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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:03 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 10:03 pm, 8th January 2020

I thank the noble Lord and all noble Lords who have spoken in what has been quite a long debate today. I will try to respond in the most meaningful way that I can at this time of the night.

I start by thanking my two noble friends Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay and Lord Davies of Gower for their wonderful maiden speeches. My noble friend Lord Parkinson and I go back quite some time. We have been involved in various campaigns. In fact, he was in the Home Office when I was a Whip under Theresa May. If he is only in his 30s, I must have first met him when he was about 10—at least, he looked about 10. I was picturing Whitley Bay when I used to go swimming there at the leisure centre; I do not know if it is still there. I was also trying to envisage what getting into the North Sea on New Year’s Day must have been like. It was freezing in the summer, so on New Year’s Day it must have been absolutely perishing and I admire those people who took the plunge—literally. He mentioned that he has sat in two Parliaments over 12 days of sitting; I was reflecting that I am now on my fourth Home Secretary, so we must compare firsts with each other at some point.

My noble friend Lord Davies of Gower also gave a lovely maiden speech, talking about how his maiden speech in the Commons coincided with his third wedding anniversary. I do not know the noble Lord particularly well but am very much looking forward to getting to know him. I am quite lucky because my wedding anniversary is in August, but my birthday falls in May so I am generally sitting on this Bench for it, which is a joy, obviously. I also welcome back the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. It is good to see him back, and I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile.

I will start with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and, if noble Lords are content with this, will split the various themes that came up and try to namecheck as many noble Lords as possible—though I might possibly fail in that. The first issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, was the role and function of the Electoral Commission. It is the independent regulatory body responsible for ensuring that elections and referenda are run effectively and in accordance with the law, registering political parties and regulating the spending of and the donations and loans to political parties and other campaigners. The Government continue to work closely with the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders in the electoral system to protect the integrity, security and effectiveness of referenda and elections.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, along with many other noble Lords, spoke about the constitution, democracy and rights commission—how, when, what powers, scope, et cetera. I am afraid that I am about to drop the biggest damp squib of the day, given how much time has been devoted to this issue. In broad terms, the commission’s role will be to examine broader aspects of the constitution and restore trust in institutions and democracy in terms of the composition and focus that are required. There will be further announcements in due course. That is about all I can say on it this evening. The Government will always stand for democracy and the rule of law, but, with the significant constitutional upheaval we have had over the last two decades, it is vital that we maintain a balance.

My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and other noble Lords have broadly welcomed the decision to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It led to parliamentary paralysis at a critical time for the country, which was not good for anybody. Repealing the Act will ensure that that does not happen again. It was passed by the coalition under unique circumstances. My noble friend Lady Stowell pointed out that recent events have shown that it is not appropriate for our democracy.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, spoke about the independence of the judiciary. The Government will always stand up for democracy and the rule of law. We are proud that our independent courts and judiciary are admired around the world, but it is important that we maintain a careful and appropriate balance between the major pillars of our constitution, especially given some of the upheaval we have had.

Also on the question of justice, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, talked about whether planned encampment legislation would be discriminatory towards the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community. We currently have a consultation running on it in which all views, including those of the Gypsy and Roma community, will be taken into account. I recall engaging with them when I was in the DCLG, so I know that we have quite a lot of engagement with them.

My noble friend Lord Hailsham talked about the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland and the role of the Armed Forces personnel. Another noble Lord—I cannot remember who—also spoke about bringing an end to the unfair pursuit of our Armed Forces through vexatious legislation. We stated in our manifesto and in the Queen’s Speech that we will bring forward comprehensive legislation on that as soon as possible, and we are committed to delivering on the Stormont House agreement.

The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, and my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier talked about delays in the criminal justice system. The number of trial cases in hand at the Crown Court at the end of 2019 was the lowest since 2000. There is not a shortage of judges; we have the lowest waiting times for trial since 2014. My noble and learned friend Lord Garnier talked about criminal justice reform and courts and prison capacity. The sentencing Bill will protect the public and provide greater confidence to victims by ensuring that serious violent and sexual offenders who receive custodial sentences will spend more of that sentence in prison. A number of noble Lords talked about the length of sentences. The Government have announced a £1 billion modernisation programme for courts, implementing 21st-century technology and improving efficiency. At the end of 2018-19, the Crown Court had 25,071 cases in hand, which is the lowest since 2000, and the Government have also announced an investment of £2.5 billion for 10,000 additional prison places.

The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, talked about the court estate and closures. Continued access to justice will be the top priority when making decisions about the future of court and tribunal buildings. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, talked about access to justice and the impact that the constitution commission will have on that. We spent £1.7 billion on legal aid last year, and we are committed to ensuring that people can access the help they need into the future. On that point, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about reviewing access rates, legal aid and support. We are conducting a fundamental review of criminal legal aid fee schemes, which will consider criminal legal aid throughout the life cycle of a criminal case.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked about the scope for the royal commission on the criminal justice system to look at the care system and care leavers in prison. That is a good point. The Government are committed to ensuring a fair justice system that works for everyone and which commands public confidence. We value the vital work of local multiagency services in supporting children on the cusp of offending and those who have already offended, and youth offending teams are clearly central to that. The Youth Justice Board total funding for front-line services, including youth offending teams, is £72.2 million, and we continue to support residential areas to provide an environment where young people feel able to engage with integrated care, health and education services in order to progress during their time in custody.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, talked about exclusion and early intervention. I do not know whether she was here for the Question that I took on this today—I do not say that to chide her—but we covered quite a lot of that today. We have announced £165 million of funding for the troubled families programme in 2021, which I am sure she will be pleased to hear about, to help more people and families get access to early, practical and co-ordinated support to transform their lives for the better. We are focusing on improving the quality of alternative provision, which came up today in Questions as well, and we have launched a £4 million alternative provision fund ahead of setting out our plans to go further in due course. We are also investing over £220 million in early intervention through the Youth Endowment Fund over a period of 10 years, and £22 million into our early intervention youth fund.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester asked whether there would be a definition of child criminal exploitation. There is a government definition in the Serious Violence Strategy, which is commonly used to describe child exploitation associated with county-lines drug dealing. Robust legislation is also in place to prosecute those who exploit children for communal purposes. In April 2019, the Government published a Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit, which provides front-line practitioners with tools to disrupt child exploitation.

The noble Lord, Lord Beith, asked whether the Intelligence and Security Committee would be constituted in time to scrutinise the espionage Bill and make recommendations to both Houses. We appreciate and recognise the important role that the committee will play in scrutinising national security legislation, and we are confident that that will be the case. He also asked where the courts and tribunals Bill was. We are committed to modernising the whole criminal justice system, as I have previously outlined, and to ensuring that it is fit for purpose. We will bring forward any necessary legislation to ensure that that happens.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked whether the domestic abuse Bill will be accompanied by the necessary resources. We will of course ensure that the appropriate funding is there to meet the new duty.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, asked whether economic integration on the island of Ireland will lead to political integration. It remains firmly the Secretary of State’s view that a clear majority in Northern Ireland continues to support the current settlement, as my noble friend Lord Caine pointed out, and that the circumstances for a border poll are not satisfied. I thought that he explained it very satisfactorily in more detail.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, also asked about the Government refreshing strands 2 and 3 of the Belfast agreement, both to give some democratic legitimacy to the continued existence of some aspects of EU law in Northern Ireland and to ensure that Northern Ireland is represented in deciding these laws. The UK Government’s priority remains the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is engaged in intense negotiations with all the parties to get Stormont back up and running before the current 13 January deadline.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, asked about the representation of the devolved Administrations in negotiations on our future relationship. We recognise the need for their close involvement in negotiations on our future relationship with the EU in order to deliver a satisfactory outcome.

The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, and my noble friend Lord Davies of Gower asked about the UK Government commitment to delivering economic growth in Wales. We are committed to supporting a strong Wales within a strong United Kingdom across a wide range of areas. That includes providing significant investment in city and growth deals across the whole of Wales to deliver that real, long-term growth to the respective regions. We are providing £790 million of investment in city and growth deals covering the whole of Wales, including £500 million to the Cardiff capital regional deal, which will provide an investment fund to the region and support the electrification of valley lines railways, and £150 million to the Swansea Bay city deal. We have also committed £120 million and £55 million respectively to allow the north Wales and mid-Wales growth deals to be agreed. Finally on Wales, there is the A55, a road on which I have travelled many times—and a beautiful road it is. I can announce that on Monday, the new Secretary of State for Wales met with the Welsh Government Minister for the Economy and Transport to discuss transport improvements in Wales.

My noble friend Lady Eaton talked about the publication of the devolution White Paper, including work with local authorities and the Local Government Association. It will be published this year as per our manifesto commitment, and we are absolutely committed to working with all relevant sectors and stakeholders.

My noble friend Lord Dunlop gave us a taster of some of things we should think about in terms of strengthening intergovernmental relations. I look forward to reading his report, which the Government will of course consider in due course.

My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, talked about when and why we are introducing compulsory voter ID. It will not be implemented before May 2020 and I am sure that they will support the premise that electoral fraud is absolutely unacceptable. It strikes at the principle of and undermines democracy, because everyone’s vote matters. I know that, having lost Bolton West by 92 votes. We already ask people to prove who they are before they collect a parcel, claim benefits or rent a car. You need two forms of ID to get into a Labour Party meeting, so I think that it is reasonable to take the same approach to voting rights. The noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Rosser, asked for examples. I do not have any to hand, but I shall see if we have any data and I will provide them for both noble Lords.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked about Section 60 and the response reports showing the lack of efficacy and negative effect on young black men. The police believe that stop and search can play an important role in fighting crime. The Government have listened to the police and eased voluntary restrictions on the use of stop and search. That means that officers can authorise these powers, and for longer, but he is absolutely right that no one should be targeted due to their race. However, the use of legal powers to protect those most at risk has to be right, so obviously a clear balance has to be struck.

The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, asked about the reform of the 43 police forces, which struck a chord with me. He gave an example of how regional structures work quite well and I am thinking, of course, about the regional organised crime units that operate extremely well. The more efficiency and less disjointed working across the 43 forces, the better, and actually the more financially efficient they will be as well. There is greater ambition for policing to work as one system to manage new threats and to deliver consistently high standards. Obviously, the recruitment of 20,000 extra officers will help to deliver that commitment.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, also asked about police corruption, which increased during the 1990s following the last major recruitment drive. It might help him to know that the vetting rules were put under a statutory code of practice under this Government in 2017, and we are working with forces to ensure that these stringent standards are applied as they increase their recruitment. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked whether the figure of £750 million was correct, was it not closer to £630 million with an expectation on PCCs to realise efficiencies, and how much would go directly to them. We have committed to increasing investment in policing by £750 million next year to support the unprecedented commitment to recruit an additional 6,000 officers by March 2021, and details of the allocation of funding will be set out very shortly in the police funding Statement.

Other questions were put to me on immigration but I have been speaking for 20 minutes and I am aware that another debate is happening next. If there are a few questions that I have not responded to, I hope that noble Lords will be okay if I respond to them in writing. Again, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate.

Debate adjourned until tomorrow.