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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for opening our debate and congratulate him on his appointment. He is highly regarded in this House and I look forward to our future debates. It is true that I have not yet sent him a letter, principally because I no longer have the well oiled machinery of the Civil Service to write it, but he has my very warm wishes. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, on joining the Government. What a fetching sight the noble Lord and the noble Baroness make, sitting on the Front Bench together. The noble Lord, Lord Bichard, will make his maiden speech today. I pay tribute to him as an outstanding Permanent Secretary and chair of the Legal Services Commission. He has much to offer your Lordships' House.
I shall focus most of my remarks on constitutional issues and local government, while my noble friend Lord Bach will concentrate on justice and home affairs. However, I first want to respond to what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, suggested about the previous Government. He mentioned authoritarian indifference to civil rights. I remind him that it was a Labour Government who brought in the Human Rights Act, which the Conservative Party opposite continues to snipe at whenever it is given the chance and whatever the coalition agreement. I am proud that we were responsible for the Race Relations Act 2000 and the Civil Partnership Act and that one of the final pieces of legislation that we took through your Lordships' House was the Equality Act. All those actions were about expanding the rights of the British people. At the same time, a central concern for us was always the security and safety of the UK, which faced the worst terrorist threat that this nation has ever seen. Our aim was always to get the balance right between public protection and the need to maintain the rights of individuals.
The noble Lord has outlined the Government's proposals on CCTV, ID cards and DNA. We will study those carefully, but we need to be wary of taking actions that might undermine our ability to fight crime. We should not, for instance, underestimate the impact of CCTV in reducing the fear of crime and antisocial behaviour. Talking to people who live in the communities most affected will leave you in little doubt as to the value of CCTV. With DNA, advances in technology have played a critical part in solving serious crimes. Last year alone, 832 positive matches were made in cases of rape, murder and manslaughter.
We will also look carefully at the Government's policing policies. The programme that the coalition has agreed to has much to say about structural changes but is ominously silent on police resources, front-line policing numbers and crime reduction targets. We shall scrutinise these policing measures carefully to ensure that the safety of our citizens is the paramount consideration.
I turn to constitutional issues. We are promised a new politics, but I have to say that the signs so far are not entirely encouraging. Indeed, many of the Government's proposals seem more suited to the need to shore up the coalition rather than to enhance our democracy. The Government hardly made a good start with the leaking of the Queen's Speech over the weekend and then, on Monday, with the announcement of major cuts in government expenditure not to Parliament but to the media.
On local government, the coalition agreement proclaims radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to councils. The rhetoric is impressive, but let us look at the reality. The 12 largest authorities in England are to be forced to have a referendum on an elected mayor, whether they want to or not. In education, local authorities will lose powers, influence and budgetary flexibility. The first step towards giving financial autonomy to local authorities is to instruct them to freeze council tax. With the introduction of a democratic element to the NHS and to the police, local government is being bypassed in favour of direct elections. I suspect that the only real freedom given to local government is to decide where the cuts are going to be made.
Nowhere are the needs of the coalition put first more than in its proposals on fixed-term Parliaments. As my noble friend Lord Adonis asked, why is the interval between elections to be five years? Why not four? Of the 14 general elections that have been held in the past 50 years, nine have been in or before the fourth year. Why are the public being given fewer opportunities rather than more to choose their Government?
Then there is the 55 per cent proposal. Votes of confidence have had a critical role in our Parliament; a confidence defeat for a Government leads either to a request for Dissolution or to the resignation of the Government. As the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, put it so brilliantly on Tuesday, everyone understands that, so why mess around with the principle? The reasons are evolving and changing. Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander said in the Observer on
"pull the plug", on the coalition,
"and force an early election".
So this is a quick fix on the constitution, essentially because neither party in the coalition trusts the other. However, the argument has moved on. We had a rather different explanation from David Heath, the Deputy Leader in the other place, who said on Tuesday night:
"If the Government lost a vote of confidence, they would no longer be the Government ... Then another party or coalition of parties might be able to form a Government from within the existing House of Commons ... If no one can form a Government that has the confidence of the House, Parliament will be dissolved".-[Hansard, Commons, 25/5/10; cols. 148-49.]
That still raises a number of questions about how it might happen and the logic of 55 per cent. I remain concerned that what looks like major constitutional change is being written on the back of an envelope with apparently no intention for pre-legislative scrutiny. I can assure the noble Lord-