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Queen’s Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 9th May 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 11:37 am, 9th May 2013

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his introduction to the gracious Speech. He is quite right that today’s debate covers a wide range of issues: crime, policing, Northern Ireland, constitutional issues, the rehabilitation of offenders—which the noble Lord spoke about in some detail—and forced marriage. Those are all important issues but it is clear that the headline that the Government really want from the gracious Speech is that they are tough on immigration. After their rout in the county council elections last week the Government are now on a mission to persuade the public that they understand their concerns. The role of your Lordships’ House is scrutiny—to see whether these measures really do what the Government say they will. Will these measures make a difference? My noble friend Lord Beecham will say more about the criminal justice plans in his winding-up speech for the Opposition at the end of the debate, so I shall start with the Government’s proposals on immigration.

Obviously we want to ensure that immigration, which is important for and to the UK, is properly controlled and managed and is fair. However, the Government’s programme promises to take action on issues where action has already been taken, where other government policies make it virtually impossible to deliver and where they have not yet worked out how such action can be achieved. Nothing in the speech would tackle the undercutting of local workers’ wages and terms and conditions or the exploitation of foreign workers. Nothing in the speech would have a real impact in improving the enforcement of the national minimum wage. Where in the gracious Speech are the measures to tackle the abuse of student visitor visas by bogus colleges or the backlog at the UK Border Agency in finding failed asylum seekers?

The programme includes legislation to ensure that Article 8—the right to stay in this country because of family connections—is not abused. We agree with that, and it is already in the Immigration Rules which were passed unanimously last year when we said that it should be in primary legislation. Those who do not have the right to live in this country should be deported. However, while the Government are talking tough, their actions do not mirror their words. Last year, the Government deported 900 fewer criminals than were deported in Labour’s last year in office—a fall of 16%. The backlog in finding failed asylum seekers has gone up, and the number of illegal immigrants deported has gone down. The UK Border Agency stated that in 40% of cases it has not been able to deport individuals because of administrative problems with the Home Office and diplomatic complications. Despite ministerial denials, therefore, it would be foolish to believe that budget cuts of 34% and staffing cuts of 5,000 have not had an impact. Of course they have. Can the Minister give an indication of how the Government propose generally to tackle the issue and assure us that the proposed legislation is not just a rehash of previously implemented Immigration Rules without any new action?

On the issue of limited access to certain benefits for European Economic Area national jobseekers and retained workers for six months, this is already in current regulations and in DWP guidance. It is something of a surprise that the Government have flagged this up as something new. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what the difference is between the current law and the Government’s new announcement? Where are the changes that the Government have heralded? It seems to me that they are already in the guidance and that no real difference has been proposed. This is a missed opportunity because changing the habitual residence test would make a real difference. Although the test is effective in the majority of cases, one practical change which could be made quickly and very easily would be to add a presence test to clarify absolutely that jobseeker’s allowance cannot be claimed in a few days or weeks but that people will be expected to be in the country for some time or to contribute before they get anything back. Surely that would be more effective than the rehash which the Government have reannounced.

We agree with strong and effective action against those who employ and often exploit illegal immigrants. Such behaviour is already illegal, with fines of £10,000 for unknowingly employing each illegal immigrant and the possibility of a prison sentence for knowingly doing so. In so many cases the real problem is not the law but the enforcement of the law, with 800 fewer businesses being fined last year than were fined in 2010 under the previous Labour Government. Legislation can only ever be effective if it is monitored and enforced and in this case it is not. It is interesting that the Government now want to legislate for private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants and to face fines if they do not and rent to somebody who is in this country illegally. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister could say something about this and shed some light on how it will be enforced. Only a few months ago the Housing Minister, Mr Mark Prisk MP, dismissed our proposals for a national housing register of private landlords. Do the Government now intend to set up such a register? If not, how do they expect to manage the checking and monitoring of private landlords? Would it not be far more effective to monitor and enforce standards in private rented housing and thus prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable—proposals which the Government have consistently rejected?

Similarly, the proposals to restrict migrant access to the NHS seem very unclear. As hospitals already have a legal duty to recover charges from overseas patients, this, too, is a matter of better enforcement. However, the notion that doctors will become an extended arm of the border force has rightly been met with alarm by the Royal College of General Practitioners. Even Vince Cable—a Cabinet Minister in the coalition—raised doubts about this policy yesterday. He said:

“There is a question about whether people who administer GPs’ surgeries and hospitals should be in the business of checking”,

people’s status. Will we all need to take our passport with us to visit a GP, or will the Government reintroduce, or try to reintroduce, ID cards? Yet again, the Government are talking tough, but the detail of what will actually change, what will be different, and how it will be enforced, is totally obscure, particularly when the Government make such savage cuts to resources.

The same applies to the Government’s proposals on crime and anti-social behaviour. The Government are cutting 15,000 police officers. That makes it harder for the police and local communities to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour. While the Government boast of falling crime, what becomes increasingly clear from evidence and reports, some published last week, is that budget cuts imposed on policing are leading to more criminals getting away with it. Last year more than 10,000 crimes of serious violence were dealt with through community resolution. That meant there was no formal sanction, no caution and no criminal record: just an apology to the victim. That is despite the Government’s official guidance saying that this should not happen. I am talking about serious, violent crime. When serious criminals are not even being cautioned, it is clear that there is a crisis—and not one that can be wished away by toothless legislation.

I worry that the Government’s action on anti-social behaviour is equally toothless. They were very critical of Labour’s anti-social behaviour orders, which I accept were not perfect. However, instead of reforming and strengthening them, the Government have decided bizarrely to water them down. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said in his opening speech that the Government want to ensure a faster and more effective response. However, despite his claims that action could be taken in a matter of hours, the proposals for a community trigger to replace the ASBO would mean people having to wait until three separate complaints, or complaints from five different households, had been made before the agencies were compelled to take action. If we tell a complainant whose life is being blighted by anti-social behaviour that nothing will be done until there have been several more complaints, they will rightly conclude that no one cares. We understand how anti-social behaviour can blight people’s lives. That is why we propose a 24-hour guarantee to ensure a rapid response to complaints. We will discuss this further during scrutiny of the Bill and I hope the Minister will take seriously our suggestions, because we want to work with him to improve it.

In the announcement that forced marriage will be made a criminal offence, the Government are seeking to take further action on a very serious problem. Forced marriage can destroy people’s lives and should never be tolerated. That is why, when we were in government, we introduced protection orders through family courts to combat forced marriage, and why we support strengthening the law. We will be careful to scrutinise the legislation and work with the Government to ensure that the measures proposed do not end up being counterproductive in the fight to eradicate forced marriage in this country. We look forward to working with the Government to get the legislation that we all want to see on the statute book.

It would be helpful to have some clarity on constitutional issues that were widely promoted by the Government yet failed to appear in their programme. They consulted on a statutory register of lobbyists but have yet to issue their response. In February 2010 David Cameron said that he wanted to shine “the light of transparency” on lobbying so that politics,

“comes clean about who is buying power and influence”.

At the 2010 general election, he declared that lobbying was,

“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.

Recent media reports that Ministers dropped plans for plain packaging for cigarettes because of lobbying by the tobacco industry served to highlight the need to regulate the lobbying industry and the fact that it remains as important as ever—so why are there no proposals in this programme?

The current draft proposals from the Government cover only a very narrow section of the lobbying industry. They have not proposed any code of conduct for lobbyists, without which there can be no mechanism to regulate the register. Details of the meetings that lobbyists have with government will not be included on any register. In many respects these are retrograde steps. The Government have to get serious about lobbying transparency. If we are to give an assurance to a sceptical public that politics is serious about cleaning up its act, we need action now. I am not anti-lobbying; I make that very clear. However, it needs to be open, transparent and regulated.

I will raise one further issue on constitutional matters and hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me. It is the transition to individual electoral voter registration. All of us in this House should—and, I think, do—want the widest possible participation in all elections. Turnout figures of 30% and even lower in local elections are truly shocking. Turnouts at general elections are falling consistently and we should be concerned. There is a general concern among all of us who wish to see the maximum turnout in elections that the move to individual rather than household registration will, if undertaken too quickly and without sufficient safeguards and resources, lead to a fall in the number of people registering to vote, and a loss of people who are engaged in the political system. A transition date for a new type of register to come into effect and go live has been set for 2016 but, during the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act, the Government gave themselves a reserve power to bring the date for individual registration forward to 2015 if they felt that the transition was progressing well. Who is to make that judgment? In the interests of transparency, and given the importance of the issue, it should not be rushed but should be put before an independent assessment of the impact. I hope that the Minister can provide reassurance on this. Will he commit to ensuring that the Electoral Commission is asked to assess and judge the status of the transition?

I am suffering from McNally’s throat, I think.

Finally, although it was not mentioned in the gracious Speech, I welcome the commitment yesterday from the Leader of the House that the equal marriage Bill will be brought before your Lordships’ House as early business. I look forward, as do noble Lords across the House, to passing that Bill. There is a real pride on these Benches that we introduced the Civil Partnership Act. As with this Bill, it drew support from across your Lordships’ House. We now have the opportunity to build on that legacy by extending marriage to those couples who wish to make that loving, life-long commitment and have their relations celebrated and recognised in the same way as heterosexual couples.

This is a pretty thin programme for the coming Session, although we note, as always, the final sentence of all gracious Speeches:

“Other measures will be laid before you”.

As the Government’s Bills are debated in your Lordships’ House, we will look at the detail and support good legislation through scrutiny. We want to work with the Government whenever possible to ensure that we make real, not cosmetic, changes, which make a real and positive difference to people’s lives.