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My Lords, first, I congratulate the Government on their comprehensive win in last month’s general election. If nothing else, it allows for a period of stability in the coming years so that important issues can be addressed. I am always willing to support the Government if I think they have got matters rights, but I will always oppose the Government if I believe that, no matter how well intentioned, they are making the wrong call. That will be my job in this noble House in the coming years, as it has been since I arrived here 10 years ago.
The debate today focuses on home affairs, justice, constitutional affairs and devolved affairs. I intend to make some initial comments about the Bills in the Queen’s Speech in these subject areas. Anything I do not cover will no doubt be covered ably by my noble friend Lord Rosser and other noble Lords in today’s debate. I join the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, in paying tribute to the civilians and others at London Bridge for their bravery, and I offer my condolences to the victims and their families.
Some measures in the Queen’s Speech seem to be trying to fix the damage done by the coalition and Conservative Governments, an example being the recruitment of 20,000 additional police officers, to which the Minister referred. That still will not take us back to the level we had in 2010. I was pleased to see that the domestic violence Bill will return, and I hope it will become law later this year. Domestic violence is an evil, wicked crime, and the measures outlined in the Bill will make significant progress in protecting victims and bringing perpetrators to justice. The Bill will, I am told, place a legal duty on local authorities to offer secure accommodation to people fleeing violence. Perhaps, when she responds, the Minister will outline how her department is going to ensure that adequate funds are provided to cover this new duty. Just placing a new duty with no additional funding is not going to deliver the step change that we need to see, and with other measures we have been told too often that new obligations are to be brought but no additional funding, or inadequate funding, is provided.
I have similar concerns in respect of the serious violence Bill, in which it is proposed to create new duties for a range of agencies and encourage partnership working. I want measures in place to deter violence, but partnership working with local authorities, youth services and other agencies costs money. These bodies have not been immune to significant spending reductions in recent years, and without a significant increase in resources I do not see how the proposals will be delivered to any great effect. Will the Minister outline any specific measures she expects to be taken in respect of county lines? This is an area of great concern to many people.
From reading the briefing, the police powers and protections Bill seems to be something that has merit and that we could support. Providing additional support and protections to police officers, who undertake a most difficult but necessary job, is welcome. We will have to look in detail at what is being proposed versus what the professionals think is necessary. I recall that in the previous Parliament a Bill sought to protect all blue-light services and that one of the demands from the Police Federation was tougher penalties for spitting at officers. That was resisted by the Government; they would not be persuaded on this matter. We may need to look at that and bring it back in this Bill.
In respect of the Extradition (Provisional Arrest) Bill and the foreign national offenders Bill, we will have to wait for more detail on the proposals before taking a view, but we need to have proper safeguards in place to eliminate injustices and ensure that we are getting the balance right. I note that one of the first acts of the new Government was to abandon protections for child refugees in the withdrawal Bill. I hope that is not indicative of the asylum and immigration policy the Government intend to pursue.
On the proposed espionage legislation, we will see what comes forward, but it is right to review and update our legislation and protections to protect the United Kingdom from the actions of foreign agencies and powers that want to do us harm through industrial espionage or other threats to our security, safety and economic well-being, and we will support the Government on those matters.
Moving on to the justice proposals, I think we can all sign up to the Government’s aim of a fair justice system that keeps people safe, although after that point there may be differences in how that is delivered and what that means. In both the counter-terrorism Bill and the sentencing Bill, it is just not enough to say that we want to lock up people who have committed offences for even longer. I want sentences that reflect the crime and the community’s and public’s revulsion, but also, while people are in prison, I want real work to be done with them to address their offending behaviour. For very serious terrorists and criminals who commit other appalling offences, I fully accept that that is easier said than done, but it must be the other side of the coin in these matters.
Locking people up for longer and longer will, on its own, not address serious offending and protect us. It is also extremely costly for the taxpayer. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what work has been done to access the best strategies for tackling terrorists and other dangerous offenders, as well as looking at other programmes in Europe and beyond to deal with such matters.
The Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill seems very worthy of our support. Ensuring that prisoners make proper progress and rehabilitation is a good aim, and if certain facts that would help bring closure to victims and/or their families are not disclosed to the authorities by serious offenders, that should be considered by the Parole Board when considering an application for a prisoner’s release. In many ways, it is surprising that that is not done already.
The proposals for the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill seem to be progress, although I am not sure that they will satisfy the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. I am very much of the opinion that the more we can keep lawyers and the courts out of divorce proceedings, the better for everyone—I am thinking of divorcing couples’ pockets.
On the constitutional matters contained in the Queen’s Speech, the creation of a constitution, democracy and rights commission is something on which the Government must be very careful. They won a large majority in the general election and will be able to get their business through the House of Commons with no problems whatever, but they must allow Parliament, the courts and the judiciary to scrutinise, challenge and, in some cases, strike out their decisions. We live in a democracy and all these parts of the state, along with a free press, are important pillars that keep matters in check. If things are not respected and treated carefully, there will be grave risks for our country, and the Government must always keep that in mind.
I very much support the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. I opposed it in the first place and it has proved to be dreadful legislation. It has been totally ineffective. Even when it was working and prevented the new Prime Minister calling an election, I recall hearing on a Saturday night that the Liberal Democrats and the SNP were going to offer him a Bill to call an election days after he had lost a vote under the Act. I thought, “What nonsense”, and then I heard that the leader of the Opposition was also going to back the Bill. The rest is history, and the only winners have been the Prime Minister and Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland.
Giving the Prime Minister the power to call a general election, which has been the traditional way here in the UK, is something that we should go back to. From recollection, it is very obvious when there is going to be an election. Most Governments who are doing well in the polls will seek a dissolution of Parliament at around the fourth anniversary of their election. If they are trailing in the polls and doing badly, they will carry on into the fifth year and probably quite near to the end of their term of office, unless of course they are defeated in a no-confidence Motion, which is not going to happen any time soon.
In respect of measures to be introduced regarding elections and postal votes, I would prefer there to be much more comprehensive legislation in respect of elections. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, will support me on that. I think he agrees with me that our election law is not fit for purpose.
I also think it is time for the Government to take a look at the role and function of the Electoral Commission. It has made a difference but we need to ensure that what it does in terms of all our election law is right. We have plenty of time to do that and I hope that the Government will use the coming period to make sure that it happens. I would appreciate a response from the Minister on that as well.
With that, I draw my remarks to a close. I look forward to the rest of the debate, with contributions from many interesting speakers. I also look forward to the maiden speeches, which we will be hearing shortly.