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My Lords, it is a delight, an honour and a privilege to be opening today’s debate.
Yesterday we heard Her Majesty deliver the gracious Speech, followed by two outstanding speeches proposing and seconding the humble Address by my noble friends Lord Lang and Lord German. Both speeches were full of wit and wisdom and it was a pleasure to hear those voices from Scotland and Wales setting off the parliamentary year for this United Kingdom.
The debate proper was then opened by the Leader of the Opposition, and then by my noble friend Lord Hill in a tone of constructive engagement, which is already inspiring confidence in his leadership in all parts of the House. Now, and over the next few weeks, we will have the opportunity to examine the gracious Speech in detail.
We can already see the benefit of the fixed-term Parliament introduced by the coalition as we debate a gracious Speech firmly fixed on the issues of the day with a clear working year ahead and none of the “Will he, won’t he?” uncertainty of previous Parliaments entering their fourth year. As a result, we have a businesslike and practical agenda before us.
Today we will be discussing constitutional affairs, equalities, home affairs and the proposed reforms to our legal and penal system under the broad heading of justice and the law. As always, the linkage in policy between the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office will be as a seamless robe and I am delighted that the debate today will be closed by my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, the Minister in this House for the Home Office. I will be assisted throughout the year by my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a man who has performed so well at the Dispatch Box in recent weeks that I have been thinking of asking for him to be moved.
I have never hidden from this House the reality that, in the present economic climate, Ministers have had to make hard decisions and tough choices to achieve an economic recovery underpinned by fairness, but I believe that in our first three years, we have made the tough decisions necessary while sustaining that rule of law which underpins a civilised society.
I am proud that we have carried through the first reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act in almost 40 years, ended indeterminate sentences, clamped down on aggressive bailiffs, extended freedom of information and proactively provided more information than ever before via our transparency agenda. We have scrapped ID cards, increased parliamentary oversight of our security services, put restorative justice on a statutory footing, started reform of the European Court of Human Rights, via the Brighton declaration, and carried through a thorough update of our libel laws, all against the backdrop of a falling crime rate.
Here, I should like to pay tribute to the work of the outgoing Lord Chancellor, my right honourable friend Kenneth Clarke. I count myself lucky in my political career that I have had the pleasure of working closely with two of the big beasts of the Whitehall jungle, Ken Clarke and Jim Callaghan. Since last September, I have had the opportunity to work with the new Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, my right honourable friend Chris Grayling. I cannot pretend that there has been no change in approach since last September, but from day one the new Lord Chancellor and I have worked together as a close and harmonious team, and the gracious Speech reflects a radical programme of reform to strengthen our justice system.
We have clearly set out our priorities: first, reform of the criminal justice system and the courts, putting victims first and getting the various agencies around the table talking to each other. I am pleased that the new Victims’ Commissioner, our colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, has now taken up her post. We can also look forward very shortly to the criminal justice strategy and action plan, which will show just how we are joining up the different players and using technology to drive forward efficiencies. We are also consulting on a radical approach to how we treat our young people in custody. Despite fewer and fewer being incarcerated, more than seven out of 10 young people sentenced to custody still go on to offend again, so we have just consulted on a fresh approach to dealing with these young people by putting education at the heart of our youth justice system.
Breaking the cycle of reoffending is the key challenge not only in youth justice but throughout the criminal justice system. I have never doubted that prison works, both in terms of punishment and protection, but if we could break the cycle of reoffending the benefits for society would be enormous. The high rate of reoffending does not ruin just the lives of the victims of further crimes, very important though that is. It is also a dreadful deal for the taxpayer. We spend £3 billion a year on prisons. You do not have to be some woolly-minded liberal—if that is not a contradiction in terms—to see this as a bad return on investment if we continue to tolerate a high rate of reoffending. The worst part is that, at the moment, despite those sentenced to less than 12 months being most at risk of reoffending—I remind your Lordships that women are represented disproportionately among that group—they do not get help with rehabilitation. They are seen off at the prison gate with £46 in their pocket and very little else.
I have, earlier this morning, introduced the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, which will extend our rehabilitation measures for the first time to those serving sentences of less than 12 months. To carry through this rehabilitation revolution, we intend to open up the market to new ideas and new suppliers. We want to see a diverse range of new rehabilitation providers bringing new ideas and methods incentivised by their being paid, in part, for the results that they achieve. I have consistently said in this House that I have the highest regard for the probation service and those who work in it. The public sector part of the probation service will shrink, it is true, but it will have great responsibilities and increased status within the new structure. Before the Labour Party weeps too many crocodile tears over the demise of the old system, let me state again that we are using the powers contained in the previous Government’s 2007 Act to carry through the bulk of these reforms.
Finally, I have been genuinely encouraged by the response of the voluntary and not-for-profit sector in its enthusiasm for the opportunities to deliver real changes and new ideas to the challenge of offender rehabilitation. A number of noble Lords on all Benches have been campaigning for years for greater support to be given to those sentenced to less than a year; they have argued for better through-the-gate services and for more effective and better respected community sentences. I have to say to those noble Lords, very frankly, that without these reforms, much of what they have campaigned for would remain a pipe dream. With the legislation proposed in the gracious Speech, they have a real chance of becoming reality. The blunt truth is that we simply cannot afford the status quo, with offenders passing through the system again and again—more victims hurt, more communities damaged.
I look forward to examining in detail our rehabilitation reforms in the very near future, as the Bill is starting its passage through Parliament in this House.
I turn to another measure which we will soon be considering in detail. The Children and Families Bill is a carryover from the last Session. It has already been the subject of constructive debate on all sides in the other place, led, for the Government, by my honourable friends Edward Timpson and Jo Swinson. The judiciary and local government have also been engaged in the development of the family justice provisions in the Bill. It includes a number of important reforms, such as introducing a 26-week time limit for completing care cases, and making attendance at mediation meetings a prerequisite for starting certain types of family proceedings.
Our guiding fundamental principle for the family justice system is that it must be about what is in the best interests of the child. Therefore, the Bill makes it absolutely clear that the court must regard the involvement of both parents in their child’s life after separation as furthering that child’s welfare, unless evidence shows that it would not. This legislation seeks to deliver a system that is more responsive, more efficient and in which more timely decisions are made to give vulnerable children the stability and security to enable them to make a success of their lives. I look forward to working with my noble friend Lord Nash on what I believe is a landmark piece of legislation.
I pay tribute to the work of David Norgrove, who chaired the family justice review. I am very pleased that he now chairs the national Family Justice Board, which has been set up to provide leadership and drive reform of the family justice system. We are already seeing the positive results of this approach, aided by local family justice boards.
This is also a timely opportunity to welcome Sir James Munby to his new post as president of the Family Division. As the new single family court becomes a reality next year, his drive and his judicial leadership will be essential to see the far-reaching reforms of the past few years carried through. I very much look forward to working with him.
I turn now to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which was introduced in the other place earlier today and on which the Home Office will lead. Persistent anti-social behaviour has a devastating impact on the victims and communities that need to be our priority. We are looking at this matter again because experience has shown that securing an ASBO has been a slow, bureaucratic and expensive process, often failing to change a perpetrator’s behaviour. That is why we are proposing new powers that are quick and easy to use and act as a real deterrent.
Breach of the proposed criminal behaviour order will be a criminal offence, with a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Obtaining a crime prevention injunction will be faster than securing an ASBO but breaching one would still carry serious penalties. The ASBO system we inherited is weighed down by red tape to the extent that orders can take weeks and months to process. By contrast, the new injunctions proposed in the Bill would see applications dealt with in days, or even hours in some cases.
The Bill will also carry on the vital work of police reform, where the input and experience in this House will be of particular value. I want to pay tribute today to Britain’s police forces. They face a series of challenges today that would have been unforeseeable to many who joined the force a generation ago, so under this Bill the College of Policing will get new statutory powers to enable it to carry on developing policing as the top-flight profession it is and must remain. The Police Negotiating Board will be replaced with an independent police remuneration review body, which will make evidence-based recommendations on police remuneration, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission will have its purview extended to oversee private-sector contractors and their employees.
The Bill will also tackle the iniquity of forced marriages, which are little more than slavery and are simply wrong. At the moment there is no specific offence on the statute book of forcing someone into marriage, so we are following up on the Prime Minister’s pledge of June 2012 and bringing forward provisions in this Bill to make forced marriage illegal and to make it an offence to breach a forced marriage protection order.
This Bill will also look at the fees charged to court users in civil cases to ensure that we can provide a modern and efficient court system. In particular, we will look at whether more funds can be recovered from commercial litigants to ensure that where people can pay more to access our world-class courts, they do so.
Finally, we also intend to bring forward further measures, subject to parliamentary time, to reform our immigration system, look at the public services available to those entering the country and reduce the complexity of immigration law.
No one can deny that, in the areas being discussed today, this is a Government full of ideas with a clear vision for the future. Even in the hardest of times, what government does must be tested against our commitment to the rule of law and access to justice and our willingness to protect civil liberties and human rights. We need to ensure that law-abiding members of the community are put first, that hard-working public servants on the front line are given our full support and that hard-working families can be confident in the knowledge that criminals are being brought to justice and communities kept safe.
I consider this House to be a House of candid friends. Such important measures deserve nothing less than your Lordships’ well informed scrutiny. The proposals from the MoJ and the Home Office are strong on ideas and radical in their solutions. I commend them to this House and look forward to debating their merits today and in the year ahead.