with better economic stability, a modern democracy and a strong civic society. Those principles will underpin the year ahead in Parliament and nowhere can that be seen more clearly than in the field of home and constitutional affairs.
Detailed contributions were made by many hon. Members ranging from Mr. Evans, who talked about tuition fees, to my hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle who talked about the Forensic Science Service, pensions, council tax, television licenses and several other matters. My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz), for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) and for East Lothian (Anne Picking) were worried about different electoral systems in Scotland. We must be aware of the importance of clarity for the electorate. I am aware that consultation on the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill found that the majority of people wanted to maintain the Scottish Parliament at its current size. My hon. Friend Mr. Tynan made a thoughtful and useful contribution on the role of UK Members of Parliament and devolution issues, as did my hon. Friend Mr. Harris.
On the wider constitutional reform Bill, Mr. Garnier opposed any change: nothing new there, then. Mr. Beith, who chairs the Constitutional Affairs Committee, gave a cautious and sceptical analysis, but I think he appreciated and welcomed the move towards an independent judicial appointments commission, and I am glad of that. David Burnside commented on Northern Ireland constitutional issues.
On the House of Lords reform Bill, my hon. Friend Mr. Soley gave his proposals for a hybrid solution. The hon. Members for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and for Ribble Valley want to retain the hereditary peers for some obscure reason. Derek Conway gave us an interesting anecdote about having a sherry with the former Duke of Northumberland. He also made some interesting points on House of Commons reform.
In relation to the point raised by Mr. Soley, when will consultation with the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform begin? Indeed, when will the Joint Committee be set up again? The Minister told the House:
"We do not close the door to future decisions on how the Second Chamber should be composed. Indeed, we will discuss with the Joint Committee whether we can find a consensus and perhaps move forward."—[Hansard, 18 September 2003; Vol. 410, c. 1098.]
Since then, his Secretary of State has written to the Chairman of the Joint Committee saying that there will be discussions. When will they start? Will they take place before a Bill is tabled?
The hon. Gentleman should allow the debate on the Loyal Address to finish. It is for both Houses to decide which Joint Committees they establish. I believe that the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform has an ongoing role to consider the future shape of House of Lords composition and other matters. We do not close the door on those issues, but we are left with the same problem: do we stick with the status quo or do we get serious about reform and get rid of the hereditary principle that allows people to serve in the second Chamber by reason of their birthright? I know which side I am on.
We published the proposals for the Bill. A range of clauses will cover hereditary matters. We want to resolve the impasse that arose in February when the House could not conclude a view on composition. I am sure we all want to find a way through that. Indeed, a number of hon. Members aired their suggested solutions.
My hon. Friend Mr. Prosser welcomed the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill. I appreciate that my hon. Friend Keith Vaz and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed are worried about streamlining the appeals system. The system will continue to exist, but it needs a better balance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland said. My hon. Friend Claire Ward gave a cogent and well argued case for us to face up to the difficult issues, unlike the fantasy island approach of the Conservative party. It has still not named the island that it would use, although we know that it has to be poor. That is some help.
The hon. Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) greatly supported our domestic violence measures. Further suggestions were made by my hon. Friend Glenda Jackson. My hon. Friend Kali Mountford also made some important points on that issue.
At the outset, the Home Secretary set out our plans for protecting victims, for standing up to criminality and antisocial behaviour, for protecting our borders and for updating our civil contingencies and emergency plans. The three criminal justice Departments—the Home Office, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Attorney-General's office—are committed to working jointly, with ever increasing integration, to ensure that offenders are arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced efficiently and effectively. The new Department for Constitutional Affairs is now established and working well.
Turning to democracy, our laws need deciding democratically, and the House of Commons will be held accountable for the legislation that we pass. It is the new Department's job to protect and enhance democratic accountability, while ensuring that our laws are interpreted and upheld by a strong, impartial and independent judiciary, manifestly free from political interference.
I was struck by the hon. Gentleman's remark about the three Departments dealing with criminal justice, because I well remember the Home Secretary saying to the House, in angry tones, back in the summer that there was no question of the Department for Constitutional Affairs having any role in the development of criminal justice policy. May we please have the full details of this remarkable transformation?
If the hon. Gentleman, who, I think, claims to be the shadow Attorney-General, is under the impression that the Attorney-General does not have a role in the criminal justice system, he ought to swot up a little more. The Attorney-General has a role in the criminal justice system, and the Department for Constitutional Affairs has a role in the criminal justice system through the administration of the courts—the hon. Gentleman may well have spotted that the courts are important in criminal justice. The Home Office, of course, leads on criminal justice policy overall. That is an important trilateral system.
I am afraid that, in my understanding, the DTI, leading on some of the equality reforms, will take a lead on that Bill, although other Departments will of course have a strong input on those issues, including measures on civil partnerships.
As I said, our laws need to be decided democratically and upheld by an independent judiciary. Legislation to clarify and enshrine the differing roles of the judiciary, the Executive and the legislature is necessary and overdue, and it is the purpose of our constitutional reform Bill.
Not at this moment.
That Bill, which will separate the highest court of appeal from the legislature, is needed to avoid a conflict between those who write the law and those who interpret and enforce it. Acting to remove any doubts about political or partisan motives in the appointment of judges will strengthen the respect for and the stature of our judiciary. Abolishing the office of Lord Chancellor will take the politician out of the judiciary, allowing judicial decisions to be made judicially, allowing the second Chamber to be chaired by its own nominee, and allowing the criminal justice system to be administered by a full-time Secretary of State.
I am not only grateful to the hon. Gentleman but flattered by his graciousness. Will he tell the House whether the Government will respond to the three consultation papers issued by his Department earlier in the year prior to the publication of the three Bills that they imply?
Many of the consultations closed on
Just as the role of Lord Chancellor is no longer appropriate for the 21st century, so too it is no longer acceptable that a small number of families have an automatic grip on Parliament based on their hereditary birthright. The House of Lords reform Bill will end that anomalous anachronism and fulfil our manifesto commitment.
While the search for a consensus on the future shape of the second Chamber will continue, we need to establish a contemporary second House whose members are more clearly appointed on merit, with the numbers and timing of appointments decided no longer by the Prime Minister, but independently of Government through a new statutory appointments commission, selecting the non-party members and vetting the party nominees.
The debate on the composition of the House of Lords will need to continue without the door being closed to further change, but the guiding principle and overriding requirement remains: that the democratically elected Government and the House of Commons should be able to deliver the will of the people, to whom we are accountable and on whose behalf we act.
I turn now to the rights agenda. This country has a deep and proud sense of our liberties, rooted in a strong tradition of democracy and freedom of expression. The Government have already strengthened those rights by legislating for the Human Rights Act 1998 and for freedom of information. The legislative programme for this Session includes giving new rights for people where currently none exists. Society needs to be as inclusive as possible. Allowing equal rights for same sex couples, for example, through the civil partnerships Bill, which I know is welcomed by my hon. Friend Jane Griffiths, and giving recognition to those with gender dysphoria, or transsexual people, through the gender recognition Bill, which I know is a measure that my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley has campaigned for, are all important for an inclusive society, as are protecting the rights of vulnerable people—for example, standing up for the rights of children through the creation of a new children's commissioner, and protecting the rights of the mentally incapacitated in a new structure for decision making that is designed to safeguard health and welfare in a mental incapacity Bill.
On justice, democracy and rights must work side by side within a framework for social responsibility. The rights of others need respecting and protecting, and the justice system needs to stand up for the victims of crime by acting more swiftly and effectively.
As we have heard from many Members during the debate, there are nearly 1,000 reports every day of domestic violence throughout the country. Domestic violence accounts for a quarter of all violent crimes reported. Legislation and new investment will aim to protect and support victims of domestic violence more comprehensively.
We need to target the finite resources that are available for legal aid. My hon. Friend Mr. Kidney spoke about this in detail. We need to target resources on those who need the help most of all, to ensure that those who are least able to represent themselves have access to justice while protecting the rights of the taxpayer, who expects value for money. That is the purpose behind the criminal defence service Bill. Legislation is already shifting the balance in the fight against antisocial behaviour, which can blight the quality of life for up to a third of the population. We will continue to prosecute rigorously and punish effectively those who are guilty, especially persistent offenders.
The programme for the Session is ambitious, and the contrast between the extensive programme of reform and modernisation pursued on the Government side of the Chamber and the position that is now taken, as far as we can discern it, by the Opposition is great. Our agenda for the long-term future contrasts starkly with the backward-looking, opportunist agenda that is pursued by the Opposition. Labour will continue to take practical steps forward, with our direction clear. The Conservative party says one thing now, but its position was completely the opposite when it had the chance over 18 years to act. It is deliberately trying to face both ways, but it cannot resist its gut instinct to hark back to the past, complaining about reform and obstructing change every step of the way.
We want to modernise Parliament so that it is more representative of all society, without the hereditary peers, with our highest court of appeal not being in a Chamber of Parliament and with the second House choosing its own presiding officer. The Conservatives want to preserve an outdated Parliament. They oppose change and shrink from bringing in reality from the outside world, even to the extent of putting the minimum number of women possible on to their Front Bench.
My hon. Friend's role in the modernisation of Parliament is to be applauded. Does he agree with many Labour Members that the alteration of sitting hours on Tuesday and Wednesday was a modernisation too far that has been counterproductive?
No doubt the House will continue to debate at length the issues that it regards as modernising steps forward. However, when it comes to the contrast between the Government side of the Chamber and the Opposition, there is no doubt that we stand on the side of modernisation.
As for House of Lords reform, in government the Conservatives have reformed precisely nothing. In opposition, they have been happy to have a House of Lords dominated by their own hereditary peers. Let us see the true extent of their new-found radicalism. Any party that is serious about modernisation of the House of Lords would support the abolition of the hereditary peers. Of course, the Conservatives do not. They will not do so because beneath their paper promises hides a stubborn attachment to the halcyon days of the old established order. There are the old faces who do not want any reform and who betray their true intentions in the House of Lords.
We want a truly independent judiciary, a separate supreme court, no more ministerial judges and judges who are selected independently, in turn better reflecting society as a whole. The Opposition want to have an insular judiciary that is self-appointed with no lay influence, with no appointments commission and with no transparency, headed by a diminished Lord Chancellor in name only. That is a confused and tangled policy. Their complacent attitude of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" shows that they look at the country from an established Westminster perspective. If insiders are satisfied, they are happy. Never mind the public—that is their litmus test. We want a full-time Secretary of State who pays full-time attention to the needs of the public and the sound administration of the courts and the criminal justice system. The Opposition want to keep a part-time Lord Chancellor—and the shadow Lord Chancellor is not even a member of the shadow Cabinet—with uncertain powers and competing demands, so the interests of the public cannot possibly be best represented.
Labour has delivered government closer to the people, devolving power to Scotland, Wales and London, opposed every step of the way by the Opposition. We allowed devolution in Northern Ireland, and are now giving people the choice of regional government in the English regions too. The Conservatives centralised power in Whitehall—that is their instinct. They hate devolution, they still oppose it, and would prevent people from deciding for themselves the next steps for devolved government. Those are the dividing lines between the two parties. The debate on the Address shows that the Government are taking Britain forward, modernising our constitution and changing our institutions to meet the needs of the public today. The only direction in which the Conservatives would take Britain is back to the past. The contrast is stark and the choice is clear. I commend the reforms that we are proposing to the House.
I do not think that the motion, which is debatable, should go through on the nod. The Minister was given plenty of time to give a speech, and would not take interventions. When he mentioned removing the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords from Parliament, I was going to ask him how many members of the Judicial Committee in the Lords believe in what he agreed to. If he withdraws from the Chamber before the debate is finished, I am perfectly happy that he should leave with the Home Secretary. However, it would have been good if he had mentioned two things in his speech. He should have told us, first, what the opinion of the Law Lords was, and he should then have talked about the referendum, which the British people have been denied, on the European constitution.
One reason why I probably shall not be a success in the House is that I thought that I was debating the motion that the House should adjourn—[Interruption.] I think that I am contributing to the debate, but if I need to turn it into a point of order, I shall do so. I should like to emphasise what the Whip was saying. He rose and moved the Adjournment motion.
I was opposing that motion, Madam Deputy Speaker, and explaining why it was inappropriate for the Whip to move it and for the House to agree it without debate. Today, Back Benchers' speeches were limited to 10 minutes. The Minister had 35 minutes available to him. A number of Members—[Interruption.] It is all very well for the Minister to start pointing, but he could have allowed the debate to continue. There are many more things that he could have said if he did not repeat himself. We could have used the time more effectively, and we still could if the Whip withdrew the motion so as to allow other Members to take part in the debate.
Some hon. Members were in the Chamber from the start of this debate, listening to the speeches. The hon. Gentleman was not. He has come in at 6.45 and is trying to get in on the debate, but he should have been here at the start, like everyone else.
The normal expectation these days is that debates on the Loyal Address go as far as 7 o'clock. What information the Chair will have had at decision time in accepting the 10-minute rule on speeches is neither here nor there, but there is plenty of time for my hon. Friend, in a debate both on the Loyal Address and the motion put by the Whip just now, to which he is speaking, to make the points that he is properly making. Keith Vaz has made a poor point in criticising him for entering the current debate late. He was present at the beginning, as he initiated it.
It is certainly within the rules, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the Whip to propose the motion that you have put to the Chamber, but I think that it is unprecedented in a Queen's Speech debate for a Government Whip, presumably on instructions from more senior Ministers, to put such a motion during the ordinary debate. I do not think that I have seen in "Erskine May" a reference to that having happened. I suggest to the Minister that, when people have been trying to speak or intervene, the Government should announce that they will not do such a thing again. When the Leader of the House answers business questions later this week, I hope that he will say that he is sorry that this happened today and that he will try to ensure that it does not happen again. [Interruption.] Another Government Front Bencher is trying to intervene. I shall give way to Ms Prentice if she wishes to intervene. If not, it is better that we continue the debate on whether the Question should be put. An undesirable precedent has been set, and in terms of the Minister's speech, he would have done rather better to be less flattened by the intervention of my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Garnier.
I wonder where the hon. Gentleman was yesterday, when the debate ended an hour early. Why was he not here to speak on that closure and oppose that measure, as far more time was available on that occasion than tonight?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The point that I am making is not that I wanted to speak yesterday, but that the Minister ended his speech early, before time—he is expected to continue to 7 o'clock—and the Whip then moved that the motion be put to the House that we adjourn, so that the debate would end. It would have been better if the Minister had accepted interventions—he did not turn down only my attempts to intervene—and if he had been more forthcoming, especially on the question of where the Law Lords and the court of final appeal should be. I would give way to him now if he could tell us how many Law Lords—
That is a tempting request, and I shall probably give it good consideration.
We could have had better value, and we could still gain it from this short debate, which I do not think is likely to extend beyond 7 o'clock, unless I have misread the procedures. In fact, it might be helpful