Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department 3:30 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to open this third day of debate on the gracious Speech. The focus of today’s debate is home affairs, justice, constitutional affairs, devolved affairs, communities and local government. The debate will enable us to explore some of the key themes of the gracious Speech, including seizing the opportunity to reshape our immigration system as we leave the European Union, tackling injustice, protecting our communities and strengthening the union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I and my noble friend Lord Bourne look forward to hearing the many contributions from noble Lords who have put their names down to speak. Given the wealth of experience represented on all sides of the House, I am sure that we will have the benefit of many thought-provoking insights into the challenges and opportunities facing our nation at the start of this new Parliament.

I want to begin by addressing the tragic Grenfell Tower fire. I know that the whole House shares my heartfelt sympathy for those who have lost loved ones and those who have had their lives devastated. We owe it to all those who have suffered to establish exactly what happened and to learn the lessons of this appalling tragedy. To that end, we will establish a full public inquiry. As the Prime Minister said in her Statement in the House of Commons last week, it will be chaired by a judge to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible, and to provide justice for the victims and their families, who suffered so terribly. The families of victims will be consulted on the terms of reference under which the inquiry proceeds. The Prime Minister has also set out her expectation that the inquiry will produce an interim report as quickly as possible.

We are committed to providing funding for residents and victims’ families so that they can be legally represented at the inquiry. We must ensure that victims’ voices are properly heard. That is why there will also now be an independent public advocate to help bereaved families after major disasters.

The Grenfell Tower fire is not the only tragedy that we have faced in recent months which has affected the whole nation. Communities in Manchester and London have had to endure unimaginable horrors. What ought to be everyday activities—be it visiting tourist attractions, attending a concert, enjoying a night out, or simply chatting with friends at the end of prayers at the local mosque—have been perverted by both Islamist and far-right extremists alike. In the face of such horrors, time and again we have seen our communities come together, demonstrating unwavering acts of kindness and generosity in support of their neighbours. We will not let such provocations change the true character of Britain as a wonderfully diverse, open and inclusive country.

The Government have long had a role in protecting the public from terrorism. In the previous Parliament, we announced a 30% increase over five years in cross-government spending on counterterrorism and enacted new legislation to ensure that the police and intelligence agencies have the powers that they need to keep the public safe. But we cannot stop there. As the terrorist threat evolves, we must continue to learn lessons and further improve our response. The gracious Speech therefore included a commitment to review our counterterrorism strategy. The review will not only look at the existing legislative framework, including the sentencing powers of the courts, but seek to apply the lessons we have learnt from our response to the events leading up to, during, and in the aftermath of the recent attacks. This review will inform a strengthened approach to counterterrorism. Should the review find that further legislation is necessary, your Lordships’ House can be assured that we will put this before Parliament.

We also have a responsibility to protect the public from the harms which extremists pose to our society. This is why the Government are establishing a powerful new Commission for Countering Extremism. The commission will play a key role in supporting communities and the public sector to identify and confront extremism. It will promote our fundamental values and support integration, and it will advise the Government on the policies needed to tackle the evolving threat from extremism.

Challenging extremism is not a new government objective. The new commission will build on the comprehensive programme of work set out in the counter-extremism strategy. This strategy is all about working with communities, standing up for our fundamental values, supporting integration and striving to defeat extremism. However, there is more that we can and must do. The Commission for Countering Extremism will play a crucial part in supporting future efforts to stamp out extremism in this country. This Government will stand with our communities. Together, we will defeat terrorism and extremism, and ensure that our pluralistic British values are given the opportunity to flourish.

The gracious Speech also set out our plans to bring forward a landmark Bill to tackle domestic abuse. This Government are determined to build a society that does not tolerate domestic abuse, in which victims and their families feel safe and supported in seeking help, and where perpetrators are dealt with effectively. However, legislation can only ever be one part of the solution so the provisions in the Bill will be accompanied by a full programme of non-legislative measures backed by the £20 million of funding announced in the last Budget. Fundamental to the Bill will be the introduction of a statutory definition of domestic abuse. We want to dispel the myth that domestic abuse is solely about violence and to provide absolute clarity and certainty to both the public and professionals that at the root of much domestic abuse is a pattern of control which can take many forms, including financial control, verbal abuse and emotional harm. Without domestic abuse being properly understood and recognised, we will not be able to provide victims with the support that they are entitled to receive.

The Bill will also create a bespoke new domestic abuse prevention and protection order regime. The current protective orders landscape can be confusing. It is not always clear to victims and professionals how orders can best be used to protect victims of domestic abuse. A new order specific to domestic abuse will provide a single, clear pathway for all concerned, offer better and earlier protection for victims and do more to tackle the root causes of offending behaviour. The Bill also responds to the devastating and lifelong impact that domestic abuse has on children, who can carry the traumatic events into adulthood. We want to make sure that the criminal law and sentencing frameworks clearly and explicitly recognise the harm to children who are exposed to domestic abuse, and that sentences adequately reflect the seriousness of this offending. The Bill will also establish a domestic violence and abuse commissioner, to stand up for victims and survivors, raise public awareness, monitor the response of statutory agencies and local authorities and hold the justice system to account in tackling domestic abuse. We are committed to having a robust and thorough consultation on both the legislative proposals and the non-legislative programme. I am sure that noble Lords—I can see some of them before me—will want to engage with this process.

We need to ensure that the criminal justice system works for all victims of crime—a sentiment which I am sure my noble friend Lady Newlove would endorse. That is why the gracious Speech also included a commitment to introduce legislation to modernise the courts and tribunals system. We want a world-class courts system that provides straightforward and efficient access to justice, including through the better use of technology, and provides targeted support and care for those who need it.

As we leave the European Union, we will need to establish a new framework for regulating immigration of European Union nationals and their family members. By enabling us to set our own domestic rules, we can better balance the requirements of the UK economy with the need to reduce net migration to sustainable levels. We have made some progress in this direction, with the most recent figures showing a 25% fall in net migration in the year to December 2016 compared with the previous year, but we need to do more.

To help us deliver on this objective, the Immigration Bill will enable us to end the European Union rules on free movement for EU nationals, ensuring that we have the flexibility to create a fair and controlled immigration system. As has been the case under successive Governments, the details of the new arrangements will be set out in immigration rules which will be subject to scrutiny by Parliament. Although I cannot pre-empt EU negotiations, I can assure noble Lords that we will maintain the common travel area, thereby safeguarding the ease of movement across the Irish land border.

In developing our future immigration system, we are clear that we need to meet the needs of businesses and communities, and we will ensure that both have an opportunity to contribute their views. Our objective is to put in place an immigration system which is right for the UK economy and for the country as a whole.

This leads me to the subject of devolved affairs. The gracious Speech was very clear in stressing the importance that the Government place on working constructively with the devolved Administrations. This will be especially vital in relation to work on our exit from the European Union. We have been clear from the start, and throughout the discussions, that the UK Government will negotiate as one United Kingdom, working closely with the devolved Administrations, to deliver an EU exit that works for the whole of the country. There is considerable common ground between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations on what we want to get out of this process.

With regards to legislation, a number of Bills in this session will require close engagement across the Administrations of the UK. The Government will engage constructively and will seek legislative consent motions where appropriate. The overriding priority for the UK Government in Northern Ireland remains the restoration of a devolved power-sharing Government in Scotland—excuse me, in Stormont.