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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:07 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 8:07 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, I shall touch on four issues. The first is the Government’s focus on imprisonment and tough community sentences. Such policies fail to address the causes of crime and the vulnerabilities of children excluded from school, and will therefore not reduce knife crime or violent crime more generally. This is a human tragedy but also a terrible waste of taxpayers’ money. I urge Ministers to listen to the most senior police officer in the land, who understands how to reduce the level of serious crime. Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, could help the Government to achieve their objective; he is clear that arrests are not the key to fighting crime.

The Children’s Society makes the point that a long-term solution to youth violence must prioritise effective support for vulnerable children at an early stage. The 29% cut in funding for children and young people’s services and the 49% cut in specific early intervention funding since 2010 will only fuel youth crime. Urgent is the need for investment in mental health support for children at risk of exclusion from school. Excluded children are the criminals of the future. Can the Minister give me some assurance that the cuts will be restored in full, and that children’s mental health services will be funded adequately? There is no indication of the full restoration of funding in the Queen’s Speech.

Secondly, I want to refer to a totally different subject: my Private Member’s Bill, which I will introduce tomorrow and which gives legal recognition to humanist marriages. Scotland is 14 years ahead. Humanist marriages in Scotland account for 22% of all marriages, more than are accounted for by any religious or belief group. Northern Ireland, Jersey and the Republic of Ireland also have legal recognition of humanist marriages, but at present in England and Wales the growing number of couples who have humanist marriages also have to have a civil wedding, with all the additional costs and administration involved. This is a human rights issue that is currently going through the courts.

Seven years ago, the Government tabled an amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, to enable Ministers to legalise humanist marriages. This was in response to strong parliamentary support for such a reform. Seven years later, nothing has happened. It would be very simple and very popular. I hope the Government will ensure that parliamentary time is given to this Private Member’s Bill to ensure that we can make progress at last.

On my third issue, the persecution of patients, the Minister will be aware of the appalling experience of 55 year-old Lesley Gibson, a multiple sclerosis sufferer in a wheelchair who was arrested and charged with possession and cultivation of cannabis for growing 10 plants to treat her symptoms. Lesley faced up to five years in jail. Medical cannabis is legal, but most patients have to spend about £1,000 a month to get hold of it because of our ludicrous regulations. They cannot afford it. Will the ministerial team give an instruction to the Permanent Secretary to do what is necessary to decriminalise the possession or cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes only? Some police forces are already operating such a policy. Police know that patients’ self-care does not and should not represent a crime.

Finally, let me turn to the issue of assisted dying—last but very much not least. I want to pay tribute to Ron Hogg, former police and crime commissioner for Durham Constabulary, whose funeral I attended yesterday in the cathedral. Ron campaigned for the legalisation of assisted dying, as he himself lay dying of motor neurone disease. He was unable to move, speak and all the rest of it, yet he was somehow helping us to get this across. He did not want others to suffer as he was suffering. Seventeen police and crime commissioners joined Ron in his end-of-life plea for reform. MPs, police officers and doctors are increasingly aware of the cruelty of the current law, from all sorts of points of view. One is the pain for police officers having to arrest and interview bereaved relatives. They cry on occasions because they find it so painful.

We have an urgent need for an independent inquiry into the consequences of the Suicide Act 1961 as it affects terminally ill, mentally competent people who need help to bring their suffering to an end a little earlier than might happen naturally. The previous Justice Secretary agreed to such an inquiry. I call on the current Government to reaffirm that commitment.