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Commons Chamber

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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House Of Commons

Tuesday 8 April 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business


Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Tuesday 29 April.

Oral Answers To Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Scotland Act


When she intends to propose amendments to the Scotland Act 1998 in order to reduce the number of Scottish hon. Members. [106713]

Section 86 of the Scotland Act sets out the procedures. I have no intention of changing that.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that reply. I know that the issue presents a problem for her and for many Labour Back Benchers, but I am trying to be helpful. Has she considered using the league table of parliamentary contributions to determine which of her colleagues should stay, given that so many of them languish at the bottom of the table? Does she believe that those who will eventually face the chop will be in good company, because so many Labour MSPs will face the chop at the hands of the Scottish National party on 1 May?

I am delighted to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) would receive the wooden spoon for his attendance record. The question is a bit rich, given that the leader of the SNP has said that Scotland will be independent by 2007. That would mean that prior to 2006 and the completion of the boundary commission's review, we would have to introduce legislation for an independent Scotland without any consideration of the costs and consequences of that. At the same time, the consequences of an SNP vote on 1 May would be cuts to public services, with all the disruption that that would entail.

My right hon. Friend will probably not be surprised to find out that the Scottish nationalists yet again did not up for a major debate—this time a Westminster Hall debate on health and safety. They never seem to turn up for Scotland these days. One of the consequences of the Scotland Act is the list system, and the deplorable way in which nationalist list Members do their work. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we do away with the nationalist-type list Member and that we have list Members who do their work properly?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He and other Labour Members know that when we considered the Proceeds of Crime Bill—one of the most significant post-devolution measures in this House that was introduced to get rid of drug dealers in our communities—the SNP could not even be bothered to participate in Committee.

My hon. Friend makes a point about the list system. I am sure that the electors of Scotland will vote Labour, Labour, Labour on 1 May to ensure that there will be precious few SNP list Members in the new Scottish Parliament.

I commend the Secretary of State for making sense of the question asked by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart). As the hon. Gentleman may or may not know, no amendment is required to the Scotland Act to reduce the number of Scotland Members. It seems that the SNP's questions are just as confused as its policies.

Ordinary Scots want fewer Members of Parliament, fewer Ministers and fewer MSPs, but still the Secretary of State refuses to move quickly. Is she worried about her own seat? Does she accept that an abstention rate higher than 50 per cent. on 1 May will be a damning indictment of those who seek ever more Scots politicians and big government? Scotland needs fewer MPs and smaller, much better government.

I was being kind to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) when I answered his question because, after all, he has been in the House for only about two years, and one must be understanding. It is rather rich for a Conservative Member to talk about fewer MPs and MSPs given that the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) is the "Westminster one". He should look at his party in Scotland, because the number of defections from the Scottish Tories is increasing by the day. I believe that the Scottish Parliament elections will be well represented because the people of Scotland are now absolutely clear that devolution works, that partnership between the United Kingdom Government and a Labour-led Scottish Executive works, and that the stability of our economy and the prudence of its running is so significant that more people in Scotland are now in employment than in 1997.

Airport Infrastructure


What estimate she has made of the capacity of Scotland's airport infrastructure to keep up with projected growth in passenger numbers. [106714]

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government are currently involved in a consultation exercise on the development of air transport in the United Kingdom. The closing date for representations is 30 June.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I give a warm welcome to the Scottish Executive's plans to build rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh airports and to the BAA's announcement of a £200 million investment plan to double the capacity of Glasgow airport over the next 10 to 12 years. However, does she agree that, in the longer term—20 to 30 years from now—the interests of Scotland as a whole would be best served by one major hub airport that would provide more jobs and services than would otherwise be the case?

I commend my hon. Friend's question and recognise his considerable interest in transport matters, not least when he was a member of the Transport Committee. He is one of the experts on transport policy in the House.

I recall that many years ago, when I was the economist for the Scottish TUC and my hon. Friend was a trade union official, there was a significant debate on a central Scotland airport. At the time, it was found to be unviable. The current consultation exercise offers the opportunity to explore that further, but it seems that the viability of a central Scotland airport has not yet been proved.

I know that my hon. Friend is proud of the success of Glasgow airport and that he has contributed to that. It is going from strength to strength in terms of passenger numbers. The Scottish Executive are committing considerable resources to a rail link not just to Glasgow airport but to Edinburgh airport as well. I am delighted that there has been a 40 per cent. increase in passenger numbers over the past five years and that the number of direct flights from Scotland has grown from 18 to 25. A large part of that success can be put down to the campaigning undertaken by my hon. Friend.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that when I was at the Scottish Office in the '70s we ruled out the central airport because of fog, and that nothing has changed since then? Does she agree that Scotland needs many budget airlines that operate from all airports, including Prestwick and Inverness? What action is she taking, in conjunction with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Scottish Executive, to attract such services to Scotland?

A considerable number of budget airlines operate out of Scotland. We only have to look to the success of Prestwick airport in attracting Ryanair, greatly assisted by my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr (Sandra Osborne), for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) and for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), to know that. Indeed, there are more and more every week.

I am delighted by the success of the easyJet flights from Inverness to Gatwick. I am also delighted by the improved services to charter destinations from Inverness. I met representatives of British Airways last autumn to get their commitment to continue services from Inverness to London. It is a success story, which the hon. Lady would know if she visited Scotland more often.

I thank the Secretary of State for her unstinting support for Glasgow Prestwick international airport. Will she acknowledge, however, that in spite of its great success as Scotland's fastest growing passenger airport, it has a great deal of spare capacity? Does she agree that that should be utilised before we talk about expansion elsewhere?

There is scope to expand all Scotland's airports and we want more international airlinks as our economy continues to prosper. It is encouraging to note that there are proposals for even more direct airlinks from Glasgow international airport at Prestwick. Much of that is down to my hon. Friend's campaigning. I know that my constituents greatly appreciate the opportunity to take their holidays and to pursue their business interests from an airport that is so close to home.



What percentage of Scottish residents have access to broadband services. [106715]

Almost all of Scotland's population can access broadband services, either through a terrestrial link or by means of satellite connection, if they choose to do so. The need to bring affordable services to businesses and individuals across Scotland is what underpins the Government and the Scottish Executive's work on broadband.

I thank the Minister for her reply. How soon can rural communities and small towns expect to have the same access to broadband technology as the rest of Scotland? Does she agree that it is important to look after not just the central belt but the whole of Scotland?

I am delighted to advise the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) that that is exactly what is happening in Scotland. Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Executive are rolling out a broadband expansion programme and are considering ways to solve some of the very difficult geographical challenges that we have in parts of Scotland. He will be delighted to know that that project will eventually roll out to the 250 communities across the highlands and islands, including some communities that are as small as 20 inhabitants.

Does the Minister agree that the £4.4 million earmarked to introduce broadband in Scotland is not quite enough, and will she use her good offices to try to get more money for broadband? Access to broadband for people with businesses is crucial. For example, my constituent, Mr. Glenn Watson, who has four veterinary surgeries, must pay £24,000 per annum to link up his computer services, whereas other businesses that have access to broadband can do that at a much cheaper rate.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise, however, that the £4.4 million allocation to Scotland comes out of a £30 million UK broadband fund managed by the Department of Trade and Industry. She will also be delighted to have heard the news from BT late last week that it is looking to slash its broadband rates to encourage the take-up of broadband in Scotland.

Would the Minister like to reconsider her first complacent reply suggesting that everyone can have access if they have access to satellite technology? Is not the reality that, of the 1,000 exchanges in Scotland, only 68 are asymmetric digital subscriber line-enabled? That is unsatisfactory: it is a lower level than in England, and lower than in just about any other European country. When will the Government snap out of their complacency and allow rural Scotland to have the same access to this technology as just about every other country in Europe?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman took my factual comment as complacent. I said that access can be made available. Cost is an issue, which is why I would have thought that he would support the Scottish Executive, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise projects to roll out broadband, recognising that we have major geographical difficulties. I suspect, however, that the question that he and his colleagues must answer, given that they would slash our enterprise budgets, is how on earth broadband would be rolled out and the necessary investment be made.

Would my hon. Friend mind if I were untypically nice to the Liberal Democrats, and particularly to their Scottish spokesman, for his excellent research published yesterday in The Press and Journal? It showed that, merely by accessing broadband in the House of Commons Library, SNP Members would have got all the answers to their questions, which cost the taxpayer £258,000.

As usual, my right hon. Friend crystallises the issue succinctly. I would encourage more Members of this House to use our excellent facilities, including access to broadband, to elicit information without having to table parliamentary questions, if that route is available.

Family Tax Credit


How many Scots will benefit from the family tax credit. [106716]

The estimated number of families in Scotland expected to benefit from the child tax credit in 2003–04 is 430,000. The number of families in Scotland expected to receive the working tax credit in 2003–04 is 90,000.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff of the Inland Revenue accounts office in Cumbernauld on working so hard to implement that, and in welcoming the 200 additional jobs in my constituency in that regard? Is she aware that nine out of 10 families in Scotland are eligible for tax credits? What will she do to encourage all of them to claim their entitlement?

I share my hon. Friend's pleasure at the number of jobs created in her constituency and at her constituents' efficiency in processing applications for tax credits. Last weekend, like a number of Members—certainly Labour Members—I was out in my constituency encouraging people to take up the working tax credit and the child tax credit. People were astonished to discover that they would benefit even if they had an income of up to £50,000 a year, and that those with a child under one year old would be eligible for tax credits even if their income was £66,000. That is a significant move forward, not only in terms of taking people out of poverty but in terms of making sure that children throughout Scotland get the best possible start in life and families are given a huge boost to allow them to operate in a way that gives them pleasure as well as sustenance.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that, of a possible 5 million recipients of the new child tax credit, only 3 million have so far responded, so some 135,000 families in Scotland could lose out? I put it to her that a credit or benefit that has an application form 12 pages long with 47 pages of notes is bound to be a deterrent. I ask her to seek to have that simplified with her colleagues.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) was very kind to the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that we now have to play good cop, bad cop. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that his party opposed this system of tax credits, but I take the point about the complexity of claiming. None of us likes filling in tax forms—they are always difficult, which is very painful—but hon. Members have a role, and my parliamentary colleagues have been taking up that role in ensuring that people are aware of the tax credit system and that they receive assistance to ensure that they can claim the tax credits. I commend that activity to all hon. Members.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the method of paying the child tax credit directly to the main carer, who is usually the mother, is indeed a more effective and efficient way to ensure that those resources are best spent in the right direction?

I accept what my hon. Friend says. I was in his constituency yesterday, where a number of people referred to the tax credit system, and I was very encouraged by the extent to which men, in particular, said that they feel that it is right that the money should move from the wallet to the purse because, by and large, the mother is the main carer. Indeed, that fact is replicated throughout the country, where more than two thirds of men acknowledge that the money should go directly to the main carer. That is a real way to move children out of poverty.

Many Members have tried to elicit from the right hon. Lady what percentage of families in Scotland are eligible to claim tax credits. I understand that such figures are not published regionally. What work is she doing with the Treasury and the Office for National Statistics to persuade them to publish regional eligibility figures?

I am surprised at the hon. Lady's question—the figures are actually quite clear. More than 90 per cent. of families with children in Scotland are eligible to claim the tax credits. She is not in a position to be around and about in Scotland, but if she were, she would find that there is considerable take-up and interest, and my hon. Friends are trying to ensure that there is even greater take-up. Of course, that is very different from the position of the Conservative party; it wants to cut public expenditure by 20 per cent., which would lead to a cut in the money available to families as well.

May I give a piece of advice to the Minister? One thing that does not happen—I do not understand why—is using the facilities available to us. Local authorities administer nurseries and primary and secondary schools. Surely a way can be found to use the education system to let people know about their entitlements?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Many Members have accessed their own databases to ensure that schools, community groups, the Churches, and so on, are aware of the tax credits, but it would be very useful if all local authorities in Scotland were to take that on board to ensure that everyone knows—I make the point again—that families are entitled to the tax credits even if they have an income of up to £50,000 a year, or £66,000 if there is a child under one in the family.

Will the Secretary of State investigate suggestions north of the border that people who are being passported from income support to the new working tax credit are losing out on free schools meals as a result of a deficiency in some secondary legislation that the Scottish Executive have not yet got round to implementing? Will she make it her business to ensure that that defect is remedied as soon as possible on the grounds that free school meals have a significant budgetary effect on weekly incomes, particularly for low-income families with many children?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and I will certainly look into the issue as soon as possible and try to ensure that the necessary action is taken.



When she will next meet representatives of poverty support groups to discuss poverty in Scotland. [106717]

I met the Poverty Alliance in September 2002. I have no current plans to meet representatives of poverty support groups, but am happy to discuss at any time the Government's record in combating poverty.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she agree that guaranteeing child care for all children aged two and under, day-care provision for three and four-year-olds and setting up additional after-school and breakfast clubs throughout Scotland would be a huge step towards combating the scourge of poverty throughout our country? Does she accept that setting up such things in areas of greatest need should be a priority for the Government and the new Scottish Executive?

I might be prepared to accept some of that if the hon. Gentleman were prepared to accept that the cost of independence would undermine all of it. Significant measures have been taken on poverty in Scotland, covering children, pensioners and low-income families. Dare I remind the House that when the national minimum wage was being enacted, the one party that failed to send a representative on lifting people out of poverty was the very party that the hon. Gentleman supports?

When my hon. Friend meets members of the Poverty Alliance in Scotland, will she ask them what effect they think that the increase in the national minimum wage to £4.50 this year and the further increase to £4.85 will have on poverty in Scotland?

I will indeed. Members on both sides of the House know that the national minimum wage is one of the most significant measures introduced by the Government to lift people out of poverty wages. Every Member should realise, from the experience of their constituents, that the national minimum wage was a centrepiece of the last Parliament. In this Parliament, it will continue to be a centrepiece of our policies to tackle poverty.


The Advocate-General was asked—



What devolution issues she has dealt with since 11 March. [106707]


What devolution issues have been raised in the last month under the Scotland Act 1998. [106708]

Since 11 March, 31 devolution issue minutes were intimated to me. They concerned a variety of matters, including delay in court proceedings; challenges to confiscation orders; the requirement on the defence to lodge notice of intention to lead sexual history evidence in trials; and the fixing of punishment-part life licence hearings. In the civil sphere there was only one case, which concerned a challenge to the decision of a planning reporter.

If the Office of Fair Trading report into pharmacies were to be implemented, we should see the closure of many high street chemists and their replacement by pharmacies in supermarkets. I was therefore delighted when the Scottish Executive rejected the report. However, there is widespread concern that supermarkets may be able to use UK competition law to overrule the Scottish Executive's decision. I hope that will definitely not be the case and I should be grateful if the Advocate-General advised the House on the legal position.

As I have said time and again, I cannot advise on such matters in the abstract. If proposals are made by the Scottish Executive, and intimated to me in due course if they are to take the form of legislation, I shall do my usual job and look into them. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand that such matters are difficult; they must be seen in the context of the complicated structure of the Scotland Act. He cannot make wide, sweeping assertions about any of them. In general terms, competition policy is, of course, reserved, while health matters are devolved, but the situation can be extremely complex when those matters meet and intersect. That is why the Executive have a Law Officer to deal with them.

Perhaps we could try again!

Was the Advocate-General consulted by the Scottish Executive before their announcement in March of their rejection of the OFT report on pharmacies? Does she agree that the Scottish Parliament has the power to take such a decision, irrespective of what the Department of Trade and Industry may do south of the border, or was that just another meaningless statement from new Labour during the election to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the Scottish electorate?

I am surprised that the hon. Lady still does not understand the devolution structures. The Scottish Executive do not consult me as a Law Officer. I am not the Law Officer to the Scottish Executive; I am the Law Officer to the UK Government. The Scottish Executive can, if they wish, consult their own Law Officers—the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General. Those are the devolution processes. I shall deal with any proceedings that are proposed in due course.

What thought is being given to the all too real but complex problem of delay in court proceedings to which the Advocate-General referred?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting issue. As I have told the House, some hundreds of cases of delay have been intimated to me as devolution issues. Some quite complex legal problems have surrounded some of these issues, and we have taken a number of test cases. The most important of these was the case of R, which was dealt with in the Privy Council, and in which I appeared personally. That helped to clarify the law in respect of delay. The main point was that where there is a breach of the convention on human rights in relation to delay in proceedings under article 6, the Lord Advocate is not entitled, because of the operation of the Scotland Act, to proceed with such a prosecution.



What devolution issues have been raised since 11 March. [106709]

I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave some moments ago to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid).

May I refer the hon. and learned Lady to my question and her answer on 11 March at column 151 of Hansard, in which she said that she would have four weeks in which to give her opinion on the Agriculture Holdings (Scotland) Bill? Will she share with the House whether she has reached an opinion within that time, and the content of her opinion?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this interesting issue, which came up in debate on an amendment. As I explained, it came before me as part of the Bill, which has now been passed. The four-week period expires tomorrow. It is not my practice to advise on this, but I will write to the hon. Lady tomorrow, once the four-week period expires, to explain to her whether I have decided to make any referral.

Lord Chancellor

The Parliamentary Secretary was asked—

Magistrates Courts


If she will make a statement on the Greater London Magistrates' Courts Authority consultation on court closures. [107456]

The GLMCA is the magistrates court committee responsible for the running of magistrates courts in London and for the opening and closing of court buildings in the capital. Ministers are involved only where there are appeals from local authorities. I can today announce that I have accepted the appeal against the closure of Kingston magistrates court.

I thank the Minister on behalf of others for her decision. I look forward to the possibility of further appeals in the process of court closure reviews by the GLMCA. I ask her to consider the accountability arrangements for the GLMCA, not least the fact that it is not clear how it is held to account for decisions that it takes in private, it refuses to release information to Members about the basis for its decisions, and it thus makes the consultation process a mockery. Will she explain how I, as a Member, can gain access to this organisation, can hold it to account and can ensure that the public can be confident that its decisions are based on sound grounds?

I am happy to look into the hon. Gentleman's specific concerns if he wants to write to me. It is right that the GLMCA should take a strategic view in respect of court buildings throughout London. He will know that because appeals come to Ministers it would be inappropriate for me to comment on individual cases before the appeals are heard. I agree that we need to improve the accountability of local decision making. That is one of the reasons why we want, as part of the unified administration, the courts' administration councils not simply to have local magistrates on them but a wider range of members from the local community.

I thank the Minister most warmly for her statement, especially the excellent news that Kingston magistrates court is not to close. The hon. Lady knows the strength of feeling on this matter in my constituency, not least because of our correspondence and our meetings. I am delighted that she listened to the strong arguments that were so skilfully marshalled by the chairman of the bench, Ian Rathjen. Will she accept our thanks for this welcome decision and accept my open invitation to her to visit the local courthouse whenever she has the opportunity to do so? Will she say a little more about the future options for building on Kingston's growing reputation as a regional centre of excellence for the bench?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. He has made representations to me, as have some of my hon. Friends. We had serious concerns that Wimbledon court would not have the capacity to take all the additional cases if Kingston court closed. We also took into account the convenient location of Kingston court, which is so close to the Crown court and the police station, as well as the convenience for local people. Of course, every individual decision must be taken on its merits. I shall certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's invitation to visit Kingston.

Sheriffs Courts


If she will make a statement on the Lord Chancellor's review of under-high sheriffs', under-sheriffs' and sheriffs' High Court enforcement functions. [107457]

The Courts Bill, which is currently progressing through the other place, includes proposals to relieve sheriffs of their legal obligations in connection with High Court writs for the enforcement of judgment debts by the seizure and sale of debtors' goods and High Court writs for the possession of land. The Bill also introduces a new regime under which individuals will be authorised by the Lord Chancellor to act as enforcement officers for the purpose of executing those writs.

The Lord Chancellor's review of under-high sheriffs, under-sheriffs and sheriffs proposes that a writ may be addressed only to a member of the Sheriffs Officers Association. If, for any reason, an under-sheriff is unwilling or unable to become a member of that body and is therefore disqualified from receiving a writ, will there be compensation for that individual?

In the system that we are adopting, under-sheriffs and sheriff officers will be authorised by the Lord Chancellor or the person to whom he delegates responsibility for that authorisation, to carry out creditors' wishes to have a debt enforced. I therefore think that the problem that the hon. Lady has highlighted will not arise, because there will be an authorisation process, so sheriffs officers or enforcement officers, as they will now be called, will be able to carry out the process.

The removal of high sheriffs from any rolling High Court enforcement will, as the Minister said, break the link between the high sheriff and the under-sheriff. In the past, the under-sheriff has offered the incoming high sheriff an indemnity against any litigation that might be brought by aggrieved debtors. Will the Lord Chancellor's Department indemnify high sheriffs in any outstanding period between Royal Assent and the point when the statutory limitation becomes legally effective?

The issue that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted is one of the reasons for the change, because it was felt that it was unfair for a volunteer to be under certain legal obligations and carry such a responsibility. As for the time between Royal Assent and the continuation of the indemnity, that is certainly something that we shall look at and consult on.

Magistrates Courts


What recent representations she has received on the distances witnesses have to travel to reach magistrates courts in north Yorkshire. [107458]

None recently, but I know that North Yorkshire county council has lodged an appeal against recent decisions by the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee. I have not yet received all the representations and have not yet considered the appeal.

Is the hon. Lady aware that since her Government have been in power more than 200 magistrates courts have closed, which has led, particularly in north Yorkshire, to witnesses having to travel long distances in a sparsely populated area with limited public transport between villages and the places where magistrates courts meet? Could members of her Department turn their attention to facilitating travel arrangements for witnesses, enabling them to get to court, and to do so on time?

The hon. Lady's figures are incorrect. It is certainly the case that there were magistrates courts closures under the previous Administration as well as this one. Those closures vary from year to year—last year, there were seven magistrates courts closures, but in 1996, the last year of the Conservative Government, there were 21 court closures, including rural court closures in Hornsea, Howden, Market Weighton, Cheadle, Biddulph, Kidsgrove, Bedale, Easingwold, Leyburn, Ingleton, Thursk, Colwyn Bay, Llangollen, another Welsh place that I cannot pronounce, East Dereham and elsewhere. I could go on—[HON. MEMBERS: "Go on!"]

The hon. Lady ought to check her facts before making such points. However, she is right that there is a serious issue about ensuring that victims and witnesses can travel to court. Magistrates courts committees need to take account both of other facilities for victims and witnesses, including facilities available in the courthouse, and resources. This year, north Yorkshire will get 23 per cent. more in cash terms for magistrates courts committees compared with last year. Under Conservative plans, they would receive a 20 per cent. cut.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the private finance initiative bid by the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee to build six new courts to serve the people of the York and Selby area? In view of the large travelling distances between parts of Selby and York, will she take due account of the strong local feeling that, if the bid is approved, at least one of the courts should be based in Selby?

I know that my hon. Friend has strong views on that issue, which he has raised with me before. He will be aware that it is the responsibility of the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee to determine the location of the proposed new court houses. Clearly, if any appeal is made to Ministers, I will certainly meet my hon. Friend and consider all the issues that he wants to raise.

Fathers' Rights


What recent representations the Lord Chancellor has received concerning the rights of fathers in family law cases. [107459]

My officials and I have regular meetings with groups representing the interests of fathers. As part of the Department's work to ensure safe contact for children and their families after relationship breakdowns, members of fathers and mothers organisations contribute to policy development.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but would she consider reviewing the law in this area? An increasing number of articles and reports demonstrate that fathers are concerned about what they view as an inequality in the decisions made. They are also concerned about anomalies in the law, such as the differing treatment of older children in further and higher education, in respect of maintenance and the common law. In view of the sensitivity surrounding such cases, might it not be worth reviewing the law on the respective rights of fathers and mothers, to establish whether the complaints are fair and accurate and to settle the concerns that have been expressed so publicly?

We are well aware that emotions run deep in such cases. It is almost impossible to please every party. Inevitably, the cases that come before the courts are high conflict cases. I believe that we should examine other methods of reducing the conflict. We must remember that the courts will always take a decision that it is in the best interests of the child: that is at the heart of the process of decision-making. However, we could develop parenting plans, in-court conciliation and mediation. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may laugh, but many children are in a difficult position and it is important to take the best decisions for them rather than focus on the point of view of one parent.

Will the Minister reflect carefully on the evidence provided this morning by the president of the family division of the High Court to the Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department, which is chaired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)? Concern is widespread that fathers are not being treated fairly in family law cases, particularly in respect of the operation of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, because social worker reports do not put forward a balanced view between fathers and mothers. Does my hon. Friend know about those concerns, and will she seek to deal with them when she looks at the problem carefully?

I will not only look at, but listen to, the evidence. When the problem was raised this morning, the judges before the Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department acknowledged the perception, but felt that it did not conform to reality. As to the role of CAFCASS, it can provide alternative means of help. The judges also said this morning that the CAFCASS reports were of high quality and that they did provide fair assessments of the position. The other ways in which it could help include in-court conciliation, and a greater role in mediation and support for contact centres, which can help to ease the difficult problems that families face.

Court Administration


If she will make a statement on the role of the Department in court administration. [107460]

The Court Service, an executive agency of the Lord Chancellor's Department, runs county courts, Crown courts and higher courts other than the House of Lords. Magistrates courts are run by 42 independent magistrates courts committees.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Does she agree that despite recent reforms, access to the civil courts in this country can still be very slow and prohibitively expensive for many of our citizens? Does she agree that that process could be immensely speeded up if it were overseen not by the arcane Lord Chancellor's Department, but by a modern Ministry of Justice that is fully accountable to the House of Commons?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Ministers from the Lord Chancellor's Department are here in the House of Commons answering questions on the business of the Court Service and the work of the Lord Chancellor's Department.

There have been significant improvements in waiting times for civil trials. Fast-track trials have seen waiting times fall by 20 per cent. in two years and by 12 per cent. in respect of small claims. There have been improvements in civil cases, but it is clearly important to tackle delays throughout the justice system in respect of both civil and criminal cases.

Under the plans of the Lord Chancellor's Department, will the Government be able to guarantee that the courts of this country will be separate from the police service, so that people can clearly see and know the difference? Will the Minister and her colleagues be answerable in future, under the new plans, for court openings and closures—answerable to Members of Parliament, local councillors and members of the public?

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the proposals for the unified administration, which would keep the courts very much separate from the police, because the latter are accountable through the Home Office, while the courts would remain accountable through the Lord Chancellor's Department. The unified administration will set up local courts administration councils and will be an executive agency that is accountable to Parliament. We envisage that the courts administration councils will take decisions or views on local court estate use, while the appeals process would be very similar to the current arrangements in respect of magistrates courts closures. Certainly, Ministers will ultimately be accountable to Parliament for decisions.

President Of The Council

The President of the Council was asked—



If he will ask the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons to consider the use of laptop computers by hon. Members in the House. [107446]

I hope that the Modernisation Committee will look at the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion as part of its work on how Parliament can be made more accessible and the work of MPs more effective.

I am most grateful to the Minister once again for his very positive response. He will recall that, towards the end of last year, we exchanged correspondence on this subject, and I am anxious now, some four months later, to find out what has happened. He will also be aware that technology has moved on and that some forms of computer, even without keyboards, have already been successfully pioneered to assist in the work of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I hope that he can assure me that it will not be too long before the Modernisation Committee can consider all those matters further to aid the work of the House.

I should like to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, by contrast with some of his hon. Friends, who have just shouted from a sedentary position the word "shocking", on the leading role that he has taken in his Select Committee in encouraging the use of laptop computers in open session for the first time. We look forward very much to the report of his right hon. Friend the Member for 'Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the Chairman of that Committee, which I believe we are expecting by Easter and which will deal with how that experiment has gone. I am sure that the Modernisation Committee will take notice of that report.

Given that hon. Members are already positively festooned with electronic devices in this place and that I have seen the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) twitch in the same way as other hon. Members when their pagers go off—

Perhaps it is a natural twitch.

Does it not make sense that in Committee in this day and age, hon. Members should, as in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, have the opportunity to access information through a laptop computer?

It never ceases to amaze me that many hon. Members who purport to have Neanderthal attitudes to modern and electronic devices are the first to resort to them for their political use.

Programming Of Bills


What proposals he will bring forward to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on programming Bills. [107447]

My right hon. Friend has no plans to bring forward proposals on programming Bills. He notes that the Modernisation Committee has said that it will keep the operation of programming under continuing consideration.

As someone who does not oppose timetabling Bills in principle, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary and the new Leader of the House, whom I know to be a reasonable man—[Laughter.] I may have got that wrong. I ask them to examine the process of tabling amendments in another place which revert to the House of Commons on Report. There is often insufficient time to scrutinise them in the elected Chamber. That cannot be right. What will the Parliamentary Secretary and the new Leader of House do to deal with that serious difficulty?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's welcome in principle for programming. I am glad that he agrees that it is a good step forward from the position under the previous Government. I am happy to consider any specific case that he wants to raise to ascertain whether programming can be improved in future.

I am a member of the Modernisation Committee and I also serve on the Chairmen's Panel. There are sometimes difficulties when a knife falls and guillotines are also operating on the Floor of the House. Will my hon. Friend undertake to examine that and perhaps invite all the members of the Chairmen's Panel to submit their views on flaws in the timetabling system, which I currently strongly support?

I am well aware of the specific difficulties to which my hon. Friend refers. We would be happy to consider them. As a supporter of programming in principle, he knows that it has worked extremely well when there has been good co-operation between the parties.

Will the deputy Leader encourage the new Leader of the House to apply his no-nonsense approach to the Government's legislative programme? It is seriously over-congested and the guillotining regime is far too aggressive. Cannot we use the opportunity to have a less frenetic approach to legislation?

The right hon. Gentleman is right that we have a heavy legislative programme. The Government want to introduce many important laws for the benefit of our country. He is wrong to use the term "guillotining". That system was used under the Conservative Government, often a long way into consideration of a Bill. It allowed no debate on some of the important aspects of a measure. The difference between that and programming is that if the Opposition co-operate properly, the latter should be a method of sensibly scrutinising Government Bills, especially their most controversial aspects.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary convey our congratulations to his right hon. Friend the new Leader of the House on his promotion? In his discussions with his right hon. Friend, will he emphasise the importance of achieving all-party agreement? Will he discuss with his right hon. Friend whether he believes it appropriate for someone who may not be committed to the modernisation of Parliament to chair the Modernisation Committee?

I ask the hon. Gentleman not to rush to judge the way in which my right hon. Friend will act if he becomes Chairman of the Modernisation Committee. In last April's report from the Chairman of Ways and Means, he stated that he acknowledged that

"the Opposition has to share a degree of responsibility for this disappointing outcome. The stated refusal of many Opposition Members to support almost any aspect of the modernisation agenda or even to engage in constructive discussion about them was a discouraging background to the Committee's inquiry in 2000."

New Sitting Hours


If he will make a statement on the operation of the new sitting hours of the House. [107448]


Whether he plans to review the sitting hours of the House at the end of the Session. [107449]


This could be almost as enjoyable as being chair of the Labour party.

The House voted last October for new sitting hours until the end of the Parliament. As you might expect, Mr. Speaker, I have come to this job with a reasonable, no-nonsense approach and an open mind. I have no plans for a sudden reversal of the decision to change the sitting hours. However, it will take time for the effects to be realised and to decide whether some modifications may be necessary. The House will have ample opportunity to discuss all those matters in the coming months, and to decide whether to recommend a review before this Parliament ends.

May I welcome the President of the Council and congratulate him on his new post? We all look forward to his contributions. Does he realise that the mood of the House has changed significantly since the vote on this matter was taken? Will he now accept that we should not wait until the end of this Parliament, and that we should bring forward the review to the end of this Session, particularly so that we can review the operation of Tuesdays?

Sorry about the delay—I was in reflective mode there, Mr. Speaker. First, it would be only fitting, as this is my first time at the Dispatch Box since my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) left his post, to put on record my appreciation of the work that he put into the modernisation and many other aspects of the House. I am well aware of how highly he was regarded in all quarters and on both sides of the House.

Furthermore, so far as I can see from reading Hansard, I have to say that my deputy, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, also put on a superb performance following that of my right hon. Friend. I could only hope to emulate them, certainly not in all spheres, but perhaps in one. You will be pleased to know, Mr. Speaker, that on Saturday, I had £10 each way on Monty's Pass, so perhaps there are ways in which I can emulate the former Leader of the House.

With reference to the point raised by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), it is true that a fairly large number of right hon. and hon. Members have registered their objections in the form of an early-day motion. I think that that motion was tabled within 14 days of the original vote being taken, however, so it is perhaps not to be taken as a judgment made after reflection. Nevertheless, as I said, while I do not commend any agenda to reverse in any sudden way the modernisation of the hours of the House, this is up to the House itself. We all note that the intention of the House was to wait until the end of this Parliament, but the House being sovereign, it can decide, if it so wishes, to take a decision earlier.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his present position. For me, after due reflection, the difficulties of the new hours include the potential for the increased departmentalisation of Ministers, the collapse of the informal workings of the House in the evenings owing to our shutting up shop at that time, the operating difficulties for Committees, the inability of my constituents to follow Line of Route visits except on Mondays, and the limited ability to hold meetings with outside organisations during the daytime. I could go on—[HON. MEMBERS: "Go on!"]—but I will not. Suffice it to say that I encourage my right hon. Friend in his flexibility, and I repeat the hope expressed by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that our review should take place sooner rather than later.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Indeed, the first item that he mentioned—the social and political intercourse of the House, involving morale and bonding, and Ministers relating to Back Benchers—was a very important issue in my mind. That is why I partly voted against these changes in the first place. Nevertheless, whatever my individual views may have been, a decision has been taken by the House and we have to allow a reasonable time to see how the experiment has worked before we take a decision. If modifications arise from specific issues—including, perhaps, issues raised by the Procedure Committee—it will of course be possible to make those modifications earlier than we anticipated when the House decided to have a review at the end of the full term of this Parliament.

I welcome the Leader of the House to his position. We on this side of the House hope that he will have a longer tenure in it than he has in his previous jobs. He is the most travelled Minister in the Government, having been at Defence, Transport, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as having been party chairman. We hope that he will be Leader of the House for a little longer than he was party chairman.

As the President of the Council has realised today, a number of people would now welcome a review of the sitting hours before the end of the current Parliament—which is what the motion originally said. May I draw his attention to early-day motion 607, supported by a number of Members who originally supported the changes and now want a review? I hope the right hon. Gentleman will bear that in mind and give us a review. Although he says it is for the House to decide, it is of course for the Government to decide to find the time for us to discuss the matter.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his gracious welcome and his congratulations. It is true that during this Parliament I have accumulated—I sometimes think—more titles than Idi Amin. That has, in fact, a number of advantages: a moving target is always easier to hit, I suppose.

I will be here at the behest of my Prime Minister, my Government and the House to serve as best I can.

I do not think I can usefully add much to the answers I have given, other than to say that I note that the large number of Members who signed the early-day motion include some who have changed their minds pretty quickly. Nevertheless I think that all of us, whatever position we took, would accept that we should allow a reasonable amount of time for the experiment. I am sure that we will pay attention to any issues, problems and modifications that may arise, whether or not they concern private Members' Bills—particularly if they emanate from the Procedure Committee—and will be willing to adopt measures where appropriate, even before the expiry of the deadline set by Parliament.

House Of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—



What representations he has received on the stability of the PDVN for remote users; and if he will make a statement. [107450]

Although the Citrix service has coped well with increasing levels of demand, it is clear that it has not kept pace with the changing needs of Members and their staff. The Parliamentary Communications Directorate has been working on a new faster service built around a virtual private network. Work on the project is now well advanced, and the virtual private network will be available to Members later this year.

Over the last six years the power and performance of the PDVN on the parliamentary estate have become reasonably acceptable, but in the third year of the third millennium the speed and stability of information technology systems for non-metropolitan Members have become wholly unacceptable. I am pleased to learn that the IT strategy is not, for those of us who live beyond the M25, out of sight, out of mind. Is the hon. Gentleman confident that the new timetables will be deliverable?

I am confident that the technical trial of the private virtual network that we started last July has been a success. We are about to begin a user pilot, and I hope that if the results are acceptable and can be analysed, the new network will be available to Members before the summer recess.

The one qualification that I would make—one that is of interest to all Members—is that the network will be available only to compliant machines provided by the PCD. Those with non-compliant machines will have to stick with the old Citrix service, which will continue to he provided. Those wishing to take advantage of the new service in the new year, however, would be well advised to obtain new compliant machines from the PCD if they do not already have them.

Bill Presented

Community Prosecution Lawyers

Mr. Frank Field presented a Bill to establish the post of Community Prosecution Lawyer for each parliamentary constituency in England and Wales; to provide for the direct election of such Lawyers; to make arrangements for the role of such Lawyers in the prosecution of offences relating to anti-social behaviour; to establish the relationship between such Lawyers and the Crown Prosecution Service; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 June, and to be printed. [Bill 90.]

Points Of Order

12.34 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following yesterday's exchanges in the House and the six questions on the use of cluster bombs, have you received a request from a Minister to make a statement on the guidelines issued to the forces on the use of such bombs and of multi-rocket launchers?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 28 November, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced that it was necessary to use public funds to underwrite the debts of British Energy in order for that company to keep going. The Department gave as its grounds two needs: security of supply and the safety of nuclear power stations. Two weeks ago, I tabled written questions asking for the assumptions on which that assertion was made. Last week, in written answers to me, the Department was unable to give me the evidence on which the assertion was made, as it was commercial in confidence.

Public money is being used to underwrite a private company and it is impossible for Parliament to probe the basis of that policy because the Government are hiding behind the shield of commercial in confidence. Is there any way in which we can probe the basis on which the Government are using public funds to keep a company going in that way?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. As he knows, the Speaker's responsibilities relate to questions, not to answers. I have no responsibility for the content of ministerial answers. He may wish to consult the Table Office to see whether there is any other way of pursuing the information that he is seeking.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is now nearly a fortnight since the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office suggested that the Prime Minister would make a statement following his meeting with President Bush. He is now involved in a second meeting with the United States gangster President, yet there is no statement. In the past fortnight, thousands of innocent men, women and children have lost their lives in Iraq, many of them bombed by American planes. Sometimes they have been killed, unfortunately, by British forces. Surely there should be a statement in the House, or has there been a change in the constitutional convention, with the Prime Minister being more accountable to the television media than to Parliament?

It is my understanding that the Prime Minister will make a statement before the Easter recess, and tomorrow is Prime Minister's questions.

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), Mr. Speaker. May I ask again for a statement by a Minister regarding the use of cluster bombs? Over past years, there have been many such requests, and we have signed up to the Ottawa agreement. The unexploded bombs that emanate from cluster bombs take on the characteristics of anti-personnel land mines and we should not be using them.

The Secretary of State for Defence has been a regular visitor to the House; he has made statements on several occasions. I clearly recall that he has been questioned on that matter. If he makes another statement, no doubt questions can be put on that matter again.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friends and I tabled a motion that the Anti-social Behaviour Bill that we are about to debate should be committed to a Special Standing Committee. As it has been published only recently, and as there was no draft Bill and only two weeks of consultation, we felt that there was a need to take evidence. We are told by the Clerks, whose advice I take and respect, that it is not possible for that motion to be selected because the motion in the name of the right hon. Member whose Bill it is, the Home Secretary, takes precedent.

When I asked whether it would be possible to table an amendment to the programme motion to allow us to send the Bill to a Special Standing Committee instead of to a Standing Committee, I was told that we could table it but it could not be selected, debated or voted on because the programme motion had to be voted on forthwith. If the Government want a programme motion, how can hon. Members decide whether to have a Special Standing Committee to take evidence? Such a decision appears to be blocked. Surely that cannot be right.

Order. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to reply, perhaps he will not have a further point of order. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) asks about what will happen from now on. My concern is today's business—tomorrow's is a worry for another day. I understand that his motion can be decided on only if the programme motion is defeated. It is not for me to give him advice, but if I were in his shoes I would vote against the programme motion; then we could decide on his motion.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful for that guidance, but may I make it clear to you that in the Modernisation Committee and when we debated the new arrangements for programme motions in the House, there was no indication at all from any source—neither from the Government nor from anyone else—that this new system would preclude the passage of a motion to commit a Bill to a Special Standing Committee? I believe that we have been led up the garden path on this matter, and I hope that we will have some clarity on how we can prevent this situation from arising in future.

This is a matter that the hon. Gentleman can take up with the Leader of the House. If the hon. Gentleman feels that there is a flaw in the rules of the House, I should point out that, obviously, they are subject to change.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State for Defence has regularly visited the House to advise Members on the progress of the conflict with Iraq. However, each passing day reveals humanitarian issues of a growing size and number, and I wonder whether you have had any indication that the Secretary of State for International Development will be making a statement to the House, perhaps before the Easter recess, on this very important subject.

I understand that there is a strong possibility that the Secretary of State will come to the House concerning this very important matter, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising it.

Orders Of The Day

Anti-Social Behaviour Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

12.42 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

In doing so, I am mindful of the number of Members who will endeavour to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and of the time limit on speeches. I shall therefore try to ensure that as many Members as possible can contribute to the debate on what I consider to be very important legislation, which will empower people across the country once and for all to get a grip on the scourge that bedevils their communities: the antisocial behaviour that makes other people's lives a misery.

I need to make it clear at the outset that this legislative vehicle is just one part of the broader story laid out in the White Paper "Respect and Responsibility", which was published a few weeks ago. The interdepartmental approach means that other legislation and measures will be picked up by the relevant proposals laid out in provisions such as the draft Housing Bill, which was published last week. I am very gratified that ministerial colleagues from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Education and Skills, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have joined the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), and me today on the Front Bench. This is truly a cross-government endeavour to tackle a cross-government challenge.

The Bill is of course a symbol of the need for a cultural change, not simply for legislative change. It is about putting alongside prevention and remedial action the key enforcement measures that send that signal to those involved in antisocial behaviour. Prevention will of course be crucial, as will offering people a chance to remedy their behaviour. However, if they do not believe that the measures currently available are sufficient—if their understanding is that there will be no consequences for their actions—it is not surprising that they continue to cock a snook at the police, at housing departments, and at their neighbours and the wider community. The Bill is an endeavour to send the signal that we are no longer prepared to tolerate such behaviour.

I wish to reiterate my thanks to my colleagues and to my officials and advisers. I want to demonstrate that the establishment of the new antisocial behaviour unit—which again will have a cross-departmental remit—is an indication that we mean business, not merely by facilitating what will happen at local level but by driving the measures forward. In that way, there will be a foot constantly on the accelerator. We want to make sure that we check what is happening at local level, and that we encourage and support people at local level. We also want to ensure that there is cross-referencing with legislation that is before the House, or which has already gone through. That includes legislation being carried forward by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although it is excellent that work on the Bill has taken place across Departments and across Whitehall, this excellent Bill would have been even stronger if there had been full pre-legislative scrutiny? That would have allowed electors, people who work in housing offices, serving police officers and others to submit their views and to exchange ideas with Members of Parliament over a long period. As a result, this good Bill would have been made even better.

I always think it desirable to have the maximum possible prior scrutiny of legislation. We have endeavoured to secure that and, over the next two years, my Department will work to ensure that, wherever possible, all Bills appearing in our legislative programme will be published in draft form. However, we were faced with two problems. First, we asked whether there had been sufficient debate about the scourge of antisocial behaviour, and which measures already on the statute book work, and which do not. Secondly, we wanted to take account of what extra powers constituents and those who represent them at local government level believe to be necessary.

We knew, when we published the White Paper, that we would have to act swiftly. We therefore had to balance further scrutiny with the speed of implementation that would allow the people whom the Bill will empower to get on and do the job. In the end, we had to decide whether the people whom we represent would thank us if we promised them that we might do something in a year's time to bring in legislation that would be implemented in two or three years, or whether they would prefer us to get on with it now and implement the measures laid out in the Bill. On balance, we decided that the latter would be the better course.

The Home Secretary is committed to this Bill, which the Government announced in the Queen's Speech of 13 November. Why have the Government broken the Cabinet Office guidelines that specify that every Government Bill should have a minimum of 12 weeks' consultation? The Government could have introduced this Bill earlier. Many of the Home Secretary's colleagues in local government oppose many of the measures in the Bill, and many of the professionals involved in other parts of the Bill think that it is inappropriate, badly timed or unnecessary.

The real difficulty with the Liberal Democrats is that they always want it both ways. They want to show the public that they are in favour of measures to enable people to protect themselves against antisocial behaviour, and then they want to use technical devices to slow the Bill down and avoid having to do anything about the problem. Local authorities will be responsible for implementing much of the Bill. I shall be very pleased indeed to contrast the effectiveness of those councils that are not controlled or influenced by the Liberal Democrats with the effectiveness of those that are. That will be a measure of the sort of commitment to dealing with the problem that we are looking for.

Before I give way again—we shall not get very far if we carry on at this rate—I want to tell the House that I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) is in the Chamber today. He spent the past two years going around the country, listening and responding to people, and finding out what the police and housing department staff thought about antisocial behaviour. Those people did not ask for longer consultation periods; they said, "For God's sake, get on with the job."

I am bewildered by the numbers of people who seem to think that slowing down what politics and politicians are about is what the public want. The same idea is also evident in some of the public debate on this matter. What people say to me is that they are sick and tired of the gridlock that prevents Parliament and politicians from doing precisely the things that they have wanted for years. "When do we want it? Now!" is the usual slogan of flag-wavers in Parliament square. Well, we are giving it them now, and I am very pleased to do so.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Some of the worst antisocial behaviour is perpetrated by English football fans travelling abroad. That is covered by the Bill, but will my right hon. Friend have any discussions with Ministers and the Football Association about the possibility of preventing English fans from travelling to the return match against Turkey?

As my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen did a first-class job on the measures that we have included in the Bill, and I am happy to consider how we might build on that. I will talk to the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East, about the way in which we might respond. Of course, legislation has already prevented 1,500 people from travelling abroad.

I shall, because my hon. Friend will never forgive me if I do not, and I live next door to her.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that one of the commonest complaints about antisocial behaviour concerns the misuse of fireworks? Will he ensure that urgent action is taken, either through this Bill or the Fireworks Bill, a private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), to control that misuse, which terrorises old people, youngsters and animals alike?

I agree entirely. I was pleased to be able to come in for the Second Reading of that Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), and we shall facilitate it in every way we can to ensure that it arrives on the statute book as quickly as possible.

The Home Secretary rightly talks about the need for action. May I ask him to consider the fact that measures to deal with one aspect of antisocial behaviour—namely, traveller incursions, which are a particular problem in my constituency—are already on the statute book, but Home Office guidance to the police tells them not to use those measures? Will he ensure that that changes and that guidance does not dilute the impact of the work that he is trying to do?

Let me be helpful. If guidance notes have gone out from my Department—not only on this issue, but on any others—that the police, local authorities or hon. Members on both sides of the House believe to be unhelpful, I will be happy to review them with Ministers immediately. We are in the business of breaking down barriers to implementation and preventing advice that may have gone out in the past, albeit with the best intentions, from disabling people in relation to carrying out their duties.

This afternoon, we are reflecting on action that is required in the future, as well as measures that have already been implemented, and on how it can best and most effectively be facilitated. That picks up well on the point made by the hon. Gentleman. When we found out that antisocial behaviour orders were too bureaucratic and too difficult to implement, we slimmed them down through the Police Reform Act 2002, but the Bill contains measures that will help still further. We discovered that police could not easily take action in relation to abandoned vehicles and/or vehicles being used off-road. The 2002 Act helped with that, but in drafting future measures we will have to review what needs to be done. Those measures must be clear and helpful to those who have to struggle with bureaucracy, and they must ensure that people understand that they have to help themselves. The message is: "We will help you if you will help yourself, but if helping yourself entails making the lives of others a misery, we will make your life a misery instead." What is so despairing is the philosophy that we so often hear: "If that hasn't worked, nothing will." I do not believe that. If a measure has not worked, it wants to be set aside or revised, but we believe that our measures will work.

That runs contrary to the myth that the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 has been a failure. I want to put it on record that my predecessor, who is now Foreign Secretary, and his team did not get the full measure of accord for that Act, which has been a substantial success. It established the Youth Justice Board and, from that, the youth offending teams. It had tremendous success in putting in place the measures successfully to implement the youth justice pledge on the speed with which we deal with young offenders. It established community safety partnerships, which can work better, but are a substantial success. Its key measures—the orders—have been a success. Those orders have been disparaged by Opposition Members, but let me reflect for a moment on just how successful some of them have been. So far, there have been 11,600 drug treatment and testing orders; 3,879 intensive supervision and surveillance orders; more than 18,000 reparation orders; just under 3,500 parenting orders; and more than 1,800 acceptable behaviour contracts. Through to November, before the interim orders were introduced, there were nearly 800 antisocial behaviour orders, even with all their difficulties. By the end of March, 3,000 fixed penalty notices had been issued in just four pilot areas. Those are successes, not failures.

It is difficult to tackle antisocial behaviour effectively when it is so commonly seen in the home. For example, one in four women experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. To complement the Bill, will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that legislation on domestic violence will be included in the next parliamentary Session, and press for that; and will he let us know when we can expect the promised consultation document on that issue?

I intend, with parliamentary colleagues across Departments, to publish a consultation paper in the next few weeks. I also intend to publish a Bill in draft to enable people to scrutinise and comment on it, and over the next few months we shall bring forward other draft measures. I hope that that will take us forward in introducing what my hon. Friend rightly describes as a key complementary measure. So much of the tragedy of violence takes place in the home, and hon. Members on both sides of the House will want that to be addressed as quickly as possible.

The key question in relation to such measures is, "Are they used and, if not, why not?" That has two key elements. First, can we slim down bureaucracy still further? The answer has to be yes, and I challenge anyone who feels that some measures are too bureaucratic to come forward with ideas about how we might achieve that. I am intent on building on the O'Dowd report in relation to the police—I will have more to say about that in the weeks ahead—and, at the same time, on slimming down bureaucracy in the criminal justice system. Both measures require urgent and focused attention, but they also require those who are implementing them to be positive about doing so, rather than simply saying, "I wish somebody would do something about it." The people who can help us to do something about it are often those who are implementing the bureaucratic measures, and I challenge them to help and assist us.

Does the Home Secretary accept that the biggest problem of all for the policeman on the job is the length of time that it takes to process suspects when they are arrested? Until that ridiculous length of time and vast volume of bureaucracy is tackled, policemen will remain extremely reluctant to use the powers that they already have.

We are all concerned about that. The street charging measures that were thrown up by the O'Dowd report, fixed penalty notices, and the ability to use new technology to communicate directly back to the police station and the computer are all crucial in being able to do the job. We will have to examine not only the technology, but the way in which it is used.

The second question is whether we can persuade people at local level to adopt particular measures. I am not talking simply about the better working of the police but about the way in which housing or environmental health officers respond. The best local staff do not want to pick up a telephone and say, "I really would like to help you but I don't have the power." What they would really like to say is, "I really would like to help you and, thank goodness, I now have the power. It is difficult, and I will have to come out and work antisocial hours, but I will now be able to assist you." Some people in professional organisations may have distanced themselves by promotion from the front line, but saying, "We don't want to implement these measures because they're inconvenient and make life difficult," is not the way to persuade the public to pay more council tax, income tax or VAT in order to fund those professionals' jobs.

Will my right hon. Friend add social services departments to his list of those who should be contacted? Those departments are often already working with families, trying to support them in looking after young people who are behaving antisocially in their communities. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the important role of social services staff? Joint working between social services and the police must be enhanced.

I agree with my hon. Friend, who spent time as a chair of social services in Lancashire. She is aware of these issues. Joint working is important.

I can never resist hitting a ball over the net, so I have to say that there is a two-way street here. Social services have a key role in early intervention, and enforcement agencies should be positive at the stage when action and orders because of criminality are not yet necessary. It is important that the police and social services work together. However, it is also important that social services and youth offending teams know the moment when it is necessary to get tough—in other words, when to threaten enforcement. I was brought up on the estates that I have the privilege of representing, and my experience is that people rapidly get the message. If they get the message that they can get away with what they are doing, they will get away with it; if they get the message that someone will clamp down, it is amazing how quickly their behaviour can change.

We need more staff to implement our proposals. I hope that fixed penalties will be able to fund the work of environmental health officers and others; and I hope that achieving better behaviour will assist housing officers to do a positive job rather than spending all their lives fruitlessly trying to deal with antisocial neighbours and tenants when they do not have the power to do so. Dealing with such people when they do have that power will save them time and energy. The Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), is here and would agree with that.

We also need more police and more of the police family. That is why, just a week or two ago, we were pleased to announce that in the 12 months up to September last year we had an increase of 4,337 police in England and Wales. That is the largest increase since 1976—which, of course, was under a previous Labour Government.

I cannot resist giving way because I know that my hon. Friend will want to say something positive about Wales. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Wales?"]

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the essence of the Bill is a partnership approach to challenging antisocial behaviour? Does he agree that protocols on information sharing have to be updated alongside all the other measures in the Bill to ensure that partners can work together effectively to challenge this scourge?

Yes, I do agree—and I was thinking of the Wales that is just south of Sheffield rather than the Wales that is west of the Severn. [Laughter.]

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman). The additional resources and policing available—and we are at a record total of 131,548, just to put that on the record, which is 1,500 more than we pledged for the end of March—will assist us to undertake the co-ordination about which my hon. Friend is asking.

Let me turn to particular elements of the Bill.

Well, I have taken a great many interventions. I would be happy not to do so the next time I am on my feet, if that is what hon. Members want.

Clauses 1 to 11 in part 1 deal with action against class A drugs and, in particular, crack houses, commercial or domestic. I am sure that the measures will be widely welcomed; they will be vigorously implemented because such places are a scourge of our time.

Will my hon. Friend clarify a concern of mine about part 1? Why will the police have the power to close down premises that they believe are being used for the supply and use of class A drugs, but at the same time have to show that there has been nuisance or disorder? Why can they not close premises down simply if they are satisfied that class A drugs are being supplied or used?

We wanted to be as clear as possible about the evidence base and the ability to get that evidence swiftly. The more complicated the situation, if we open up all sorts of vistas of challenge, the more likely it will be that people who have—let me choose my words carefully—legal expertise at their disposal will make a monkey of the measures and therefore make things more difficult.

Is not the Home Secretary's hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on- Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) making a very important point? The additional requirement on the police to prove that there has been disorder is something else for lawyers to get their hands on to prevent an order being made. With crack houses and the like, is it not inevitable that they bring in their trail misery, crime and social disorder?

We are talking about the police being satisfied that dealing is taking place and that nuisance is being caused. On the issue of immediate action in closing and sealing, it is pretty important—even for those of us who want vigorous steps to be taken—to ensure that people cannot cause mischief in the process. We have consulted the police on this, and they are satisfied that they will have the power to take the necessary swift and effective action.

Part 2 of the—

Will my right hon. Friend give way? I really do apologise.

If I did not give way to my right hon. Friend, I would be bedevilled either by a series of his letters or, even worse, one of his questions.

This is a question, and it relates to premises being used for drug trading. I take it that the Deputy Prime Minister's licensing measures will deal with the houses of private landlords where drug trading takes place, but will the definitions in the Bill be wide enough to take account of, for example, the Texaco filling station on Chapman street in my constituency, which has been used for drug trading, and telephone boxes, which, through incoming calls, can be used for drug trading as well?

My right hon. Friend is correct: the draft housing Bill will implement some of the White Paper's key proposals—which were widely supported—on licensing and the designation of particular areas. I am very pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Ministers in his Department have agreed to implement those measures vigorously. I will drop a line to my right hon. Friend, speedily, about the abuse of telephone boxes and other public areas in relation to drugs. Clauses in the Bill extend powers in relation to social landlords and the contracts that have to be drawn up. There will be published and enforceable policy statements so that tenants and landlords clearly know their rights and responsibilities. That is not the case at the moment. Speeding up injunctions will be a key element. Demoted tenancies are other aspects of part 2, as are ways in which we will speed up the process of dealing with antisocial behaviour on the housing front.

I am enormously grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way again. I have a worry about housing and I hope that he will be able to clarify the situation. Part 2 relates to local authorities, housing corporations and registered social landlords. Antisocial behaviour in my constituency has unfortunately been tracked to private landlords, but I can detect no mention of such people in the Bill.

Issues relating to private landlords will be addressed in the housing Bill. I have indicated, as did the White Paper, that we are keen for the measure to be implemented and targeted carefully. It will provide for entirely new powers and will address the related issue of the withdrawal of automatic and direct payment of housing benefit. That measure has gained enormous support and I am grateful to my ministerial colleagues for their help to ensure that it has cross-departmental support.

We are concerned that cross-cutting measures that relate to housing and the Home Office should come into operation before the Bill reaches the statute book by starting a pilot project. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that discussions are being held with his colleagues so that we may have a pilot scheme in Stoke-on-Trent?

I congratulate my hon. Friend because in all the years that she has been in the House, I have never known her to miss a trick on pilot programmes. I am happy that discussions are taking place, and I know that the importance of the measures is acknowledged in the Potteries, which was reflected by her contribution and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson). The provisions are especially important for areas in which traditional industries have been historically run down and very cheap properties are available. Necessary steps must be taken in such areas to stop exploitation.

Part 3 relates to truancy, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education is here. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is she?"] She will not receive a fixed penalty notice because she has only just left the Chamber. I am sure that she wants to spend time supporting the Secretary of State for Education and Skills in his endeavours today on higher education.

Part 3 will strengthen the ability to issue parenting contracts and to develop them as a prerequisite to the expanded parenting orders that address parents' actions. The orders will address not only parents who fail to take necessary action to support their children in going to school, but their behaviour on school premises. We want to strengthen the hand of head teachers and teachers who deal with the few parents whose behaviour is not only a terrible example to their children and others, but a disruption to the life and work of schools.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the success of parenting orders thus far is due in no small part to the alacrity with which they have been taken up by parents themselves? Surely that shows that many parents throughout the country are desperate for the support that parenting orders offer and that could be provided by programmes of positive parenting that were directed more universally.

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Those who have run into difficulty, and those who fear that they might, have a deep desire to take parenting classes. We must ensure that parenting orders do not become a stigma for people who attend such classes. Every one of us who has been a parent will have despaired at least once, looked at the ceiling and wished that someone would give us a hand. Children no longer live in close proximity to their grandparents, aunts and uncles and so their relatives' good—and sometimes bad—ways cannot always be passed on. We need the scheme to be more readily available and to spread it more quickly so that it is an attractive proposition, and not only an enforcement measure for when things go drastically wrong.

Part 4 addresses a matter of considerable interest that must be handled with great delicacy. The police know of small neighbourhoods or communities in which there is much antisocial behaviour and residents are bedevilled by gangs of youths, people who are out of hand and people against whom they know that the police would like to take action. Such people cock a snook at, and have total disrespect for, authority. We intend to give the police power, after consultation with the local authority, to designate such an area for six months to allow groups that are believed to be intimidating or to be causing a nuisance to be dispersed. That will send a signal that we are no longer prepared to put up with such intimidation, which can be deeply frightening and worrying, especially for elderly people. We do not intend the measure to be used to disperse young people who go about their lawful business or to deal with situations when two or more people are somehow perceived to form an intimidating group. However, we require more draconian action against people who deal in drugs and who are drunk and disorderly, often after binge drinking.

My right hon. Friend has anticipated much of my question. May I seek further reassurance about the implications of clause 29? It will give the police powers to disperse if

"members of the public have been intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed as a result of the presence or behaviour of groups of two or more persons in public places".
Will he assure me that the Bill will not make it unlawful for two, three or more people to gather on a street corner for social purposes?

I am pleased to give my hon. Friend that assurance. The measure will be used when people refuse a police request to disperse and move on. The police will have the power to enforce the request and take immediate action. Problems do not exist in most places, but it is right to address severe difficulties that are experienced when lawlessness overwhelms a local community. If areas are designated, there will be an automatic power to lay down a curfew for an interim period to get a grip on the locality so that people feel safe to walk the streets again.

No one in any part of the country should be unable to walk down their street to catch a bus or train, or to buy a newspaper or milk, because they fear that they might he attacked or abused. We must restore the culture in which they were not fearful, although that will take time. People who phone the police should be told that something will be done, rather than, "Don't trouble us with this because we've got more important things to do." People who phone an environmental health department should not be told, "We'd like to help but we can't", but instead, "We'd love to help, and we will." Housing officers should not say, "We're very upset about what is happening, but the situation is difficult", but instead say, "Yes, this is difficult but we are going to get together people in the locality and we will help you, with our new powers, to get a grip on the situation." If there is intent for that to happen, we can change the world together. That cannot be achieved, however, by us, the police, or housing or environmental health officers working alone, but by people joining together and being prepared to work together.

Can the Home Secretary explain why young people will not think that the Government are picking on them? Why should people be more afraid of a group of 15-year-olds hanging around on a street corner than of a group of 21 or 25-year-olds? If he thinks that it is a real issue, why not give the police the power to disperse adults behaving badly as well as young people who are just standing around?

If I read the hon. Gentleman right, anyone hanging about should be dealt with and dispersed.

And I am putting the question back to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) to discover what he believes.

The hon. Gentleman does not believe that anyone should be dispersed. He thinks that the powers to do that already exist, but if they were working satisfactorily, there would be no need to strengthen them, as I said. We must remember that the previous powers were done away with. The police on the beat tell me—I do listen to them because they are the best people to listen to—that they used to have those powers but that they were swept away when a wider range of unacceptable powers were removed. Older Members will remember those as the "sus" laws.

Because respect is learned at that age and young people understand whether they can get away with things. However, the hon. Gentleman misses the point: such powers of dispersal do not exist. That is why we are introducing them.

To facilitate unity within the Liberal Democrat ranks, I will give way to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), who was originally trying to intervene.

Will the Home Secretary confirm that if a policeman wants to disperse a group of youths, half a dozen of whom are 17 and half a dozen are 15, he can use the power to send the 15-year-olds home, but the 17-year-olds remain on the street corner?

I am sure that the policeman would disperse all of them, having carefully analysed each person's date of birth. To quote my 20-year-old son, the hon. Gentleman should "get real." That is what he says to me. We are providing a power that is to be used sensitively and sensibly. If there is a serious concern about that in Committee, we will of course listen to it.

My right hon. Friend should not be deflected from his course of action. The vast majority of people in my constituency, and I am sure across the country, will be delighted by the new powers to disperse groups of young people who are causing problems. The key to all the new powers will be their enforcement and use, and the cultural change that will ensue. Will my right hon. Friend outline again how he intends to encourage people to use the powers, including the power to disperse groups who are causing problems on street corners?

I shall, but I think that we are going up a gum tree. Although curfews apply to younger people of 16 and below and allow for their removal to their homes, the powers of dispersal apply to everyone. I want to ensure that we are not misled by the misreading of the Bill by the Liberal Democrats.

There are two issues to consider. The first is that the measures can be handled more speedily and therefore implemented quickly. The second is the reduction of bureaucracy. Above all, we must ensure that people at a local level are prepared to use the power. As I said, if people are not prepared to use it, we cannot make them, but local people can demand that the powers of enforcement are used. Part 5, which deals with sanctions, speeds up the issuing of antisocial behaviour orders further. It also relates to the enforcement powers for fixed penalty notices, in particular the ability to use those in the way in which they have been applied in the pilot areas. That will make a difference. I hope that the power that we are giving to chief constables to designate licensed agencies to use some of the more limited powers will enable us to spread the immediate implementation of the enforcement of such powers.

I thank the Home Secretary for being so patient and giving way so often. Does he agree that the success of the dispersal powers depends on a policemen being available to do the dispersing? In my constituency, where we have the problem of youths congregating and intimidating local residents, no police officers are available to do that.

It certainly does depend on that, which is why the 4,337 extra police, the 1,300 community support officers and, with the help of my hon. Friends in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the neighbourhood and street wardens that are being introduced across the country will all help to achieve that. That is also why the new power for chief constables to designate others in particular circumstances to use fixed penalty notices will make such a difference, as I hope it does in the hon. Lady's constituency.

I will, but I appeal to hon. Members to let me finish because it is important to move on to Members who have waited patiently to speak.

I thank my right hon. Friend for attending the Second Reading of the Fireworks Bill on 28 February. That was much appreciated.

The point about the curfew, or the child safety initiative as it was called in my constituency, is that children as young as five and six were being left to wander the streets with older children. It was necessary for the police to pay attention to that to ensure that they were returned to their homes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the curfew has the additional effect of safeguarding younger children who are left to roam the streets at night?

It is an important protective order for younger children, especially after 9 pm. Many people despair when children as young as five, six and seven are out on the streets at such a late hour. They are picked up and led by those who engage them in drug running and other activities that destroy their lives as well as the lives of those around them. I must again congratulate my hon. Friend on the Fireworks Bill and hope that it makes speedy progress.

Part 6 of this Bill deals with firearms. We have spelt out what we intend to do about people who carry duplicate and converted weapons in a public place. We are clamping down on converted weaponry. We will introduce licensing measures and will ban the import and sale of such weapons. The new regulations on air weapons and the age group that can own them will also help. All those measures will have an important role to play in sending those critical and necessary signals.

Notwithstanding the wide support that my right hon. Friend will deservedly receive for his attempts in part 6 to curb the antisocial menace arising from the irresponsible use of air weapons, does he accept that in banning the use of air weapons on private land for those aged between 14 and 17, the Bill will have the perverse effect of stopping a farmer's son shooting rats in his father's barn? I know that that is not the Government's intention. Will he assure the House that he will accept helpful amendments in Committee once he has received the necessary legal advice?

On a previous occasion—the Criminal Justice Bill, I think—I made the mistake of saying that I am always in favour of helpful amendments, and there were hundreds of them. So I shall say cautiously that there is a real issue, and we are prepared to discuss it in Committee, as we should be, given that debates in Committee are intended to try to find solutions that do not lead to other difficulties. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that assurance.

I welcome the change that will ensure that people have to cover their guns and not carry loaded guns. However, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the guidance notes make it clear that the Bill will not prevent legitimate young shooters going to legitimate places to shoot? Will those people be covered by the reasonable exemptions, and will that be clearly stated?

We are seeking good and lawful reasons for carrying weapons, and we need to ensure that the guidance is positive and helpful in that way. I am grateful to my hon. Friend enabling me to clarify that.

In respect of part 6, does my right hon. Friend recognise the fact that there is another type of lethal weapon: the unauthorised, unlicensed use of scambler and off-road motorbikes? A fortnight ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) had a fatality in her constituency—a two-year-old was killed. There is frequent nuisance behaviour when such motorbikes are used on cycle paths and rights of way. They are a danger and a menace. Will he consider including powers in the Bill or elsewhere that will tackle that menace?

My hon. Friend makes an essential point, which highlights a very real difficulty. Under the Police Reform Act 2002, we have provided the police with powers in relation to the off-road use of vehicles. The difficulty is, first, to ensure that they know the law and, secondly, that they are prepared to use it. I am not critical of them in that regard; we need to find better ways to communicate with the police than we have at the moment. We rely heavily on asking the Association of Chief Police Officers to do the communicating, which is perfectly reasonable because it is a management role, but it does not go far enough. We need very simple and easy to understand communication about what is on the statute book and how best to use it, and that is critical in dealing with off-road vehicles. I have the same problem in the locality in which I live, and it causes a menace to people, animals and the environment, which is often damaged as well.

That brings me to part 7, which touches on the environment. First, there are new powers for environmental health officers, both commercial and domestic, to deal with noise nuisance. Noise nuisance—antisocial neighbour nuisance—is one of the scourges of our time and one of the things that upsets people most of all. It damages their health, and we need to deal with it. The clauses in part 7 also deal with things such as graffiti, fly posting, unauthorised tipping and the like. I hope that those proposals will be followed through by my good friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life, who is driving things forward, with his ministerial colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to ensure that we have a cleaner, safer and quieter environment.

While I am here, I wish to say in passing that, although this is not in the Bill, I hope that, at some point, we will persuade manufacturers not to produce those wretched devices that lock and unlock people's car doors, making the most enormous noise at 6 am for no good purpose and making other people's lives a misery. I just wanted to get that off my chest. Finally, spray paints are just a damn nuisance.

All this is designed to provide the enforcement measures, to send the right signals, to give people the right powers and, above all, to tell agencies and local people that we are making the legislative provisions and putting in place the direction, but, in the end, it is down to them to use them. If we want a better place to live—a safer, cleaner and better Britain—we have got to do it together.

1.34 pm

The fact that so many Labour Members have attended the Chamber and, we understand, are seeking to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, is remarkable testimony to the extent to which they recognise the problem of disorder from which the British public are suffering after six years of Labour Government. They are right to be concerned about that, and the Home Secretary is right to be concerned about it, and the motives behind the Bill are good motives and ones that we share. I hope that Labour Members felt a rosy glow as they heard the Home Secretary go through the wonderful measures that he is going to introduce.

I should say at the start that the Conservative party will certainly not oppose the Bill, but it suffers none the less from a few disadvantages when used for the purpose of propaganda by the Labour party at the local elections and thereafter. A few minor disadvantages, then: first, a large part of the Bill will do no more than make minor enlargements and refinements to existing powers; secondly, most of the changes are to the Government's own previous legislation, some of which has not yet been implemented; thirdly, a large part of the Bill will have absolutely no effect in practice; fourthly, other parts of it are unworkable; fifthly, some of it is entirely meaningless; and, finally, another part is of questionable good sense. It is therefore out of the Opposition's magnanimity that we choose to try to make it a better Bill in Committee, rather than to disrupt it at this stage.

I have made a number of allegations, which deserve to be substantiated. The Home Secretary has given us a magnum opus, which I cannot replicate, not least—I apologise to the House for this—because I will be speaking about quite another matter in Westminster Hall at 2 o'clock, but I will seek to substantiate those remarks. I said first that a large part of the Bill represents only minor enlargement and refinements to existing powers. For example, the antisocial behaviour injunctions in part 2 tinker with the antisocial behaviour injunctions—our old friends—in the Housing Act 1996. I cannot see any significant improvement.

The parenting contracts, which the Home Secretary mentioned in dealing with part 3, broadly replicate the home-school agreements under sections 110 and 111 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. In fact, they so closely replicate those measures that they replicate the fact that they are not compulsory and do not establish civil liabilities. The civil servants have obviously gone to great trouble to ensure that there is no advance on the previous legislation.

The group dispersal powers—they were much discussed—in part 4 almost entirely replicate section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986. In case the House does not believe me, I will read the relevant subsection of clause 29. [Interruption.] Oh, all right—Labour Members wish to spare me the trouble and to take it on trust. [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on, read it out."] No, no, I resist the blandishments of my hon. Friends. I do not want to bore the House. Let me assure the House that the words are virtually identical.

I turn to the fact that many of the changes are to the Government's own previous legislation, some of which has not yet even been implemented. Let us take the closure of crack houses in part 1. The previous Home Secretary introduced the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, which amended section 8 of Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The Home Secretary has not yet implemented the 2001 Act. I take it that he has not yet done so because he has decided to change it. Part 1 represents a change to the 2001 Act, which was introduced by his predecessor, but it has not yet been implemented.

The parenting orders in part 3 represent a revision of section 8 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, by which the previous Home Secretary introduced parenting orders. The revisions are not very substantial, but I take it that the present Home Secretary wants to make sure that he is the person who has the parenting orders under his name rather than his predecessor.

Then we come to those parts that will have no effect in practice. The Home Secretary mentioned the closure orders for noisy premises in part 7. This is most interesting, and I draw it to the attention of Labour Members because I hope that they will go out to their constituencies and local authorities and explain exactly what this part of the Bill actually does. It is presumably designed to make it more difficult to hold a rave. How does it do that? It does that by ensuring that premises that have a premises licence or a temporary event notice can be closed for 24 hours.

If hon. Members will forgive me, I will not give way at this stage.

I am not an expert on raves—I have never attended a rave—but I rather have the impression that there are few holders of raves who seek temporary event notices under the licensing laws, and still fewer who seek premises licences. The Licensing Bill provides for premises licences but the process is lengthy and I doubt whether the average rave organiser would know how to fulfil it. If the rave does not possess a premises licence or have a temporary event notice attached to it, this Bill confers no power whatever to close it down. I admit that I am flabbergasted by that omission and we shall try to do something about it in Committee.

My favourite example—it is positively majestic—occurs in clause 42. What is the effect of that clause? It is that a person under 17 who is carrying an unloaded airgun in a case—a locked gun case—in a public place, who has a reasonable explanation for doing so and was previously legal will be illegal. That will dramatically affect the level of gun crime in this country. In fact, it will particularly affect any 16-year-old who knows how to fire an unloaded airgun without removing it from its case in a public place. That is a majestic provision.

It would be funny were it not true.

I said that some of the Bill would be unworkable in rural areas—a point to which I hesitate to draw the attention of Labour Ministers, very few of whom have anything to do with rural areas. However, those of us who are local yokels with straw in our teeth are aware that it is the practice in rural areas for 16-year-olds to go around farmyards dispersing chickens—not raves or groups of young men—with airguns. However, under clause 43, subsection (4)(a), that will be illegal. I take it that the one policeman to be found in the length and breadth of rural England will be sent to prevent that 16-year-old from walking around his own farm dispersing chickens.

That will, of course, never happen, but much more serious is the issuing of fixed penalty notices in schools. That is an extremely important indication of the type of problem that we shall have to deal with in Committee. Clause 22 states that an authorised officer can give a penalty notice for truancy. That does not sound too bad, until one studies the definitions of "authorised officer" on page 19 where there is a lengthy process of successive approximation that I take it has been concocted to try to ensure that anyone not reading the Bill closely will not notice what is going on.

An "authorised officer" includes an "authorised staff member" and an "authorised staff member" is subsequently defined as including
"a member of the staff".
For the first time in British history and, as far as I can discover, with no international precedent, we have the mind-numbing idea that teachers could hand out fixed penalty notices to the parents of children at their school. I cannot imagine how the Home Secretary imagines that such a provision would be workable and I hope that we can change it in Committee.

The parenting orders in clause 25 are all very well, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the real problem arises when children are excluded from school, often for appalling behaviour, and the decision is reversed on appeal, often with the result that the credibility of the school, its governors and its head suffers enormously?

My hon. Friend is right. That is why our hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, has rightly proposed that head teachers should be given sole power to order exclusions and that there should be no provision for them to be overruled. That would be a serious piece of legislation. Perhaps, within the long title of the Bill, we could introduce it as an amendment.

I asserted that some of the Bill is meaningless. In clause 12, we are told something that will dizzy and appal every neighbour from hell in Britain. When they read the provisions they will be absolutely terrified. We are told that the social landlord
"must prepare…a policy in relation to anti-social behaviour…must publish a statement of the policy"—and
"from time to time keep the policy…under review".
There is nothing wrong with that. Why should there not be policies on dealing with antisocial behaviour? Every registered social landlord whom I have been able to ring in the last 24 hours has told me that they already have such policies. The Bill will make it a legal requirement for them to have such policies. Fine. Excellent. However, if anyone imagines that anything will change as a result of landlords adopting, publishing and reviewing such policies, they are dreaming.

Finally, I asserted that some of the Bill is questionable—although not much of it. If there were so much as to be worrying, or if much of the Bill was positively counterproductive, we should have to vote against it, but that is not the case. I hope that the Home Secretary will pause to reflect on at least one aspect of the Bill, however, as it would move us in a strange direction. It relates to the widening of the powers of community support officers in parts 4, 5 and 7. CSOs are to have the powers to disperse groups, to stop cycles—I admit that is not a great matter—and finally, under clause 51, to issue fixed penalty notices for graffiti and fly posting.

In principle, there is nothing objectionable in CSOs having such powers. However, they were given one set of powers initially, yet now, not many months after the measure that established CSOs, another Bill would add to those powers. I have no material doubt that it will not be long before the Home Secretary comes along with another new Bill—indeed, many new Bills. He is a serial offender as regards the production of legislation, or perhaps I should say that he is the most energetic Home Secretary since the war—something that horrifies those of us who have to shadow him. I fear, however, that it will be worse than just more legislation; there will be more legislation that gives more powers to CSOs. What will that do? Very gradually, it will recreate something that we already know: it is called a police force. It is time for the Home Secretary to ask himself whether he really needs CSOs. Should he not admit that he is moving towards making them police officers and actually do so? We could then stop quarrelling about whether the use of CSOs is right or wrong and whether they are policing on the cheap because we would have turned them into police officers.

The Bill is a crabwise assault on that proposition and that is misleading.

Despite the right hon. Gentleman's reservations, does he agree with Henry Ward Beecher who, 147 years ago noted that laws tend to gravitate downwards? He said:

"Like clocks, they must be cleansed, and wound up, and set to true time".
That is the purpose of the Bill.

Yes, but the problem is that, in many respects, the Bill is like a clock that is stuck at five to one and is right only once every 24 hours—[HON. MEMBERS: "Twice!"] I am so sorry; it is right twice in every 24 hours. Labour Members are awake—I am grateful for that.

Alas, the problem is that in order to make the Bill useful, it would need to include something really useful: people to enforce it. If there were 40,000 additional police officers, which the Conservatives are committed to providing, it would be worth paying attention to brushing up the legislation. The record of all parties over 50 years is inadequate. I do not deny that. It is time that the Home Secretary and the Government admitted that for 50 years we have failed to notice what Civitas revealed last weekend: just after the war, there were three crimes per police officer; nowadays, there are more than 40. We have been systematically underpoliced. There should be consensus on both sides of the House that we should not be fiddling while Rome burns; what we need is not tinkering or amelioration, with little bits of legislation here and there, but a step change in the policing of this country.

The right hon. Gentleman is beginning to give the impression that he is enthusiastically negative about the Bill. I am listening carefully to his speech and am astounded to hear that the Opposition do not intend to vote against Second Reading. Surely he has the good grace to acknowledge that the Government have more than met their target for more police officers. During the past 12 months, we have appointed 4,500 additional police officers, which puts the Conservative record into the distant past.

That is a charming rewriting of history. When a Government inherit a police force, diminish it, raise its numbers to just above where the previous Government left them and claim that as a world record, they are, in a literal sense, telling the truth. However, everyone in the country knows that we have been systematically underpoliced. To reply to the hon. Gentleman's earlier point, we are not voting against the Bill because it is not worth doing so. It is not a Bill that deserves to be voted against; it deserves to be slightly improved in Committee and permanently forgotten. A year from now, few people will even be able to remember that it existed.

The important point to arise from this debate—20 minutes of which was taken up by the Home Secretary before he even mentioned the Bill—and the thing that deserves to be remembered about it is the fact that the Bill is a prolonged form of legislative press release. This is a Bill designed to show that the Government are doing something about antisocial behaviour. I know it is difficult to do something real—I know it is difficult to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to liberate the funds for the policing that we need; I know it is difficult to get young people off the conveyor belt to crime—but the fact is that tinkering with their own laws, passed not many months ago, or with other laws that are perfectly adequate, is no substitute for really tackling the problem. I would call the Bill a half measure but in fact it is a quarter measure, and I wish the Home Secretary luck of it.

Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed an eight-minute limit on all Back-Bench Members' speeches.

1.50 pm

As I pointed out to the Home Secretary earlier and to Mr. Speaker on a point of order, the Bill has come to us after an extremely short consultation process. Liberal Democrat Members find it an unsatisfactory muddle of a Bill because there has been no proper preparation for the legislative process that is before us. There has been no draft Bill. Mini-consultation has taken place on certain aspects of the Bill, but that was too short to enable real members of the real public to respond.