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My Lords, much of this afternoon's debate on the gracious Speech has focused on constitutional affairs and, in particular, on the reform of Parliament. I wish to introduce a note of light relief by addressing home affairs. I promise to use neither the phrase "five years" nor "55 per cent" in what I am about to say. There is much in the gracious Speech on home affairs which has arrested my attention. The foreword to the coalition's programme for government refers to the creation of a big society, matched by big citizens. This phrase has a built-in ambiguity but I think I understand the drift. I favour greater partnership between the Government and civil institutions, and welcome the affirmation of both local responsibility and the role of the voluntary sector. However, the state must be wise about the difference between the delegation of authority and the abrogation of responsibility.
The Deputy Prime Minister, as we have already heard, has described the Freedom Bill as the greatest shift of power to the people since 1832. These Benches had frequent anxieties about the previous Government's perceived tendency to restrict civil liberties, but the proposed changes will require careful scrutiny. I welcome the scrapping of the identity card scheme and of universal DNA databases to protect privacy. A change to the Scottish system of retaining the DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted is probably right, though there is still a concern about how far this will reduce detection rates for serious offences. I am glad to see that the right to peaceful protest is to be safeguarded in light of the misuse of legislation designed to counter terrorism. There is a further need to restrict the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to ensure that these powers are used only for the detection of serious crime, rather than more trivial matters.
This points to a further issue, which the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has pointed out, about the legal aid system. Many of us are concerned that the recent cost-driven reforms in both civil and criminal justice reduce remuneration for legal aid, and thereby restrict access to the law and the ability to mount a defence to charges. The Magna Carta-even before 1832-says,
"to no man shall we deny justice".
We urgently need to monitor this situation.
As far as I can see, the most controversial proposal in the police reform and social responsibility Bill is the direct election of supervisors for police forces. I share the view of many senior police officers that it risks further politicising policing and in a worst case scenario may allow eccentric or even sinister local interests to influence operations.
The system of indirectly elected police authorities allowed politicians to direct policy but safeguarded the operational independence of the police. Although the distinction between policy and operation is sometimes difficult to make, my fear is that this proposal might upset the proper balance of powers. It seems to me that local accountability is better pursued at the level of neighbourhood policing, as is already happening.
I worry about the language of "crackdown" on anti-social behaviour and alcohol-related violence, which often leads to tackling the symptoms rather than the underlying causes. For instance, it is easy to apply the law on anti-social behaviour to those with mental health problems, when we should be strengthening community mental health services. At the same time I welcome the proposal to ban the sale of alcohol below cost price and measures to restrict the sale of alcohol to children.
However, it needs to be said that there seems to a misconception in all of this that the major problem is binge drinking by "irresponsible people", but the reality is that alcohol abuse is a much wider public health problem and should be tackled by a wide range of measures, including minimum unit pricing. On this I commend the report by the Health Committee in the other place on alcohol published in January.
The coalition programme mentions,
"overhauling the system of rehabilitation to reduce reoffending and provide greater support ... for the victims of crime".
I strongly support both these aims and instead of populist rhetoric and empty gestures I look forward to some well thought out measures in this area.
In conclusion, what seems most refreshing to many of us is that working together for the good of the country seems a far better way of going about things than much of what we have experienced in past times. I look forward to playing my part with my colleagues in building that big society matched by big citizens.