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Queen’s Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:51 pm on 9th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative 2:51 pm, 9th May 2013

My Lords, I shall start by saying how very much I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in everything she has said. It is a lacuna in Government thinking. There has been so little in terms of imagination about drug policy. If eventually it is possible to decriminalise almost everything to do with drugs, while that would result in perhaps a few more deaths from their abuse, it would certainly result in far fewer deaths from criminal activities related to them. It is a very important subject.

There are many reasons why one week ago the electorate expressed such dissatisfaction with the coalition Government. I do not intend to speak on the most obvious issue, that of the survival of our national sovereignty within the EU at a time when economic pressures are driving 17 of the 27 member states into a political federation. I must mention another factor, and that is the perceived infirmity of purpose. By this I mean the failure to tackle the issues which the people do mind about, and instead diverting Parliament to support the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in legislating for their passionately and sincerely held personal agendas. They should concentrate on their real responsibilities of defining and delivering national priorities. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s decision to renew the deplorable practice introduced by Mr Blair of cutting short debate by guillotining all legislation in the House of Commons has played a part in devaluing Parliament in the public eye and thus making it less effective. That does not help with good governance.

There is a third factor which is sapping the success of the Government; that of perceived incompetence, especially that of those Ministers who fail to get a grip of their departments and instead allow the Civil Service to drive government at a time when the effectiveness and, sadly, in some cases the integrity of the Civil Service, has fallen far below what I remember from my own service in Whitehall during the 1970s. It is a level of incompetence in government which is the more inexcusable since there have been such great advances in the technology of administration and management. To illustrate this, I shall focus on one narrow but crucial issue, that of the guarding of our national borders. This is part of the defence of the realm and there can be few higher priorities, especially for a Conservative-led Administration. On this I have specific proposals to put to the Government Front Bench.

Let me first illustrate why it is so urgent. This country is in mortal danger of further terrorist attacks. It is only thanks to the excellent work of the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service, GCHQ and the police anti-terrorist forces that we have not recently suffered attacks. It is clear that the main threat today comes from Islamist jihadists from both overseas and within the UK whose overall mission is to install a worldwide caliphate with Sharia law. We are all aware of the threat presented to us by Pakistan, which is rapidly turning into a failed state. But I would quote another example, which is that of Egypt. The Egyptian elections were won by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now regarded as a moderate Islamic—not Islamist—party ready to preside over a basically secular Government, yet 25% of the vote was won by the extreme Salafi movement, which is headed by Mohammed al-Zawahiri, the brother of the new head of al-Qaeda and successor to Osama bin Laden. He has declared that he will accept no element of secular government in Egypt and is quoted as saying that the next world war will be westerners against Muslims.

There can be few areas where the failure of competence has been greater than in the management of the UK Border Agency. There have been periods of inadequate leadership, normally rewarded with promotion, interrupted by gaps without anyone being appointed to the leadership role. After all, it was in May 2006 that the then Home Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, denounced the Home Office immigration department as “not fit for purpose”. It was over a year ago that the report by John Vine, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, concluded that the UK Border Agency had,

“poor communication, poor management oversight and a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities”.

You cannot get much more damning than that.

I was impressed when I met the chief executive of the UK Border Agency, Mr Rob Whiteman, who was appointed about a year ago. He faced a huge challenge. The problem with the staff of the border agency was not just that it was of low calibre, but that it had been shown to be seriously and systemically corrupt. As the Minister knows, because he gave the Written Answers, some 30 members of Home Office staff have received heavy prison sentences—I am talking about five, six, seven and, in one case, a term of nine years—for misconduct in public office; the great majority of them came from the border agency.

Last year, the Government split the UK Border Force from the UKBA. On 25 March this year, the Home Secretary announced that the UKBA was to be abolished and its functions absorbed into the Home Office. That is cold comfort in the light of the Home Office performance to date, but we shall see. I myself suspect that the staff of the UK Border Force are still not of the quality that we should expect. The command of it should not have been the temporary appointment of a retired Chief Constable. Now we have a new commander of the UK Border Force, Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Montgomery, who until recently was the Second Sea Lord. He has a tough challenge and I wish him well. The border force should be reformed as a highly trained and tightly disciplined uniformed force, which is not allowed to take industrial action. It should have a clear command and control hierarchy, as do the military and the police. Members should be closely vetted and should have British nationality and only British nationality. It should be under the close control of Ministers, who represent the elected Government. The link between the commander of the border force and Ministers should have the same characteristics as those that Ministers have with the service chiefs. At this time, when Britain’s Armed Forces are being reduced, it should be possible to recruit some really first-class retired officers.

Who is responsible for the endlessly delayed e-Borders system, which is supposed to monitor and record electronically every person coming into or leaving the

UK? It cannot, surely, be the Home Secretary and the Home Office board, who have far too much to do, as was announced by the Home Secretary on 25 March. When will it be complete? I would prefer even to see Ken Livingstone in charge. He at least introduced, without glitch, a highly successful electronic congestion charging system for London.

Finally, I turn to the question of passports. The UK Identity and Passport Service has, I believe, done a decent job in recent years in improving the administration of the routine issue and renewal of British passports in peacetime. However, we do not face peace, we face peril. I was warned by security sources five years ago of the danger of terrorists and, indeed, other criminals concealing their activities with the use of multiple passports. I am not against people having more than one passport or, indeed, dual nationality. However, I have for years urged that the Government should take steps to establish details of what other passports UK passport holders hold. There should be a strict obligation to divulge full details to the British passport authorities, including photocopies et cetera, of any other passports held. One response I have had from the Government is that people would not necessarily disclose that they had a second passport. The answer is quite simple: anyone found to have concealed their non-British passport would be liable to have their British passport cancelled.

If the Government do not include some such provision in the legislation for further reforms of Britain’s immigration system announced in the gracious Speech, I shall seek to introduce amendments to do so. I repeat: we are talking about national security at a time of peril and I, at any rate, am not going to let it go.