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Queen’s Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:02 pm on 9th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 3:02 pm, 9th May 2013

My Lords, I intend to speak on two home affairs issues, one of which, immigration, is in the Queen’s Speech. To my surprise, I will be speaking in a not dissimilar fashion to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, because I want to say something about the efficiency and effectiveness of the government machine that we have in place relating to immigration.

My second topic relates to something which, to my great regret, is not in the gracious Speech—the Government’s failure to implement the major plank of their alcohol strategy. I have said previously that, in relation to both health and crime, I endorse the Government’s efforts to try to take action over the problems that come from alcohol and, to a degree, drugs. I have supported what the Government have been trying to do and, in particular, was originally greatly heartened by what our Prime Minister said in his foreword to the strategy. After listing in the document a number of problems that arise from alcohol, he went on to say that there will be,

“a real effort to get to grips with the root cause of the problem. And that means coming down hard on cheap alcohol. When beer is cheaper than water, it’s just too easy for people to get drunk on cheap alcohol at home before they even set foot in the pub. So we are going to introduce a new minimum unit price. For the first time it will be illegal for shops to sell alcohol for less than this set price per unit. We are consulting on the actual price, but if it is 40p that could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths a year by the end of the decade”.

He continued:

“Of course, I know the proposals in this strategy won’t be universally popular. But the responsibility of being in government”— as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us this morning—

“isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It’s about doing the right thing”.

It is about taking the difficult decisions. The Prime Minister said that,

“Binge drinking is a serious problem”— an issue which we shall address to a degree, no doubt, when we come to deal with the proposed legislation. He then said:

“And I make no excuses for clamping down on it”.

Since the document was produced the Government have been out to consultation and there has been a substantial accumulation of further evidence, both from the UK and from overseas, that indicates that minimum unit pricing would have a very substantial effect on the culture relating to drinking, to crime and, in particular, to health.

Unfortunately, we have not moved a great deal further. I was not sure whether I should speak today as, a bit like the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, I was not sure whether this topic pops up under the Home Office or the health brief. Alcohol has a significant cost impact within the NHS: it is a major factor in high blood pressure, cardiac problems, liver disease and cancer. Although it has not yet been properly acknowledged, alcohol is also a big factor in obesity and diabetes. If the Government take no action on minimum pricing and are not prepared to tackle the root problem, this failure to move will significantly undermine efforts to take a strategic approach to confronting increasing levels of obesity and type 2 diabetes, two major problems which are facing the country.

When it emerged that the Government were likely to execute an about-turn on the issue the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, kindly answered a Private Notice Question on it. He said that a decision had not yet been taken and that we should not believe everything that we read in the press or hear on the BBC. He said that the Government were reviewing the position and that the results of the consultation were “very finely balanced”—I think that those were the precise words—in deciding whether to move forward with legislation. He was also concerned about the possibility that the legal challenges raised in Scotland about the Scottish Government’s attempts to introduce minimum pricing there could have a knock-on effect here. As I understand it, the Scottish Government have so far been successful in seeing off those challenges. The noble Lord will no doubt correct me if I have got it wrong but I understand that the firm, decisive leadership in Scotland is such that they will stick with the plan and fight all the way through, even if that means going to Europe. I gather that the drinks industry is likely to take challenges to Europe, if needs be, to try to resist this change. They are going for a 50p per pint unit minimum rather than 40p.

One of the problems raised when the noble Lord spoke to us in reply to the PNQ has therefore been answered, to a degree, but we are still left with the

Government’s failure to come forward and say where they stand on the consultation. I would be grateful if the Minister would advise the House on where they are at and why it is taking so long when there is so much evidence showing that the change is required. Who has sought to change the course of events when the Prime Minister was, as I have quoted, so firmly in favour of moving in this direction? I even hear stories that if it does not happen, it may appear in the next Tory party manifesto. I do not know what will happen with the Liberal Democrats but I presume that they are similarly committed to it. I urge my own party, as I have done in some of our private meetings, to get a very clear line on where we stand on this so that in the interests of the nation and its people, we might get a uniform approach, even though we may offend a number of people such as those in the drinks industry. So I hope that even though it is not closed down yet the Minister will be able to give me some heartening words this afternoon when he responds. He always smiles when he is at his best, but I want to hear that the firm decision will have been taken and that, if not this time round, when we come to the Queen’s Speech next year we shall have it clearly laid down for legislation; otherwise, it will be a great missed opportunity.

When I watch television these days and see Mr Farage for ever in front of us, my fear is that not only is he influencing the Government and the country on the course of events on Europe but, as he quaffs his pint in the bar and smokes his cigarettes and talks about a party that will be willing to let people smoke in pubs, that he is influencing indirectly where the Government stand on some of these issues. Again, I hope that I have got that wrong and we will not run away from similar commitments that have been given on cigarettes and advertising.

I will now move on to the immigration issue. Again—I feel almost like a Cross-Bencher today—I speak not just to the coalition Government on this but my own party. Having listened to Vince Cable on the radio trying to explain how some of the upcoming proposals to try to tighten up on immigration issues are going to work, it is clear that if we do not watch out we are going to have some very speedy public policies produced which have not been thought through properly.

Interestingly, just to stay on top, this week I read The Coalition: Together in the National Interest, the mid-term review. Coming back to one of my favourite topics where we made a mistake, I believe that as time goes by the coalition will be seen to have made a major error in abandoning ID cards. The review says:

“We have scrapped ID cards and the National Identity Register and scaled back the vetting and barring regime”.

As we heard this week, the Government have done an about-turn and are reversing their views on the vetting and barring regime, which they need in a whole range of areas to try to establish what is happening with immigration. Similarly, if the Government are wise—although I suspect that pride will prevent them from doing so—they ought to go back and reflect on where they stand on ID cards.

A major error has been made there. When we see the number of databases that are being created in different government departments, they are all about the self-same thing: fundamentally, many of the problems with crime and so on relate back to the identity of the individual and where he or she lives. The only way that that would be answered and worked through properly would be by having an ID card with a link to residence. I urge the Government to think again about that, instead of spending all the money that it seems they are going to spend with all this paraphernalia of new checks of one sort or another that will be introduced on the NHS, on GPs and so on. The basic answer to all of this would have been to come together with an identity card, as the previous Labour Government were planning and working through. Indeed, it was a former Conservative Government who first thought of this idea, going back to 1996, I think.

Having abandoned our identity card policy after we had been thrown out of office in 2010, which I believe we did in a hurry and without serious analysis of what is likely to happen with technology in the future and the problems that we face, I urge my own party at least to change its mind on that and go back and tell the public that it supports the introduction of an identity card, which will help us in so many different areas. Not only will it help the party—if it does it—it will be appealing to the vast majority of people in the country, who are in favour of identity cards. They see no problem with them at all. They see them as being useful in many respects, for authentication and ease of transactions. They have nothing in principle against them and it was a minority that was opposing them at the time. My party should change its mind and move in favour of ID cards and see where UKIP stands on that as well, because we are probably the only party that would be in favour of it. We would be bang in line with the wishes of 70% to 80% of the public and we would be moving to a system that was efficient and effective in technological terms, and doing away with some of the problems that previous speakers have identified with the border agency.

This issue runs across many parts of the Civil Service. When we think that we are now going to chip 6 million dogs, we are going to have a database to run that; it beggars belief that we are going to do that because the people causing the problem in the main will not chip their dogs and even if they have chips in their dogs we will not be able to trace them to prosecute them. These are all crazy things that we start off without thinking them through. So I urge the Minister and the Government to think again on this. More importantly, I urge my side, too, to change its policy.