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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:20 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice) 5:20 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay and Lord Davies of Gower, on their excellent and powerful maiden speeches.

For Liberal Democrats, committed as we are to remain, the election was a major defeat and a great disappointment. We recognise that we are now headed for Brexit, which we believe will do significant harm to the UK and Europe. Supporters of Brexit now regularly call upon us all to unite behind leaving. While of course we accept the result of the election, I suggest that it is important to recognise that our nation remains deeply divided on Europe, geographically and generationally, that unity will be a long time coming, and that all parties, winners and losers, must seek out common ground. For the winners simply to impose the entirety of their will on the losers, without looking for compromise positions, just will not work.

On justice, there is a chilling passage in the government briefing on the Queen’s Speech that foresees us losing the European arrest warrant, which all security professionals agree makes us safer, as do our membership of Europol and Eurojust and our access to the Schengen databases. Our civil and family justice systems are enormously enhanced by the Rome regulations on choice of law and conflicts, the Brussels regime on determination of forum and recognition and enforcement of judgments and awards, and the enhanced Hague convention provisions on the abduction of children. These are all benefits that the previous Government consistently assured us that a Brexit deal would preserve. I do not share that confidence now. The provisions proposed in the private international law (implementation of agreements) Bill outlined by the Minister in opening will provide an inadequate substitute for the comprehensive co-operation and, importantly, the international reciprocity guaranteed by the existing provisions of EU law. Furthermore, new Clause 26(1) of the European withdrawal Bill, which permits lower courts, not just the Supreme Court, to depart from decisions of the European Court of Justice, reflects the worst consequences of divergence.

Why prohibit an extension of the implementation period, even if the necessary agreements are not yet in place? The Government threaten to act like a driver on a long journey, with a deadline for arrival, who responds to difficulties en route by driving ever faster and more dangerously to arrive on time, when a prudent driver would phone ahead and change the deadline to reach the destination safely. The Government’s approach is irresponsible and naive, the opposite of careful and well-judged diplomacy.

On other proposals on justice, there is much to welcome. We will support the enhanced victims law and the reintroduction of the domestic abuse Bill, which will transform protection for victims. The continuing reform of sentencing law will simplify and improve an overcomplicated area of law. Legislation on no-fault divorce is long overdue.

We particularly look forward to a royal commission on criminal justice. We will advocate greater concentration, from arrest to final completion of sentence, on turning lives around by helping address drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues, homelessness, deprivation, lack of education, training and employment opportunities, and the specific problems faced by women offenders. We will be arguing for co-ordinated provision for individual offenders, involving the prison and probation services, local authorities, health and training providers, potential employers and others. We will also be calling for the restoration of viable and adequate legal aid to help offenders navigate the unfamiliar and often hostile environment of the criminal justice system.

But my concern is that the Government’s attitude, evidenced by the proposed counterterrorism, sentencing and serious violence Bills, suggests a populist approach—locking up more people and for longer—whereas the reality is that in the UK we imprison far too many for too long. As other noble Lords have said, we must improve prison conditions, reduce overcrowding, increase staffing levels and cut the appalling violence, giving offenders a real chance of rehabilitation, so cutting crime and its human and financial cost accordingly. I hope that in this Parliament we will be able to make some progress on these issues.