My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interest in the register as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, in his place. This is my first opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Lord. I always enjoyed our friendly debates across the Dispatch Boxes. He was engaging and courteous at all times, both in and outside the Chamber. He was a very able Minister and is a real loss to the Government. I know he will continue to make informed contributions to your Lordships’ business, as he will today.
My focus today is a number of the proposals in the Queen’s Speech, covering areas in which I will have some involvement in your Lordships’ House in this Session of Parliament—however long it lasts. While this Session continues, and until Parliament is dissolved, I am absolutely committed to working with those on all Benches to improve the Bills that come before us. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, has told us, the debate today will cover home affairs, justice, local government, devolved affairs and constitutional affairs. I have seen only one of the Bills that is to be brought before us. With that proviso, I intend to set out my initial thinking and how I hope we will progress. My noble friend Lord Rosser will cover the areas that I do not reference. I look forward to all contributions from noble Lords to today’s debate.
Generally, I welcome measures that seek to address crime, in particular violent crime and thereby strengthen the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system. The types of crime perpetrated, and how they come about, change over time. We therefore need to update our response regularly and consistently. But addressing crime is about not only punishment but rehabilitation and addressing the problems in the first place, before we get anywhere near the involvement of the police, prisons or probation services. Longer prison sentences might get the Government a few favourable headlines in some of the tabloids, but do they punish, address offender behaviour and help with rehabilitation? That is the question we should be asking. Any Government who get the balance right and make positive inroads to both addressing offender behaviour and delivering proper rehabilitation will get, and truly deserve, praise for making our country a safer place, and save the taxpayer many millions of pounds.
Looking at some of measures announced in the Queen’s Speech, I am pleased that the Domestic Abuse Bill is making progress. I hope it can be speedily passed into law. If we do nothing else before this Parliament is dissolved, notwithstanding the issues around Brexit, I hope that this Bill will become an Act of Parliament. Domestic abuse is a wicked crime, perpetrated by those closest to you—those who should be protecting you, not making your life a living hell. There is no stereotype of a domestic abuser; they come from all walks of life. What happens to victims is wicked and evil, and totally unacceptable. Those who commit such crimes must understand that they will face the full force of the law, while victims must be confident that they have the protection of the state in all its forms.
From the Opposition Benches, I have been working hard, along with my noble friends Lord Rosser, Lady Gale and others, to get this important Bill passed into law. When the Bill arrives in this House, I will raise the issue of victims in some parts of the country being charged by GPs for a letter to confirm their injuries and that they have been a victim of domestic abuse, so that they can get access to services. That is terrible. It is wrong and the Government should put a stop to it. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, will address that issue when she responds to the debate.
I welcome measures that will further support victims of crime, and the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, who is not in her place, will be important to those debates.
I hope the Government will take up the care and support of victims of modern slavery. The Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, McColl of Dulwich, was lost in the other place, which is most regrettable. It will be good if, in this Session of Parliament, the care and support afforded to victims in England and Wales is brought up to the same standard that victims enjoy in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill puts on a statutory footing a practice already in place. Criminals need to understand that their failure to provide the most basic closure to victims and their families will be quite properly taken into account by the Parole Board when they are seeking release from prison.
I agree with and welcome many of the proposals in the Serious Violence Bill. I support a multiagency approach to tackling the root causes of violent crime. An emphasis on intervention with young people and an acknowledgement that law enforcement alone cannot tackle violence is correct—I agree with every word—but that means the involvement of social workers, youth workers, community workers, teachers and other parts of the local government family, along with the voluntary sector. However, it will be no solution to the problem if further requirements and burdens are placed on local authorities without commensurate increases in the resources they have to deliver these new obligations. Unfortunately, it has been a recurring pattern for the Government to do that. We have heard time and again from the Government the standard response that local authorities have the powers to tackle these issues. Maybe they do, but they do not have the resources and that is a big problem.
On social care increases, too many times we have seen that when we have been allowed to increase resources it comes in the form of approval to increase council tax rather than in direct government grants. As noble Lords will know, council tax is a regressive form of taxation.
The proposals to recruit 20,000 new police officers are welcome but have to be seen in the context of the Government cutting a similar number of police officers since 2010. Experience has been lost and I have a Question on tomorrow’s Order Paper about the relationship between the number of officers and the number of crimes committed. The Police Protections Bill looks like a measure that we on these Benches can fully support but, again, the detail will be as important as recognising police bravery and supporting officers. What is proposed in the Bill needs to make a positive difference, not only in words but in deeds and proper actions.
Turning to the Extradition (Provisional Arrest) Bill, criminal activity does not respect borders and boundaries, and so making things as difficult as possible for criminals and making sure that they cannot evade justice is to be supported. It is, though, disappointing that these measures may have to be used if we no longer have access to the European arrest warrant, which has been a success in bringing people back to the UK—and in sending them elsewhere in the European Union if they are hiding in the UK—to face justice. Clearly that is another of those Brexit dividends we were not told about. This legislation will need careful scrutiny to ensure that we get the balance right.
Again, in principle I welcome the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has sought through private Members’ legislation to improve divorce proceedings many times and I will fully support her in anything she does to make these matters better.
The White Paper on English devolution, referred to in the Queen’s speech, seems, disappointingly, to carry on with the same confused patchwork of local government reforms that started with the Cameron Government. This is not a real devolution of power. I see no devolutionary zeal, only tired tinkering, and that is disappointing. The Labour Government elected in 1997 made radical changes to the governance of the United Kingdom. The one country that did not see radical change—other than the establishment of the Mayor of London and the London Assembly—was England, which still has very a centralised form of government. I do not see much progress here to deliver a new settlement.
There has been much talk of measures around electoral integrity. I want measures in place that ensure that people who are entitled to vote are able to and to eliminate voter fraud, but any measure to require that identification be produced at the polling station must be introduced carefully and proportionately. From all the evidence I have seen, voter ID fraud is minimal. We cannot have hundreds more people who have the right to vote being refused it at a polling station. That would be totally unacceptable. We actually have a voter underregistration problem in the UK. Any measures brought in by the Government should address that problem as well as part of any voter integrity package, along with measures to make our elections safe from abuse and from unscrupulous campaigners who seek to benefit from the inadequacies of our electoral law, so that elections are free and fair. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, who is not in his place, has agreed with me numerous times at the Dispatch Box that our present electoral law is not fit for purpose and in need of urgent reform. That urgent reform should be put in place before we have a general election. The Government will have the full support of the Opposition to do that quickly if they choose to act on these matters, which they should do urgently.
In concluding, I repeat the point I made at the start: I will engage positively with the Government and all Benches in this noble House to improve proposals that come before us for consideration. When I agree with the Government, I will happily say so and support them, and where I differ, I will seek to persuade them of the soundness of my arguments. I always reserve the right, however, to divide the House if all else fails. I look forward to an interesting debate today and to the Minister’s contribution at the end.