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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to reply to this, the first substantial day of debate on Her Majesty’s gracious Speech. I think I am the 37th speaker and I thank all Members of the House for their contributions in these important subject areas. They have ranged far and wide, and way beyond the areas I have been briefed on, but that is the nature of having to wind up a debate of this kind. However, we have dealt with topics such as constitutional affairs, equalities, home affairs, justice and the law. My noble friend Lord Cormack complained that this is a thin Queen’s Speech, but I think noble Lords will agree that his definition of thinness perhaps differs from mine. He was a little concerned that this House would not have enough work to do. I think that is an unnecessary anxiety. As one who will be partly responsible for seeing through elements of this programme, I have to say that there will not be a shortage of things for noble Lords to do. It is very much in the tradition of this House that we scrutinise in a proper fashion.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, obviously has plenty of time because he can watch television programmes that I have even never heard of, but fortunately someone else spotted it while I was trying to assemble my notes.
He asked me about the Constitution Committee report on the pre-emptive scrutiny of legislation. The report has only just been published and we have 60 days in which to respond. If we take that time, it is because we want to respond to it properly, but we will respond within the time. We take pre-emptive legislative scrutiny seriously, as we do post-legislative scrutiny. These things help to improve the quality of government.
As noble Lords have said, this debate has been a two-man operation. My noble friend Lord McNally and I work together well and quite a lot of this legislation will indeed be joint Ministry of Justice and Home Office legislation. Our two departments work closely together to, I think, very great effect.
Perhaps I can move on to some of the issues that noble Lords have raised. We heard that the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will radically reform the way in which anti-social behaviour is tackled. Generally, it has been warmly welcomed by noble Lords. Through the introduction of the community remedy and the community trigger, it will focus response on the needs of victims and communities, which all too often are let down by the current system. That will give front-line professionals—the police, councils, housing providers and others—more effective and streamlined powers. As noble Lords will have heard, the Bill will also address a number of other important crime and policing matters, including making it easier for landlords to take swift and decisive action against their tenants, thus creating a powerful deterrent against problem behaviour. It will tackle irresponsible dog ownership. Although that has caused some amusement, it is certainly a very serious issue and one which, when I was a Minister in Defra, I was much exercised about. It will extend to any place the offence of owning or being in charge of a dog that is dangerously out of control. It is a measure that I think is long overdue. It will explicitly make an attack on an assistance dog, such as a guide dog for the blind, an aggravated offence. In addition, the Bill will target not only people who use illegal firearms but those who import or supply them. We need to send a clear message that people who are involved in this trade are as responsible as those who actually pull the trigger for the terrible harm that gun crime causes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter both talked about the community trigger and expressed some concern about how effective it will be. There was a suggestion that there needed to be several complaints before the process came into play. It will become evident, when we take the legislation through the House, that this is not the case. The duty already exists on local agencies to deal with every report of an ASB incident, and many agencies already respond quickly. The community trigger will be used in situations where victims’ problems have been ignored and will give victims the right to demand that agencies take action. There is some evidence that some individuals have been ignored in the past in this regard, and this empowers them to demand that their complaints be taken seriously.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of minimum unit pricing, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield, and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, who made a very powerful speech demonstrating his concerns that this issue has been ignored. In March 2012, the Government proposed a range of measures in the alcohol strategy to radically reshape the approach to alcohol and reduce excessive drinking. Public consultation closed on
My noble friend Lady Harris was concerned about the effectiveness of the police force following budget cuts and thought that this might perhaps harm the degree to which police were able to tackle ASB. Again, this is not the case. Every part of the public sector has to play its part in cutting the country’s budget deficit, but police forces across the country are showing that they can meet this challenge. I pay tribute to them because crime is falling and front-line policing has largely been unaffected by these cuts.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, expressed concern about our immigration proposals, and other voices expressed concerns that there would be problems with those policy initiatives indicated in the gracious Speech. It is evident that there is clear support for ensuring that this country has tough immigration laws that prevent abuse of the system. We have been clear that people who do not meet our rules should leave the country and that foreigners who commit serious crimes should be deported from the UK in all but the most exceptional circumstances. I have no doubt that the House will want to support the proposed legislation to ensure that courts take notice. The noble Baroness suggested that our reforms would be ineffective. That is not the case; the reforms are bold and will bring about real change. There will be consultation with those organisations that are affected by these matters.
It is not true to say that landlords are feeling exposed by the suggestion that they, too, will have responsibility for making sure that properties are not let. The National Landlords Association has made it quite clear that it supports these measures to help regularise the legitimate letting of properties. This will be particularly effective in making sure that illegal immigrants cease to find it easy to get housing. Health workers, too, will have a responsibility for ensuring that the system is proportionate. People will not have to present a passport every time they see a GP but it is not unreasonable that health service provision in this country is available only to those who are legitimately allowed access to it.
The Government welcome people with the skills we need who want to come to this country to study, to work hard, to invest and to contribute to our society. However, in order to continue to attract those people, and to protect hard-working people here, the system has to be fair. It is only fair to expect people to contribute to our public services before they benefit from them. It is only fair to prevent those with no right to be here from accessing public services. It is only fair that hard-working taxpayers do not end up funding the “benefits tourism” that has been all too prevalent in recent times.
As noble Lords are clearly aware, Her Majesty’s gracious Speech referred to proposals to enable the protection of the public and the investigation of crime in cyberspace. We will bring forward our proposals as soon as possible, which may involve legislation. Noble Lords will wish to note that the cross-party Joint Committee that scrutinised our draft provisions concluded that,
“there is a case for legislation which will provide the law enforcement authorities with some further access to communications data”.
Turning to the offender rehabilitation Bill, all the contributions recognised that this was an important area and indeed welcomed the Government’s focus on it. Reoffending has been too high for too long. The case for a new approach is clear. We spend more than £3 billion a year on prisons and almost £1 billion annually on delivering sentences in the community. Despite this investment, almost half of all offenders released from prison offend again within 12 months. The very highest reoffending rates are among prisoners sentenced to custodial sentences of less than 12 months: nearly 60% reoffend within a year of release. Our reforms to rehabilitation will ensure that offenders are given targeted support to help them turn away from crime for good.
A number of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollins, Lady Howe and Lady Williams, and the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, Lord Thomas and Lord Phillips of Sudbury, voiced their concern about the professionalism that supports the probation service. Professionalism lies at the heart of so much of public service. I understand that people are concerned that the rate and pace of change might affect the professionalism involved. However, we believe that it will be possible to bring together the best of the public, voluntary and private sectors and give them the freedom to innovate and focus on turning round the lives of offenders. We heard examples of where voluntary and third sector services had been remarkably successful in this area. We can build on that success, and I assure noble Lords that there is no intention that these contracts should be given just to big organisations. They will be given to voluntary and third sector organisations as well.
We expect the majority of staff who are currently in probation roles to transfer to new providers. It will be a managed transition, carried out under statutory provisions set out by Parliament. However, we must not forget our responsibility for public safety. That is why we are creating a new probation service, building on the expertise and professionalism already in place that makes an important contribution to public protection. I support the comments of noble Lords who have spoken on this subject. I think that we will have some good debates in this area and am grateful for the general welcome given to this important and overdue measure, which will provide an opportunity to tackle offenders with some of the highest reoffending rates.
The Government’s plans for criminal legal aid have come in for considerable criticism. As my noble friend Lord McNally, said, we are in consultation. It is a genuine consultation; the Government have not made up their mind. If noble Lords wish to have a meeting with my noble friend, he will be very happy to talk to them about their points of view so that the Government can bear them in mind.
We have an excellent tradition of legal aid—we have the best legal aid and the best legal profession—but we cannot close our eyes to the fact that legal aid costs far too much. We are clear that the system will continue to uphold everyone’s right to a fair trial, but that does not mean that we should not look at the way in which it operates. The consultation does not close until
Perhaps I may turn to the justice Bill. It is intended that an essentially dual-purpose justice Bill will be brought to Parliament later in this Session. First, it will reform the administration of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to ensure value for money for the taxpayer while maintaining quick and effective access to justice. Secondly, it is our intention that measures in the Bill will help us to disrupt the business models of organised crime groups. It will ensure that law enforcement agencies have the right tools and powers to disrupt their activities, including those of enablers and “kingpins”—if one might call them that—who may never come into contact with illegal commodities but who play a key part in directing crime.
Although the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was not included in the Queen’s Speech, I suppose it was inevitable that it would be a matter for discussion. We heard from my noble friend Lord Fowler a passionate advocacy of the fairness and justice behind this Bill. Similarly, I respect the concerns of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, and the noble Lord, Lord Dear, about the Bill. There is no subterfuge involved in this Bill not being mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.