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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:17 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Labour 6:17 pm, 27th May 2010

That is precisely the response that I was looking for. I am tempted to sit down now but I cannot before saying how much I enjoyed, as did the House, the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. He was and still is an outstanding public servant. I first knew him-I do not think he knew who I was-when he was Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Employment. More recently, he left his position as chairman of the Legal Services Commission at almost precisely the moment that I became the Minister for Legal Aid. I do not think that was anything other than coincidental.

I welcome the two Ministers, as have all other noble Lords on all sides, and congratulate them on their appointment. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, is in a great department of state and has inherited the best private office in Whitehall-I mean the personnel rather than the building. He is much admired in this House for his wit, his intelligence and, not least, his experience. He is much appreciated, not least by me, who, alongside the former Leader of the House, my noble friend Lady Ashton, worked very closely with the noble Lord on the Lisbon treaty Bill, ensuring that the Conservatives made no amendments to it. How well we pro-Europeans work together; how well we resisted the Conservatives who were out, as the noble Lord will well recall, to wreck the Bill. A little more seriously, I remember how politically brave the noble Lord was within the confines of his own party. I think he will know what I mean by that.

Now, less than two years on, the scene is very different and the noble Lord-I hope that he will forgive me for describing him as always having been a politician of the centre left-now sits on the government Front Bench. He is surrounded-that was certainly the case earlier this week-some might say smothered, by the Conservatives. There he is, Tories to the left of him, Tories to the right of him, into the valley of Tory scepticism, the noble Lord-I am afraid for the moment, at least-charges on. Where are his Lib-Dem colleagues? They are certainly not within his sights. They have remarkably said rather less in this debate than they normally do in debates of this kind and I think that they have looked a little glum. Does the noble Lord sometimes in the watches of the night-perhaps not yet, but soon-think to himself, "What have I and my party got ourselves into?"? Even the thought of seeing his beloved Blackpool football club playing in the premiership for at least one season cannot be a complete panacea to the noble Lord for the position in which he finds himself, or soon will find himself.

I am sure there is nothing in all this that causes any concern to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones. As a true Conservative, she knows where she stands, and that is certainly not shoulder to shoulder with the Liberal Democrats. Her job as security Minister is, as the House recognises, a crucial one for all of us and for all the citizens outside and we wish her the very best of luck with it. She will have to face-I am sure that she has already in her few weeks in the job-the real dilemma that anyone holding that post has of reconciling security with civil liberties. We hope that she will be every bit as robust in the way in which she approaches her job as was her predecessor, my noble and gallant friend Lord West.

I wish to deal briefly with two or three major issues that have arisen. The first is security. It is central to what people expect from their Government. That is why the Labour Government's achievement in reducing the crime rate is so important a part of our record. It was down by 36 per cent and violent crime by more. We were the first Government since World War Two to achieve this. In the past few years, there was less chance of being a victim than there had been for many years previously. There were many factors in this, a number of which came up in the debate. Of course, one of them was policing policy, about which the noble Baroness will speak in this House. Others included giving extra money and resources to poorer parts of our country. It should not be forgotten how many communities have been completely restored by the efforts that have been made, led by the previous Government. Even during the recent recession there has been up till now no evidence of an increase in acquisitive crime, as there was in the previous recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. But there is another reason too and although it is sometimes hard to say it, I will do so. The fact that more serious criminals are in prison for longer is another factor in the crime rate going down. Although we must of course look carefully at the relationship between prison sentences and community sentences-we expect the new Government to look carefully at that-there will always be people who are bad, who have to serve prison sentences. Everyone has to accept that. We look forward very much to hearing the new Government's policy on that matter.

CCTV and DNA are two different ways in which a great deal of crime has been stopped. I say to the noble Baroness, please be careful how you approach the whole issue of DNA. This has actually caught many very serious criminals, and also some who were not prosecuted at the time but whose DNA was taken and kept for a period. It proved later to be absolutely crucial in putting them where they belong-behind bars. Perhaps I may advise the new Government to walk cautiously in that field.

As far as constitutional and House of Lords reform is concerned, the House will be pleased that I shall say very little now. The House felt that my noble friend Lord Hunt set out the Labour Opposition's views with great clarity and power. Many noble Lords on all sides have commented; not least my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton. I agree with everything that he said.

We can place on one side the absurdly overhyped announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister a few weeks ago, and his lack of graciousness-if I may use that phrase-in not accepting, as the Prime Minister himself did, that the Labour Government left behind a more open society. Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister was a little carried away by his new and perhaps unexpected position. This side will look carefully, but fairly, at proposals when they emerge in legislative form. However, any quick fixes will be resisted with all the powers available to us.

I shall give one example which may seem small, but we think that it is important-the intended outrageous, anti-local Bill to stop Norwich and Exeter becoming unitary authorities. I say from this Dispatch Box that we will fight that Bill with all the powers that we have.

On the police, it is extraordinary that the coalition is pushing through the idea of elected police commissioners in the face of practically near-universal opposition. It is even more extraordinary that the Liberal Democrats are going along with this, because they forcefully spoke out against it in the past. Very effective on this was the right honourable Chris Huhne, who only last year said:

"The last thing the British police need is an elected sheriff leading the shootout at the OK Corall. Accountability must come from a broad-based police authority elected to represent all strands of the local community".

The Government should listen to the president of the Police Superintendents' Association. He said:

"We, the professionals, know about policing. There is no support for directly elected Commissioners within the Police Service. Make consultation your priority; do not adopt an entrenched and predetermined position and above all do not recklessly abandon the British model of Policing that is admired and respected across the world for short term political dogma and theory".

I implore the Government to think again and I strongly advise the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition to stand by what it stood for so recently.

The Labour Government had much to be proud of in the fields that we have discussed. It included a more open society at home-for example, gender equality, sexual orientation equality and race equality. I have to say that much of the legislation was opposed by the Conservatives. There was the dramatic fall in crime, including violent crime. From comprehensively tackling domestic violence, which has not be spoken about enough, to many constitutional changes-many made with the help of the Liberal Democrats-we have tried, not always successfully, to look for political consensus, rather than trying to ram through constitutional change, which, taken in the face of great opposition, will never succeed.

We will suspend judgment on the new Government, of course, but their opening moves have not been entirely auspicious. First, there is complete confusion about their policy on the building of prison places and on allowing prisoners the right to vote. On that, I have two questions to ask the noble Baroness. What is the Government's policy on the prison building programme? What is the Government's policy on prisoners' right to vote? Secondly, the coalition has also agreed to push ahead with elected police commissioners in the face of almost universal opposition, including from the Liberal Democrats. Thirdly, the cap on non-EU immigration is to be implemented, supported by the Liberal Democrats, even though, during the recent general election, their leader was more than eloquent in his total opposition to that policy. Is that a sacrifice that the Liberal Democrats are prepared to make for a cap policy on immigration, crude as it is, which they opposed so thoroughly at the last election? Let us be fair and see what comes next.

On this side of the House, our concern is that those who will suffer will be the poor and the vulnerable, who are the people who are always the main victims of crime and are always the ones to pay when the public sector contracts too quickly or too much. This side of the House, along with many other Members all around the House, will see it as our duty and our imperative to protect those people against the ravages that seem certain to come.