It gives me great pleasure to open this debate on the Gracious Speech. That speech outlined a number of Bills and proposals, led by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and myself, which will affect the lives of the British people in many ways. Among them are the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which has just been presented, the counter-terrorism Bill, the draft citizenship and immigration Bill, the draft constitutional renewal Bill, and proposals in respect of party finance and expenditure. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will of course deal with those issues for her Department directly when she speaks later today.
This is a legislative programme that builds on this Government’s record over the past almost 11 years—11 years that have seen record investment and improvement in the national health service, 600,000 fewer children in poverty and 6 million more people in work. [Interruption.] Thank you very much. All these are facts, so I look forward to cheering from both sides. Over those 11 years, crime is down by a third, police numbers are up by 12 per cent., and there has been a 300 per cent. increase in the money invested in services for victims and witnesses. Some 1.5 million cases were brought to justice just last year, and the chance of being a victim of crime is lower than at any time in the past 26 years. In those 11 years, we have greatly modernised and strengthened our constitutional arrangements—and, through that, our democracy—by strengthening Select Committees, through freedom of information, data protection and human rights legislation, through devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and through the removal of the vast majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
As the right hon. Gentleman wishes to increase the length of time for which people are detained without trial or charge, is he going to let a lot of proven criminals out of prison in order to make the places available, given that over the past 10 years he clearly has not made those places available?
If the right hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so, that is not up to his usual standard. [Hon. Members: “It is.”] He might want to divide the House on that question. If he will contain himself, I will come to the issue of prisons and give way to him then.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall make a tiny bit more progress. I was reflecting over the weekend about quite the extent to which this country has changed for the better since my first speech from the Treasury Bench on the Loyal Address in May 1997. Although I do not claim that every speech that I have made in the past 10 and half years has stood the test of time, I was accurate when I said:
“Laws can help to shape more tolerant values and a better society.”—[Official Report, 19 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 387.]
I do not pretend that things are better for everyone. Each person who is a victim of crime—there are still too many—remains 100 per cent. a victim of crime, and each person out of a job remains 100 per cent. out of work, but overall our country is a better place, and this Government have led the way in that achievement. Three quarters of the British people are optimistic about the future for their families, a recent and interesting poll for the BBC tells us. Some 93 per cent. of us say that we are happy in our family lives, which is a considerable improvement on earlier such findings. The pollsters expressed surprise at the findings, but I do not. The country is more prosperous, safer and better educated. So much for the claims of a so-called “broken society”.
Something else has changed fundamentally. This did not happen under a Conservative Administration, although it easily could have done. It is something that the Conservatives had every chance to do in their 18 years of office, and something for which they needed no resources. Black Wednesday did not affect their opportunities to do this, yet they singularly refused to act. I am speaking about the way in which people are treated in our country.
When we came into government section 28 was, disgracefully, still on the statute book—people who were gay or lesbian were told by the state that they had dangerous tendencies—there was the running sore of policing in a multiracial country, and the fester of the appalling murder of Stephen Lawrence and the abject complacency of the investigation into it. The Conservative Administration sat on their hands about all that.
In contrast, we acted. We have made the changes to address inequalities and to help make our country more tolerant. We abolished section 28, equalised the age of consent and established the Lawrence inquiry—not only that, but we saw that almost all its recommendations were implemented. We introduced legislation to outlaw religious and racial hatred, just as we are now inviting the House to make incitement to hatred based on sexual orientation a criminal offence. We introduced a further, and in my judgment even more fundamental, law to help shape the tolerant values and better society of which I spoke 10 and a half years ago: the Human Rights Act 1998.
The European convention on human rights, on which our Act is based, was drafted by lawyers who were British and who happened to be leading Conservatives—men such as David Maxwell-Ffye, later the distinguished Lord Kilmuir, the Lord Chancellor. The incorporation of convention rights into domestic law was first called for in this House by Conservatives in 1987. Furthermore, following changes to the 1998 Bill based on the Opposition’s concerns, the Conservative Front-Bench team wished it well as it passed into law. I am not surprised, for the convention and the Act enshrined British values, developed over centuries of our common law, with a pedigree that stretches back to the Magna Carta, providing remedy in British courts, to be heard by British judges.
Is the Secretary of State aware that something that has bothered people on both sides of the House, not least the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is the inability to remove from this country foreign criminals who pose a danger to other members of society? Given Italy’s success in passing new legislation to allow it to do that without affecting its human rights legislation, do the Government have any intention of doing the same thing to protect our society from foreign criminals who pose a threat to people here?
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I am, of course, aware of this concern and we are trying to deal with it? I think that I am right in saying—I shall correct the record later if I am wrong—that Italy was one of the three countries with which we joined in an action before the Strasbourg Court to seek an amendment to the Chahal judgment, which has nothing to do with the Human Rights Act because it dates back to 1996. Italy faces exactly the same restrictions. There is a reason, in principle, for these restrictions, which I hope nobody in this House suggests should not be in place. That is that civilised countries should not outsource murder and torture and should not send back—albeit terrible—terrorists or criminals—to nations where there is a high and well-evidenced risk that they will face torture or death. The argument is about whether sending back a particular criminal to a particular country would pose that risk, and I am grateful for the intervention.
I recognise that the Human Rights Act has had to operate in a more difficult and complex environment than was anticipated in 1997. Therefore—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has flagged this point up—we now need to draw out explicitly those responsibilities that have always been implicit within the convention and the Act. That is why the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) and I will publish a draft Bill of Rights and responsibilities which will build on the Human Rights Act—[Interruption.] Well, if the Conservatives are now saying that they will build on the Act and not detract from it, I welcome that, but it is a very different approach from the one taken by the Leader of the Opposition.
In fact, the Conservatives are now pledged to a different approach—to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a separate set of rights that do not incorporate convention rights. To add to the confusion, they have said in this House and on the record that they “will not resile” from the convention itself. They appear to justify that approach on the ground that, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, they want to deport more foreign terrorists and criminals—as do we. Let me offer them this unsolicited, but entirely accurate, advice. Far from making it easier to deport foreign terrorists and criminals, the Conservatives’ approach would make it more difficult, because it would restrict the flexibility of the UK courts. If, as the Leader of the Opposition has suggested, they went down the route of the German Basic law—which they say would give them a greater margin of appreciation—they would end up with the opposite result to that which they seek. Any study of what happens in Karlsruhe, where the German constitutional court is based, shows that the German courts are more restrictive in their decisions on whether to deport foreign terrorists and criminals, and start from a higher base than do we or the Strasbourg Court. That would make deportation more difficult, not less difficult.
When the Lord Chancellor links responsibilities to rights, is he implying that someone other than a court of law can say to an individual that they have not behaved sufficiently responsibly to have the right of free speech, or of assembly? How can rights be made contingent on responsibilities, or responsible behaviour, unless a court decides that someone has committed a crime?
There are two aspects to that issue. In general terms, most—although not all—rights are contingent on duties and responsibilities. There is a vast body of jurisprudential study behind that. Secondly, there are some rights that are fundamental in a free and democratic society, such as the right to a fair trial and the right not to be tortured or sent—in our judgment—to death. Those are fundamental rights that arise from the fact that individuals are human beings, and they are a mark that separates a free and fair society from any other.
On the detail, I commend to the right hon. Gentleman—because even you, Mr. Speaker, would pull me up short if I went into detail—a substantial lecture that I gave two weeks ago in Cambridge. It was the Mackenzie-Stuart lecture, and I set out at some length how to balance rights and responsibilities properly—
Available at all good bookshops.
My right hon. Friend does not need to go to a bookshop for it, because she has learnt it off by heart, as I learn her speeches by heart. She will, of course, give a rendition of part of that speech when she winds up later.
All the changes that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is leading and which he set out in his historic, first statement as Prime Minister to the House on 3 July, are designed to establish a better balance between order and liberty, responsibility and freedom—and, whenever possible, to do so by consensus. That informs my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s approach to the complex and difficult issue of how best and fairly to bring to justice international terrorists, who threaten the whole fabric of our society. She will speak at more length on that issue when she winds up the debate.
The Lord Chancellor mentioned the July statement, which said that there would be a coroners Bill in the Queen’s Speech. The Luce report, the third Shipman report and the draft Bill all pointed to the fact that the current system badly needs reform. Why is that Bill not in the Queen’s Speech?
I hope very much that it will be possible to introduce that Bill, but we could not be absolutely certain that there would be time. For that reason, it was omitted from the Gracious Speech. However, I promise the hon. Gentleman and the whole Opposition that if they co-operate with us fully on all the other legislation, they will have the coroners Bill too. I look forward to that co-operation and will hold the hon. Gentleman to it.
Following the exchange between the Secretary of State for Justice and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), do I understand that, irrespective of any future discussion, the Government will defend the European convention on human rights absolutely? Do I understand that the Government will not wobble on whether to change or reduce the convention and that they will not derogate that in future, so that people are not held without trial in British prisons? Holding people in such a way would be contrary to all that has been implied by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and his colleagues over the years.
I have made it clear to the point of exhaustion that we are going to stick to the convention. Of course we are; we have no proposal to resile from it—that proposal came from parts, but not all, of the Opposition. Nor do we have any proposal to derogate; the convention itself gives a nation the right to derogate in particular circumstances, but we have no such proposal. However, I will send the hon. Gentleman an autographed copy of the speech that I made in Cambridge.
I should like to tease out what the Lord Chancellor has said. As I understand it, he wants his Bill of Rights and responsibilities, which will go out for discussion, to provide a gloss and interpretation by which the Human Rights Act 1998 can be looked at. Is that what he means, or will such a Bill of Rights be irrelevant to the interpretation of the 1998 Act? The issue is important because the Lord Chancellor is giving the impression that the way in which he wishes to proceed will enable a gloss on how the 1998 Act and the articles of the European convention are interpreted. Will he clarify the point?
The hon. Gentleman has taken a very consistent approach to the incorporation of the 1998 Act, and has been absolutely firm on the issue. Indeed, when asked whether a Conservative version of a British Bill of Rights would make it easier to deport suspected terrorists to countries that might torture them, he replied on the record that he did not think that it would. We are grateful to him for that clarification; I hope that he has told the shadow Home Secretary.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman, which he understands—I do not say that condescendingly—is this: in the convention, there are some rights on which there is very little margin of appreciation for any nation that adheres to the convention. That includes article 3, which is the basis of the Chahal judgment. On others, there is quite a wide margin of appreciation. The whole argument, originally led, in 1987, by the former distinguished Conservative Member the late Edward Gardner in a private Member’s Bill in favour of incorporation, was that if we incorporated the provisions, our courts would be able to adjudicate on them—and, yes, to gloss them, to use the hon. Gentleman’s phrase. That is what they have sought to do.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to await the publication of the Green Paper. However, in our judgment there are other areas in which, entirely consistently with the convention, the practice of Strasbourg and the margin of appreciation, greater discretion could be given—for example, in respect of article 13 on remedies, which is not incorporated, and of article 17, which deals with the abuse of rights and has not been developed as much as it should have been. That could be done without detracting in any sense from some of the fundamental rights, which I mentioned to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), that go with being a human being and nothing else.
While my right hon. Friend is talking about rights and responsibilities—I hope that I am not taking him too far away from his speech—may I ask him about victims, particularly children, who cannot express either rights or responsibilities and who are victims of domestic violence? Can we as a Government look cross-departmentally at how we can help them further? I know that we have gone a long way, but there is more that we can do for them as regards their rights and responsibilities; perhaps he, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, can examine that closely.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. A few days ago, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I attended a wonderful ceremony—the justice awards—where awards were given out to criminal justice practitioners who have made significant progress in these areas. However, all of them, especially those at the front line, accept that we have to do a great deal more.
I hope that a consensus can be achieved on the constitutional renewal Bill, which is to be published later this Session. It will abolish arcane royal prerogative powers and ensure instead that Parliament has the final say over such fundamental decisions as the deployment of armed forces overseas and the ratification of treaties. Following the decisive votes in the House in March, all-party talks on the future of the House of Lords continue. A further meeting is planned for next week. In any event, I am determined that we give effect, in time, to the overwhelming opinion of this House for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber.
Clearly, my right hon. Friend has to find a consensus between this House and the other chamber to get such legislation through. Does he accept that the way to meet the desires of both Houses is a system of indirect elections to the second chamber, which would mean that we did not have a copycat House of Commons, but equally that we did not have two different types of Members in the other chamber?
For wholly different reasons, I endorse the request by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Does the Lord High Chancellor accept that more Conservative Members have voted against an all-elected or 80 per cent. elected House than have voted for it; and will he therefore include at least one representative from the majority opinion on the Conservative Benches in his talks?
I knew that the right hon. Gentleman would have the answer; he is a very wise and sage man. That merely illustrates—I say this with great respect to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)—that it would be impossible to have constructive all-party talks if all shades of opinion across the spectrum were contained within them; we would never agree about anything. The truth is that the formal position of all three parties, as expressed in their manifestos and in the House, is in favour of a wholly or mainly elected second chamber. I know that the hon. Gentleman disagrees.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman must excuse me, as I have to make some progress.
While we in Government are making a series of proposals designed to strengthen the United Kingdom, the Conservative party—or at least part of it—is now advocating a policy of English votes for English laws, which would have the effect of wrenching it apart. The phrase English votes for English laws sounds beguilingly simple, but a more than cursory analysis reveals it to be completely unworkable. More than that, it would fatally undermine the Westminster Parliament and unravel the Union. I apologise for the language, Mr. Speaker, but it is very important that I quote what the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) has said about such a proposal. A former Foreign Secretary and member of previous Conservative Administrations, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said in the Financial Times earlier this year that it would be a “constitutional abortion”. I happen to agree. He is absolutely right.
If I may, I shall detain the House with a bit of history that is absolutely germane to what we are facing today. It was precisely his concerns about the unworkability of so-called English votes for English laws that led Gladstone, who had proposed a similar plan during the course of the second Home Rule Bill in 1893, to withdraw that plan at the final moment. Chief among the many flaws was the impossibility of discriminating between what Gladstone described as the Irish and the imperial issues. When he finally gave up, he said that it
“passed the wit of man to frame any distinct, thorough-going, universal severance between the one class of subjects and the other”.
We saw the Leader of the Opposition’s wit yesterday, but we were left in grave doubt about his wisdom. I recommend that he listen to Gladstone—
In a moment. If the Leader of the Opposition does not like Gladstone, perhaps he should try the distinguished former Conservative leader, A. J. Balfour. In opposing exactly the same plan, Balfour said that an
“‘in and out’ clause—
that is, an English votes for English laws clause—
“must carry the most serious evils in its train. It must, in the first place, shatter or threaten the ordinary procedure of Parliament with many difficulties. It must, in the second place, lead to constant intrigue...and it must, in the third place, I believe and fear, shatter the Cabinet system.”
Simply put, the Opposition’s scheme will not work—as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) knows only too well.
Apart from using various strange historical quotations that do not seem very apposite today, the Lord Chancellor seems to be arguing that it is impossible to distinguish between UK issues and, say, Scottish ones, and that it is therefore inappropriate to sort things out. If that were the case, though, we would surely never have had devolution and devolved issues in the first place. In addition, we would be in the bewildering situation that Parliament would issue legislation with the courts of the land not knowing its jurisdiction or whether it applied only in England, or in Wales and Scotland as well.
However, I do not believe that it is impossible to make such a distinction. Deciding which are UK issues and which are Scottish is a purely technical question, and resolving it is a matter of equity that need not threaten the UK. People who are legitimately elected for constituencies should be the sole determinants of what affects the people who return them to Parliament.
Would that matters were that simple, but what happened in 1893 remains pertinent, because the House faced exactly the same problem then. Of course, the territorial extent of a Bill can be described—as the Government have done with the devolution legislation and many other Bills that have come before this House—but it is much more difficult to determine its effect. The Chair would be embroiled in constant arguments about whether a measure whose territorial extent was confined to England would have a direct impact on Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
In a moment; I want to quote to the hon. Gentleman what the leader of the Scottish National party has said. It was claimed yesterday that Scottish nationalists had always refused to vote on “English-only” issues, and up to a point that is true. During deliberations on the higher education Bill that introduced student tuition fees, the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and his party—and my former colleague Tam Dalyell, who had entered into a similar self-denying ordinance—said that, in territorial terms, the Bill affected England and Wales only. However, they added that they intended to vote on the measures in the Bill because they would have really serious effects on public spending in Scotland that would not be covered by the Bill’s territorial extent restriction. The proposal that we are discussing, Mr. Speaker, would mean that you would be embroiled day after day in arguments about whether a particular clause of a particular Bill would affect England alone, or Scotland or Wales too.
My final point is that I am fully in favour of seeking ways to take better account of the views of English Members—if that is the problem, given that we already dominate spending by the House, including in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—but the right hon. and learned Gentleman has to take into account the effect on Cabinet Government. There could be a federal Parliament; that is fine—that is the Liberals’ position and it would work, although it would break up the Union—but it would end up with two Cabinets in one, trying to operate both United Kingdom legislation and decisions as well as England ones. It would not work.
The Lord Chancellor is absolutely right. I make no excuse whatever for coming to this place to represent Scottish interests and to make sure they are protected.
Every time the Conservatives bring up these issues, the Lord Chancellor and his colleagues say that they are threatening the Union, and the Conservatives say that every time the Government ignore the question that they are threatening the Union. I do not know who is right—I am just happy if the Union is threatened—but surely it is almost indefensible that the question should not be addressed in the future.
I entirely agree it should be debated, and that is what I am doing; it is just that we have come to a different conclusion. The hon. Gentleman sits in the House for the Scottish National party and I know what he is up to—he wants independence and that is fine. However, I warn the Conservative party, which once had a fine tradition as a Unionist party, to avoid getting into bed with the Scottish nationalists, because that is where they are, in a most unprincipled, unholy way, and they will end up with exactly what they claim not to want.
Unlike the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), I am a Unionist. If there were countless instances where it would be difficult to sort out the full implications across the border of particular measures, I, as an English Member, would by now have raised repeated grievances about measures carried by the Scottish Parliament that might have implications for my constituency. Not the slightest instance of such a situation occurs to me; nor is it the case that every measure, on both sides of the border, has public expenditure implications for the other side. The Lord Chancellor is doing what his colleagues do: he is trying to elevate a great constitutional principle—the defence of the Union—when he is actually defending the partisan interest of his party, because he thinks it is possible that there could be a Labour Government who lacked an English majority.
I am happy to fight a general election in England any time. We will win and the Conservatives will lose—[Interruption.] Yes, the problem for the Conservative party is a partisan one. In the mid-1950s, the Conservatives won not just half the seats in Scotland but half the popular vote. How many Scottish MPs are Conservative these days? What the Conservatives need to address is the fact that they have been pushed downwards—down the United Kingdom—into an English-only corral in the midlands and the south.
My final point on this question is that when the Conservative party represented the whole of the United Kingdom and concerns were sometimes expressed from the Labour Benches—in my view, inappropriate ones—about the fact, for example, that Northern Irish Members, all bar one Ulster Unionist, voted on matters that did not affect them one jot, it was the Conservative party that stood up for the Union. That is exactly what happened in 1964 over the steel nationalisation Bill—
And coal as well. The Bill specifically excluded any impact on Northern Ireland, yet Unionist Members voted for it. It is now a matter of public record that Harold Wilson looked into whether it was possible to go down the route that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) proposes. He agreed that it was not possible, because it would break the Union. I have to tell the Conservatives that, concerned as I am to ensure that their party survives and prospers as the leading Opposition party, they should be very, very careful about where they are likely to end up.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend.
Whereas I accept many of my right hon. Friend’s remarks about the political aspects, will he answer one question on a matter over which he and I have disagreed in the past—namely, jury trial? On a number of occasions, the Government have sought to restrict the right to jury trial—a serious civil liberty issue—which has no effect whatever in Scotland. In those circumstances, how can it be right that Scottish Members of Parliament, excellent though they undoubtedly are, have the right to vote on matters of such deep civil liberty that do not affect their constituents, but affect us?
My hon. and learned Friend will have noticed that, by omission, the fraud juryless trials Bill was not mentioned in the Gracious Speech, for a different reason than that in respect of the coroners Bill. We are taking time to look at the matter again to consider it further.
We should have a whole-day debate on this issue, because it is important. The arrangements in practice for managing a Union that is wholly asymmetrical, because of the dominance of England within it, have always resulted in Members voting on issues that do not necessarily affect their constituents. That point applies at the moment in respect of measures that are the responsibility of the Mayor of London. All institutions of government in the United Kingdom, apart from this House, derive their powers from this United Kingdom Parliament.
If the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe objects to the powers of the Scottish Parliament, then that which is given can be taken away. [Interruption.] The Conservatives had grave reservations at the time, and if that is their beef, let them bring forward legislation to change the Scotland Act 1998, because this Parliament is supreme and sovereign in the Union.
Does the Lord Chancellor agree that it is strange that those who claim to be most pro-Unionist are currently aligned with those who have stated in this House today that they are aiming for the break-up of the United Kingdom? When devolution did not apply to Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland MPs accepted, sometimes reluctantly, the fact that this House voted on measures that applied to Northern Ireland, even though most parties in this House did not stand in Northern Ireland. In the absence of devolution for England, people in England should accept the same responsibility as members of the United Kingdom, namely that this House is supreme in those matters.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I need to make progress, because I am conscious of how long I have spoken for in dealing with that important issue.
I have spent some time describing the differences between us and Conservative Members, but that is not to say that we do not have common ground. I agreed with the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), when he said:
“We need prisons with a purpose which goes beyond simply locking people up”,
which is exactly what we have been doing.
In 2006-07, record numbers of offenders completed accredited programmes and unpaid work, and 20,000 of them successfully undertook offending behaviour programmes. We have also increased spending on drug treatment tenfold. The physical conditions of all prisons have been transformed, and the stench and degradation of slopping out excrement has gone. We now treat prisoners with greater dignity better to ensure that others are treated with greater respect. We have increased investment in probation services by nearly three quarters, and last year 55,000 offenders completed unpaid work in the community. Crucially—this shows the value of our investment—fewer inmates now leave prison to offend again.
Viewed solely through the prism of the daily pressures that our prison system faces, our successes over the past decade are often not given the recognition that they deserve. We are catching and imprisoning 60 per cent. more violent and dangerous offenders than ever before, and those offenders are being sent to prison for longer. There have been no category A escapes, which are escapes involving the most dangerous and violent prisoners, since 1995—there were 19 such escapes between 1990 and 1995. We have provided more than 20,000 extra prison places at twice the rate achieved by the previous Administration, with a commitment to deliver 9,500 more places by 2012.
The Lord Chancellor has repeated his claim that the Government have provided 20,000 extra prison places. Will he confirm that, of those 20,000 places, more than 8,500 were commissioned by the previous Government and, more significantly, more than 6,000 were created by doubling up prison cells? Does he really think that he should claim that that is creating extra prison places?
The hon. Gentleman should listen to the Leader of the Opposition, who has talked about the importance of doubling up. Much of the doubling up has been made possible because we have introduced internal sanitation in all cells. As for the hon. Gentleman’s claim that some of those prison places were planned by the previous Administration, it was ever thus. The difference is that we paid for those plans and have continued to expand the number of prison places, and we will continue to do so.
First, will the Lord Chancellor answer the specific question that has just been put, namely that more than 6,000 of what he claims as additional places are actually examples of overcrowding? Secondly, will he withdraw the statement that his Government introduced internal sanitation, given that the previous Government abolished slopping out?
It is extraordinary to watch two parties squabbling over who created the crisis in our prison system. When Lord Carter’s review finally reports, does the Lord Chancellor intend to introduce legislation to effect some of the changes that Lord Carter may propose?
I shall go on to deal with that point.
We are committed to providing enough prison places for those whom the courts determine should be there, which is why Lord Carter of Coles, whose report I will be publishing to this House before Christmas, has been conducting a review into the long-term supply and demand for prison places. I have not seen the report yet, but legislation may be required, in which case it will be brought before this House.
I want to take this opportunity to repeat the truism that more prison places will require more prisons. I call on hon. Members, particularly those who have demanded greater prison capacity, for their full co-operation and that of their local councils in finding locations for prisons. Rather too many Conservative Members have been saying that they are happy with additional prison places, but not in their county or their constituency.
I have spoken to the House before about the perils of an American model of unrestrained levels of incarceration. I do not believe that anybody wants that to happen here, but if it were to occur, it would mean not 80,000 prisoners but 400,000, and not 140 prisons but 700, which would be more than one in every constituency. That would not be in the best interests of the lawful people of the United Kingdom. If there is agreement on that point, then I hope that we can reach a consensus on the consequences of that agreement. That means that we should jail dangerous offenders and repeat offenders, but we should continue with the programme that we have been following for the past 10 years to make better use of community sentencing.
Finally, I shall provide an update on the issue of party funding. As the House will know, in March 2006 Sir Hayden Phillips was asked to undertake a review of the matter by the then Prime Minister. Sir Hayden published his final report in March 2007, which set out the broad principles for a reformed system of party finance and spending. He was subsequently asked to chair inter-party talks with the aim of securing a broad consensus around the practicalities of a new system. I regret to tell the House that those talks were suspended last week after the Conservative party—it alone— proved unwilling to negotiate on a draft agreement put forward by Sir Hayden. [Interruption.] That is true.
I have always sought to make progress in that area on the basis of consensus. We managed to achieve that with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which built on the Neill committee report of 1998. I want to make it clear that the suspension of Sir Hayden Phillips’s talks does not mean that the problems with the existing regulatory regime have vanished, and it should not be an excuse for inaction. As indicated in the Gracious Speech, I will shortly bring forward proposals on the regulation of party finance and expenditure and, in particular, on how we can end the problem of the spending arms race, which is the central driver of the other problems that we face. I note that the Leader of the Opposition yesterday emphasised the connection between state funding and donation caps. While attending to the issue of spending limits, the House should take a deep breath before agreeing to the apparent Conservative demand for large sums of public money to offset a linked donation cap.
Britain is a better place than it was in 1997. The policies and legislative programme of this Government have helped to unlock the aspirations of the British people. The next period of improvement will go even further to strengthen our constitution, our public institutions and our democracy, and it will do much more to protect the public from terrorism, crime and disorder. We will better secure our borders, highlight our shared values and create the climate in which the great talent, skills and energy of every citizen in this country can better be realised. I commend the Loyal Address to the House.
It is a particular pleasure to face across the Dispatch Box the Lord High Chancellor, the real Deputy Prime Minister and now, it seems, the acting Home Secretary as well. I have followed the career of the right hon. Gentleman since he was a left-wing firebrand leading the National Union of Students, so it was a particular pleasure to watch him at the heart of the British establishment yesterday, retreating down the steps of the throne in his cloak and tights. I should tell the Lord Chancellor, who was not in a position to hear, that the Prime Minister, watching this scene, turned and said, “Now this is a constitutional reform of which I do approve.”
That is right.
The right hon. Gentleman also knows that I rather approve of him, although I should tell him that when dealing with his successors as Home Secretary, who passed in rather rapid succession, I always thought of him as the one that got away. [Interruption.] He agrees.
The Government have approached the Queen’s Speech in each of the past 10 years under the misguided assumption that they can meet the challenges Britain faces by sheer volume of new legislation. After 60 Home Office Bills introduced by the Government, it is overwhelmingly clear that law making is no substitute for law enforcement. It is not possible to legislate away gun violence, which has multiplied under this Government, or to legislate away the Government’s failure to count, let alone control, immigration, and it is not possible to legislate away the failure to build enough prison places—despite the comments of the Lord Chancellor a moment ago—which has led to the release of 8,500 serious criminals since the new Prime Minister took office.
When it comes to security, the Government have spent a huge amount of time, energy and resources on controversial policies that are ineffective, if not downright counterproductive. Why are the Government wasting billions on ID cards, when the IT can be corrupted by terrorists using a gadget costing £100? Why, with 2,000 individuals threatening our security, are the Government wasting so much energy on a control order regime that monitors 14 terrorists and is so ineffective that seven have escaped, most without trace? Why the fixation on extended detention without trial, which I suspect will be the main issue today, without a shred of evidence that we need longer? Such a change will cut off vital co-operation from local communities and we have emergency powers to deal with the nightmare scenarios that Ministers keep speculating about.
Before coming on to the proposals from the Home Office, I inform the Lord Chancellor that we agree with a number of proposals from his Department. But I have to say that they read rather like an indictment of Labour’s record over the past 10 years. There is a Bill to guard against the politicisation of the civil service. We look forward to learning from the Government’s experience. There will be reform to require greater parliamentary scrutiny of war-making powers. The former Foreign Secretary is uniquely well qualified to guide us through that. There will be a review of the ban on protestors outside Parliament, but presumably not on hecklers at Labour party conferences.
When it comes to tackling crime, the Government are exhausted, despite the Lord Chancellor’s brave words earlier. We heard his numbers; the truth is that violent crime has doubled. They can argue about the figures all they like. The public know the reality on our streets and they have lost all trust in what Ministers say. The single most important measure the Government could have announced today would be to cut the red tape that ties officers to their desks. The Home Secretary claims that the Government have cut 9,000 forms, but when we asked her only two weeks ago to list them, she could not. So I do not expect much of Labour’s fifth major review of police red tape that is due in the new year.
A Conservative Government will take the first opportunity to slash red tape and replace it with direct accountability that will get our police back on the streets, cutting crime and responding to the needs of local communities. I understand that the Lord Chancellor is warming to the idea of direct accountability. Perhaps he can clarify his position—or the Home Secretary can do it for us—by telling the House in clear terms whether locally elected police commissioners will be the next policy his Government try to pinch from the Conservative party.
Then we come to the Government’s recent statements on immigration, which were a classic demonstration of how they operate. They simply cannot be trusted on this issue. Anyone reading the papers yesterday or the day before would have expected to hear in the Gracious Speech about an immigration Bill that would cut immigration by 35,000—that was the headline. Earlier in the week, one paper said that a “new immigration Bill” setting out a “points-based system” that will
“slash immigration by 35,000 a year will be at the heart of Gordon Brown’s first Queen’s Speech”.
That is wrong on two counts. First, no immigration Bill in this Queen’s Speech introduces a points system. It does not exist—it is not there. Secondly, it is misleading because the Government have said that the points system, which is already in place, is not about setting a limit on immigration. The Home Office, in a burst of honesty, said that it could not predict the numbers. A former Immigration Minister said that the system was not about letting fewer or more people in, and the current Minister for Borders and Immigration, when asked how a points-based system would reduce the number of migrants said he was
“not the general secretary of a Soviet-style central planning system”.—[Official Report, 30 April 2007; Vol. 459, c. 1226.]
The Prime Minister will be disappointed.
The Government’s proposals on counter-terrorism, however, formed a key component of the Gracious Speech. Only this week, we have heard from the head of MI5 about the growing number of terror suspects—a threat level rising faster than our capacity to monitor it. My party believes that we need a renewed effort across all parties to confront and scale back the terrorist threat. We will join the Government in supporting every effective and appropriate measure with that aim in view. We have called for the introduction of post-charge questioning for two years. We hope that the Government will take swift action on the matter. We shall look closely at arrangements for using DNA in terrorism investigations, and at the workability of proposals for monitoring those convicted of terrorism offences after their release, with the Government’s woeful track record on enforcing control orders firmly in mind.
There are areas where we shall urge the Government to go further, and I shall be interested to hear the Home Secretary’s views on those when she makes her winding-up speech later today. We intend to bring forward concrete proposals in the context of the Bill to ban fully Hezbollah’s activities in Britain, to take action to ensure that charities are not used to finance groups engaged in terrorism and to review the Government’s confused approach to banning extremist organisations that preach hatred and violence against this country. We want to see a zero-tolerance approach to those involved in terror.
I had intended to avoid commenting on the question of intercept evidence today in light of the cross-party review that is under way. However, since there was no mention of the review in the Queen’s Speech, and since the Home Secretary felt able to brief newspapers that she was hardening against any change in the law, I no longer feel so restrained. Foreign intercept evidence is already used in British courts. Intercept is used in nearly every US prosecution of organised crime and terrorism. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and US prosecutors say that intercept is more often than not the decisive evidence that leads to a conviction. Using intercept will be cost-effective because where used it often results in an early guilty plea and encourages co-operation with the police. The Director of Public Prosecutions, the last Attorney-General and senior officers in the Met have called for intercept to be used in the courts.
The Home Secretary now briefs that she is concerned about compromising the value of intercept as an intelligence-gathering tool, but every other country has found a way to protect sources. Terror suspects are already acutely aware that they may be monitored, but they still use mobile phones. If in any specific case there is a really serious objection, the answer is simple: we do not use intercept in that case. That is why the Australian Director of Public Prosecutions said:
“If you are not using intercept, you aren’t being serious.”
Let us consider the vexed and central issue of extending detention without charge. We remain open to cross-party dialogue, although internal Government consultations appear to have settled the matter. Their security adviser, Lord West, stated:
“We have to show absolutely that we really do need this”.
The Home Secretary’s answer to the Select Committee on Home Affairs was:
“I accept that there has not been a circumstance in which it has been necessary up to this point to go beyond 28 days.”
I shall deal with the Home Secretary’s sotto voce comment of “Thank goodness” because she appeared to imagine that we had picked the number out of the air. It is the longest time for which people can be held without charge in the free world. That is hardly a matter of pride for the Home Secretary to pick on, so we shall come back to her shortly.
The last time the House held the debate—the so-called 90-day debate—the Government did not present any evidence that 90 days were necessary. Instead, they presented an argument that 90 days might be necessary if certain circumstances came to pass. The result was the Government’s defeat in the House for the first time in 10 years because they persuaded almost nobody.
Regrettably, a circumstance that greatly resembled the one that the Government described came to pass in the alleged Heathrow plot of August 2006. It was alleged to involve a simultaneous attack, which was believed to be imminent, on 10 airliners. It involved many people and locations, some potentially hazardous, and many computers. The Home Secretary said on the radio this morning that three terabytes of data were involved—I will challenge her about that in the coming weeks. The plot raised problems of evidence gathering. It involved information from a foreign intelligence agency, which, of course, slows things down. The police had to move earlier than they would have chosen, before all their evidence was gathered, because the threat was thought to be imminent. It was almost an exact replica of the imaginary case that Mr. Hayman presented in support of 90 days.
In practice, were 90 days needed? Not at all. Nowhere near 90 days were needed. Fifteen of the defendants were charged in 19 days or less. Five suspects were kept beyond 19 days, two of whom were charged at the 28-day point. Were the full 28 days needed to collect the evidence?
That point—or the point that the hon. Gentleman missed—was picked up by the Joint Committee on Human Rights when it reviewed the Government’s comments and those of the so-called independent investigator to the Government. The comments did not pursue the real issue, which is when the evidence became available. I asked the Home Secretary about that two or three weeks ago when I met her to discuss components of the counter-terrorism Bill on which we could agree because we want it to be as consensual as possible. I asked whether she could give me details about when the evidence was gathered. We have called her office twice since then, but have received no support. If she intends to be consensual, I look forward to seeing the evidence. I have been told by a source whom I believe to be reliable, but I do not want to rely on one person, that, in at least one case, the primary evidence for charging was available at 14 days. That is not up against the buffers.
The right hon. Gentleman should know that no one in the House voted for 90 days as a blanket figure. We supported a length of time that a judge would review every seven days. The evidence would be assessed. The review was an essential part of any programme to increase the time.
The hon. Gentleman presents the Government’s argument that we want review and oversight. We have that now. I had not intended to discuss the matter, but, since he raises it, let me revert to the five people who were in the last slot, and detained up to 28 days. Three were released, after spending 28 days in cells. That is what someone would get for a severe act of violence in this country. Three innocent people spent 28 days in cells. I make that point carefully because I asked the Metropolitan police whether those people were under control orders or surveillance, or whether the police had further suspicions of them. They were innocent of any charges put to them. [Interruption.] If the Lord Chancellor wants to correct me, I am happy for him to do so, but he cannot give the impression that, because people were locked up for 28 days, they might not be innocent.
Of course, there is a serious issue about the maximum length of time for which people should be detained. However, the right hon. Gentleman’s argument is the weirdest that I have heard for a long time. Its logical extension is that the police should have no powers to lock up anybody pending investigation and charge.
Again, the Lord Chancellor wriggles off the point. If we recall the 90-day debate, who said that 28 days was the right number? The answer is the Conservative party. Otherwise, we would not have 28 days, which, I reiterate, is the longest time for detention without charge in the free world.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said that the 90 days would have been subject to review. However, 28 days was subject to review yet people in the case that I outlined were detained until the last day. If 90 days had been available, I suspect that they would have been detained for longer. I do not know how much longer—I do not suggest that it would be for 90 days—but they would have been detained for longer.
We must face up to the problem that we could detain someone who started out being a great patriot and supporter of the British state. However, at the end of the time in prison, having done nothing to deserve being there, that person would not be a patriot and supporter of the British state—at least, it would be understandable if that person were not. We do not want to create a recruiting sergeant for terrorism in our over-enthusiasm for repressive measures, which we do not need.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s last point. However, I ask him to stop using the phrase “the longest detention period without charge in the free world” because he does not compare like with like. It is possible in countries such as France and Spain—[Interruption.] There are different systems—that is my point—but people are detained for considerable periods. My anxiety about the current position is that, the police, when they are watching potential terrorists or people whom they believe might be terrorists, may act too early or too late because of concentration on the 28 days. That may put us at greater risk than necessary.
Of course. However, two points arise. First, in the coming weeks, a serious comparison will be published on a stage-by-stage basis of all the countries in what we would term the free world. The hon. Gentleman will find that we are, sadly, at the top of the league. Secondly, there is the interview after charge. In the investigatory magistrates structure, they charge and continue to interview and investigate, but there is a point of charge. When considering the 90-day debate, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and I were briefed on the matter. We were shocked to hear that the Government had not considered relaxing the system that I outlined and were happier to go for 90 days’ detention without charge than to make a smaller, more technical and less intrusive change in the law.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I serve, was interested in what happened to the three people who were released at 28 days. The Government had the option of applying for control orders if they did not believe that they had enough evidence to charge but were concerned that the people were a danger. If they had successfully applied for control orders, that might be evidence that 28 days was not sufficient, but if they did not believe that it was appropriate to apply or if they did not succeed in getting control orders, that is evidence that there was no basis in that case for going for longer than 28 days.
I am sympathetic to many of the points that the right hon. Gentleman is making. I was one of those who opposed 90 days. Does he agree that one of the great mysteries is where the suggestion for 90 days came from in the first place? In May, at a conference in front of 200 lawyers in Birmingham, I asked the Director of Public Prosecutions where the pressure for 90 days was coming from. His response was, “It isn’t coming from us and it isn’t coming from the police.”
I think that that point answers itself.
At the end of all this, there has been no case at all in which 28 days has prevented a subject from being charged. Indeed, we would know if there had been one, because of the control order sign that would have come up. The next question is whether the police could have gathered the key evidence more quickly than they did in each of the terrorism cases. I spoke to some senior members of the police team that ran the investigation to which I have been referring. My strong impression was that the investigation was well run and that the team did a capable job. It clearly did all that was necessary in the time available.
The question that must be answered in that context, however, is: if the police had needed to do the investigation faster, could they have done so? As a test of that, I asked the police whether they instituted three-shift working for the evidence-gathering process. Did they work right round the clock? “No,” they said. I asked them whether they directed in any forensic or IT staff from other forces. “Not necessary,” they said. I asked the police a number of other questions, about the techniques and management of the evidence-gathering process. It was quite clear that there were ways—we shall talk about them on Second Reading—of accelerating some aspects of the process when that became necessary.
So to summarise, in no case to date has the 28-day limit created a problem. Furthermore, it is almost certain that the evidence-gathering and sifting can be accelerated if the necessary resources are provided.
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves that topic, I want to raise the problem of encryption of electronically held documents and the difficulty of getting into them during the time available, which is put forward repeatedly. Indeed, that was the main argument put forward on the previous occasion on which we debated the issue two years ago. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman can answer this question. Under both the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, there is provision for orders to be made requiring that people who are held should give up the encryption on their computers. If they do not do so, they may be held in custody while those computers are de-encrypted. Why is that not sufficient in those circumstances?
The position is sharper than that. As has been said, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 there is a requirement to give up the password. Also, I think that I am right in saying— because I volunteered this to the Government during the debate on 90 days—that we agreed to double the length when the case involved terrorism. The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right. If passwords are withheld, a charge can automatically be brought against the individual concerned.
My question is closely related to the one that my right hon. Friend has just answered. The only other aspect of the Government’s case which we keep hearing is that vast quantities of computerised material have to be gone through. However, it is not at all clear whether such quantities, assuming that they are not encrypted, are vast quantities of rubbish concealing a few important nuggets of information or vast quantities of vital information. It is hard to see why there have to be gigabytes of vital information, let alone anything larger. Therefore, the vast quantities of material are presumably rubbish covering the important bits. In that event, it would always be possible for terrorists to pile on more and more gigabytes to conceal the bits that matter. There might therefore be no end to the amount of time for which the Government could require people to be detained in order to go through it.
My hon. Friend has a point. The number that the Home Secretary bandied around this morning was three terabytes or 3,000 gigabytes, which would work out at about 100 gigabytes a suspect. I recommend that hon. Members go and look at their computers. If, like me, they keep everything for ever, I recommend that they look at their lifetime of gathered data. I doubt whether those data would come to anything like 100 gigabytes or even 25 megabytes.
One of the questions that will be put to the Home Secretary—not now; we shall give her notice of it—is whether the vast quantities of data that she has talked about involve just the capacity of the disks or whether they involve all the software on those disks, such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Windows and so on, all of which is checkable and removable in an instant. Then we shall see whether the problem is really what it is cracked up to be. If the Government want to look at the issue properly, the serious problem is not the encryption or the sheer volume, but the issue of foreign language translation. I hope that we shall talk about that in practical terms when we come to the main debate on the legislation.
The House should not forget that cross-party co-operation delivered a range of new offences to enable the police to charge anybody—and I mean anybody—involved in a terrorist plot. That was done at great length, at our suggestion and, to give them their credit, the Liberal Democrats’ suggestion, in the debate on 90 days. Acts preparatory to terrorism, encouragement to terrorism, dissemination of terrorist publications, and terrorist training offences, in addition to the pre-existing offences of possessing information for terrorist purposes, recruiting for terrorist training and inciting overseas terrorism—all are criminal offences. What has been lacking is the determination to make the full use of the law and the powers that we have already.
The previous Home Secretary understood those arguments and came up with another scenario, in the earlier stage of the discussion. He said, “Okay, we can cope with one Heathrow reasonably easily, but what if we had five all at once? We’d be overwhelmed.” That is the circumstance under which, we argue, the Government should invoke the state of emergency provisions in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. The definition is very simple and involves an emergency that poses a serious threat to the public, overwhelming the Government’s ability to defend the public.
The powers in the 2004 Act are quite sweeping and include the power to hold without charge for up to 30 days, over and above any period under existing legislation. So, in a state of emergency—but only in a state of emergency—the Government already have the power to hold for 58 days. The scenario described by the previous Home Secretary involved 50 airliners coming under attack. That is clearly a state of emergency. Such a power would of course require the Government to justify their action after the event to both the House of Commons and the courts, but they say that they want proper scrutiny and control over the process. For such an incursion of liberty, that is a good thing.
The Government complain about that process, which they designed, remember. They say that it would alarm and panic the public—this from a Government who habitually issue blood-curdling assessments of the threat, describing it as the biggest threat since the second world war. I consider that objection to be unutterable nonsense, first, because it underestimates the British public, who withstood 3,000 deaths under the Northern Irish troubles and who faced that many deaths in a single night at the height of the blitz; secondly, because the public would expect a state of emergency if 50 airliners were about to be blown out of the sky; and thirdly, because there would be no immediate need to declare such a state of emergency, as the Government would have 28 days before they ran out of time under the counter-terrorism Bill. In that time the state of the nation would be all too clear to the public.
The Home Secretary has suggested that that demonstrates that we accept the principle of the need to go beyond 28 days. That is a facile argument. It should be clear that we do not accept the need to extend detention without charge based on either the evidence of the operations to date or the most horrific hypothetical scenarios so far dreamt up by Ministers.
Let me explain the matter to the Home Secretary by quoting from a document that I hope that she already has ready, the House of Lords judgment that struck down the Government’s arguments on control orders last week. In it, Lord Brown said that the right to liberty
“represents a fundamental value and is absolute in its terms…Liberty is too precious a value to be discarded except in times of genuine national emergency...None is suggested here.”
The important phrase there is
“except in times of genuine national emergency”.
That is the requirement that must be fulfilled before we give up our fundamental liberties, and this is the crux of the matter. Rather than having—[Interruption.] Did the Home Secretary say something about control orders? This is about rather more than control orders. This is about people being locked up for 56 days, in case she has forgotten the main thrust of her argument.
This is the crux of the matter. The Home Secretary is arguing that, rather than having a temporary, declared state of emergency, the Government want a permanent, undeclared state of emergency. To choose that is to reject the tradition of liberty in this country that has been paid for by hundreds of thousands of British lives over the past century. The Government argue that the enemy is getting more sophisticated and the plots more complex, and they demand more time. The presumption is that the plotters are getting better but that we are not. I do not accept that defeatist argument. It is one that we will explore in great detail on Second Reading of the counter-terrorism Bill.
The House should heed the warnings of those on the front line in counter-terrorism—which the Government try to use in a way that they might not appreciate—about the counter-productive implications of extended detention without charge. The former head of MI5, Stella Rimington, has warned explicitly against this “increasingly draconian” measure. Sir Ronnie Flanagan has warned us to
“take great care not to over-react…not to do the job of the terrorists for them.”
The Met’s senior counter-terrorism officer, Peter Clarke, warns against destroying the trust that
“fundamentally affects the level of support…and of course intelligence…that we receive from communities”.
Even this week, the head of MI5—who notably did not mention 28 or 56 days in his speech—has cautioned:
“The terrorists may be indiscriminate in their violence against us…but we should not be so in our response to them.”
Extending detention without trial will, like ID cards and control orders, undermine our freedoms, but it will not make us safer. In fact, it risks making the threat worse. Looking round the Chamber, I see that almost everyone here is wearing a poppy. Those poppies represent an enormous sacrifice. Tomorrow morning at 11 o’clock, many of us will be standing in the regimental plots in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, paying our respects to the soldiers who paid for our freedom with their lives. Our freedom was bought at a very high price. We on this side will not give that freedom away without very good reason.
With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall range a little more widely through the Queen’s Speech and speak not only to the Bills covered by the Departments represented on the Front Bench today.
I should like to start by picking up on a remark made yesterday, not by the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition—with all due respect to them—but by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler). Towards the end of her speech, she said:
“If anyone…questions whether politics works or whether it matters, I say to them that cynicism did not create the welfare state, indifference did not introduce the minimum wage or bring peace to Northern Ireland, and apathy did not end debt slavery for the world’s poorest people or give our most valuable pensioners dignity in their retirement. It was politics that did all that. That is the difference that politics makes.”—[Official Report, 6 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 14.]
That observation memorably and beautifully provides the counter-argument to the cynicism that is all too prevalent in our society today when people talk about politics. I did not attend the Gracious Speech. I watched it on television, and the BBC did a number of vox pops. Almost all of them were of a cynical nature, with people saying things like, “Oh, it doesn’t have anything to do with us” and “Nothing makes any difference.” My hon. Friend’s point deals perfectly with comments such as those, and I shall quote it when I am next confronted by such cynicism about politics and the political process.
If my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench will forgive me, I want to touch on one or two of the Bills in the Queen’s Speech that are not within their remit. There are many things in the Queen’s Speech that my constituents will welcome, including the Climate Change Bill and the energy Bill. At long last, we are getting serious about the environment, although there is still a long way to go. I note that many of the most respected experts suggest that we should aim for a 75 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, and I hope that the Government will keep that matter under review. I appreciate, however, that there is a fine line to be walked between what is deliverable and what is desirable.
Our targets on renewables are very modest, and I wonder whether we could be a bit more ambitious in that regard. I note that the new Co-op headquarters in Manchester is 98 per cent. energy self-sufficient, and that ought to serve as a role model for other business developments. On recycling, despite undoubted progress we are barely scratching the surface. The amount that we throw away remains astonishing to me, and it is still impossible to recycle plastic in many parts of the country. We seem depressingly reluctant to take on the supermarkets and the packaging manufacturers, and it is a mystery to me why we cannot require a deposit to be paid on bottles and plastic bags.
I welcome any measures in the Bill on pensions and employment to improve the lot of agency workers and those who are on the minimum wage. There is a growing divide in this country between two classes of employee: those who qualify for holiday pay, sick pay, occupational pensions and all those other things that we used, quaintly, to associate with civilisation, and those who do not. Increasingly, many of the latter are immigrants, and nothing causes greater resentment among the indigenous population than to see their once secure jobs undermined by the cynical importation of labour from cheap labour economies. Those of us who have done well out of the past 20 years need to bear in mind the fact that there is a class of people whose standard of living has not improved in that time. A bus driver told me recently that his earnings had not yet got back up to the level that they had been in the late 1980s before the deregulation of the buses.
The planning Bill makes me a little nervous. There might well be a case for modernising the planning process, but, as regards housing, airports and roads, we seem to be returning to the discredited “predict and provide” model instead of looking for ways of managing demand. I speak as one who once had some responsibility in the Government for aviation, and the aviation industry in particular has had its own way for far too long. There is almost no limit to its demands. It wants more terminals, more runways and more airports, and it is time for the Government to muster the courage to stand up to it. I hope that this Bill is not intended to pave the way for a return to “predict and provide”.
I look forward to the Bill on party finances. We have to close the so-called Ashcroft loophole. It is urgent that we stop the Americanisation of politics, in which political parties are increasingly becoming beholden to individual rich men in the way that premier league football is becoming the playground of billionaires. We need issue-driven, rather than money-driven, politics. Nor do I accept the argument that there is a legitimate parallel to be drawn with trade union political funds. Between 3 million and 4 million people voluntarily paying four or five pounds a year is the nearest thing that we have to mass politics in this country, and there is no comparison between the political levy and a multi-millionaire writing out a cheque for £2 million, £3 million or even £5 million to the political party of his choice.
I do not know whether the Government have plans for this, but I would also like to see a tighter cap on the amount that can be spent nationally. In my view, we missed an opportunity in 1998, important though the legislation that became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was. In 1998, the Opposition were short of money, so they just might have been prepared to negotiate more seriously on lower limits. When we have closed the Ashcroft loophole—I appreciate that this may not be too agreeable for my right hon. and hon. Friends—perhaps we could take another look at the so-called communications allowance that we awarded ourselves earlier this year, which I found hard to justify as it gives an unfair advantage to incumbents. I notice that it is attracting increasingly unfavourable comment.
I turn now to the counter-terrorism Bill. As we have just heard, it seems that it will include yet another attempt to increase the period for which terror suspects can be held without trial. In my time, it has gone from three, to seven, to 14 and to 28 days—to say nothing of the abortive attempt a while ago to raise it to 90 days. I shall listen to the arguments, as I did last time, but they are going to have to be a darn sight stronger than they were last time before I become convinced of them.
As I said in an intervention, I cannot understand the origins of this obsession with increasing the length of time for which terrorist suspects can be detained without trial. I quoted what the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, told me in front of an audience of 200 lawyers. I believe that the only possible conclusion is that it has more to do with politicians than with the needs of practitioners. I have no doubt that a policeman or someone from the security services can be wheeled out to say that the extension is absolutely necessary, but the case has not been demonstrated. I also noted the quotations cited by—was it the right hon. Member for Goole?
Oh, yes—a much safer seat. I noted the right hon. Gentleman’s quotations from Ronnie Flanagan, Stella Rimington and Peter Clarke, all of whom urged caution on this issue. We should take them very seriously. When the introduction of 90 days was attempted, it was a truly friendless measure. I noticed that even the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Condon, voted against it in the other place. It really is time that the Government got the message on this. They may well find that the answer lies in post-charge questioning, but given that most terrorist suspects are likely to refuse to respond to questions, I am not sure that that will take us very far either. At the end of the day, when it comes to convicting terrorists—I am as keen on that as anyone else; indeed, in years gone by I had rather better luck in doing so than some whose job it is to catch terrorists—there is no substitute for hard evidence.
Is not one of the arguments against extending the period beyond 28 days simply that it would be counter-productive? It will cause antagonism within the Muslim community—the very people whose help the police need to combat terrorism. So far, no compelling evidence has been produced by the Government or the police to justify going beyond 28 days, which is already the longest period of detention without charge in Europe.
My hon. Friend is quite right, and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) made a similar point—that there is always a danger of exacerbating the very problem that we are trying to resolve.
Let me deal briefly with the draft constitutional renewal Bill, to which I also look forward. It is not every day that the Government try to increase the authority of Parliament. If that is the purpose of the Bill, I welcome it. I hope that it will include—perhaps the Secretary of State for Justice will confirm this—a measure to make the Intelligence and Security Committee a Committee of Parliament rather than one appointed by and accountable to the Prime Minister. As my right hon. Friend knows, I have argued in favour of that for a long time, but it has met stiff resistance in the past, not least from parliamentarians already on the Committee. I would gladly give way to my right hon. Friend if he would like to confirm that. Hello?—[Laughter.]
I was paying attention. The question is to what! In the statement to the House on 3 July, a range of possibilities for the Intelligence and Security Committee was spelled out. As I reported earlier last month, discussions are now taking place involving the Chairman of the ISC, the Government and others with a view to ensuring that the membership of the Committee should be put to this House for endorsement.
That is the current position, but as my ministerial colleagues often remind me, the constitutional renewal Bill will have to be drafted so widely that there will be ample opportunity for my hon. Friend to make suggestions about how to change that Bill. I am sure that he will take the opportunity to do so.
If the hon. Gentleman undertakes to table such an amendment to the constitutional renewal Bill, may I suggest that he look at the model of the Public Accounts Committee, which has powers to summon, gains support to carry out investigations and has a Chairman from the Opposition? I make no criticism whatever of the current ISC Chairman, who is very good. I am making an institutional point that the Chairman should be from the Opposition rather than from the Government.
I am grateful for that and I will take the right hon. Gentleman’s advice.
If we are serious about increasing the power of Parliament, we could do a few things that do not require legislation. We could end the three-month summer recess, for example, which does us such damage in the eyes of our constituents—[Interruption.] I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has a debate on that very subject tomorrow evening.
We could also reduce the growing number of Back Benchers beholden to Government patronage. According to my reckoning, the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries currently stands at 56 and rising. I say with all due respect to my many hon. Friends who are PPSs that although everyone would accept that the top people need help to stay in touch with their colleagues, I am unclear why Ministers of State need them. Again with all due respect, I have to say that some PPSs are a downright menace, scurrying around inventing things to do, planting questions, even planting supplementaries—and sometimes neglecting even to tell their masters that they have planted them in the first place! It has reached the point where the Government are no longer able to fill Select Committee vacancies without appointing PPSs—something for which we rightly criticised the principal Opposition party when it found itself in a similar position. I have mentioned the 56 PPSs, but that is to say nothing of the half dozen party vice-chairmen who have suddenly appeared from nowhere or the special envoys for the rain forest, the World cup and all the rest of it.
Our system has many strengths, not least the connection between Members and a defined constituency, but one of the weaknesses is that there is a large payroll vote and a growing number of aspirants beholden to the Executive, which is unhealthy, particularly if we are serious about ensuring that Parliament can function efficiently. This trend is not really in the interests of the Government either, so if we are serious about increasing the authority of Parliament, it should be reversed. As I have explained, it would not require legislation.
Finally, I shall say a couple of sentences about star wars. Just as we are in the process of extricating ourselves from the catastrophic American adventure in Iraq, we seem to have got ourselves involved in another foolish neo-con enterprise that is not in our national interest and has potentially destabilising consequences for relations between ourselves and between east and west. I hope that we will reconsider while there is still time to get out.
First, may I say how good, if unusual, it is to see Liberal Democrat Members outnumbering other Members in the Chamber? I hope that will happen on other occasions.
I suppose that we should be modestly thankful to the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary for at least appearing to be a little less legislatively prolific and hyperactive than their predecessors. After all, this is the Government who produced 24 criminal justice Bills and 3,400 new offences in 10 years—by my reckoning, that is equivalent to making two things illegal for every day that Parliament has sat since 1997. I hope that we can now put behind us that extraordinary record of legislative promiscuity—[Hon. Members: “Incontinence.”] Incontinence even—I am casting around for the best way to describe it. [Interruption.]
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says from a sedentary position, she and I are chaste in comparison. As the hon. Gentleman often dines out on this matter, may I invite him to say which of those offences—and send my right hon. Friend and me a letter about it—he would like to be removed from the statute book?
Legislation on identity cards, legislation removing the distinction between innocence and guilt in DNA databases, legislation restricting the right to protest in Parliament—I could go on. I will send the right hon. Gentleman a list.
Having said all that, we must be mindful of the fact that eight counter-terrorism Bills and six immigration Bills have already been introduced, so the fact that a new counter-terrorism Bill and immigration Bill are to be introduced does not suggest that the habits of legislating to deal with problems that are not always susceptible to legislation have been entirely left behind.
Following the Secretary of State for Justice’s extraordinary Panglossian, rose-tinted account of his Government’s record on law and order and the criminal justice system, I am tempted to remind him that this Government have presided over criminal, inhumane levels of overcrowding in our prison system, the highest rates of reoffending in the western world, sky high rates of public fear about crime and an absolute collapse in the morale of our criminal justice system—from a probation service that is on its knees to an almost permanent state of antagonism between the Government and the judiciary.
None the less, I should like to focus my remarks on the counter-terrorism Bill, and I thank the Home Secretary for our meetings on its provisions, which she will introduce in the weeks ahead. She knows that we already agree on plenty of things, and that plenty of things will deserve much greater scrutiny once we see the details. That being so, it is all the more curious that the Government appear so determined to reopen the vexed debate about the period during which the police can detain any of us without charge, and that she seems to have made such a beeline for an issue that is divisive, wrong in practice and wrong in principle.
As I have said to the Home Secretary, the suspicion arises that the reason for all that is politics rather than the lack of evidence. Is she labouring under the need to meet the political pledge made by the then Chancellor, now Prime Minister, back in November last year—I quote The Independent headline: “Brown backs 90 day detention for terror suspect”? That was in the good old days when everyone expected great things of him. No doubt it seemed to him a good idea to talk tough on terrorism as he was crowbarring his way into No. 10. But should we really change the law just because of prime ministerial posturing? Should the Home Secretary become a prisoner of prime ministerial political machismo? I do not think so.
The Government always used to claim that they were wedded to evidence-based policy making, yet we know, by their own admission, that there is no evidence whatever for the move. The New Statesman noted in an interview with the Home Secretary in early August that
“she cannot cite an example of an existing case that would have benefited from an extension”.
In addition to that uncertainty, she said this morning that she does not know how far she would want to extend the period during which the police may detain people without charge. Yet one of her security Ministers said on Monday, on Sky television, that he thought it would be
“up to 56 days probably”.
What on earth is going on?
I have heard some pretty odd arguments for the extension of the period during which the police may detain people without charge. The weirdest of all referred to the case of Kafeel Ahmed, one of the terror attackers at Glasgow airport, who fell into a coma and subsequently died in hospital. It has been suggested on several occasions that he might have needed more than 28 days of questioning. That is absurd—the clock starts ticking when someone is formally detained. Why would we need to detain someone who is in a coma in a hospital bed? Surely we would wait until they had come to before starting questioning?
The Government have said euphemistically that they can “envisage a scenario” in which the change might become necessary. I can envisage all sorts of outlandish scenarios. I can envisage one in which France might wish to invade England, but I do not suggest that we should legislate to close the channel tunnel overnight.
As I said to the Home Secretary, there are plenty of things that we can do together. Some of them are already covered under the Government’s plans, particularly post-charge questioning, which we welcome; some are not. As she knows, we have long advocated the more aggressive use of plea bargaining to garner information on terrorist masterminds. As she also knows, there is still a strong case to clarify the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service uses the so-called threshold test so that charges may be brought in the first place, even if all the evidence has not been fully gathered. As she also knows, my party has long felt that there is a strong case to make intercept evidence admissible in court.
Collectively, those changes would go a long way to removing the concerns, such as they are, about the guillotine effect of the 28-day deadline. Surely it is more sensible for us to invest our time and political energies in this place in exploring the issues on which we enjoy genuine cross-party consensus, rather than unnecessarily open Pandora’s box on the issue once again.
The Government talk soothingly about the need to create consensus, but there already is a consensus and it is shared by the Home Affairs Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, campaigners such as Liberty, the Government’s former Attorney-General and the Opposition parties. The consensus is based on evidence—the evidence on which we extended the period from seven to 14 days in 2003, and from 14 to 28 days just two years ago. Are we going to return to the issue over and over again? Surely not.
There is also the evidence that we already have the longest period of detention without charge in—I choose my words carefully, in view of the earlier debate—any comparable common law system on the planet. Most importantly, because of the evidence that is shared by the security services, the police and others, rushing forward without compelling reason risks alienating opinion in exactly the communities that we need on our side.
Extremist preachers of hate will seek to radicalise youngsters in their communities, whatever we do. Surely we have learned by now, however, that breathless talk about the war on terrorism, or sloppy anti-terror legislation, gives them needless additional ammunition to sustain their twisted and misguided grievances.
In the debate about 28 days, the Prime Minister has a fundamental problem. Yesterday’s Queen’s Speech could have been delivered word for word by his predecessor, not least on this issue. What is the point of a new Prime Minister if he delivers the same old menu of his predecessor? When will the Prime Minister learn, on this issue above all, that repackaging the failures of his predecessor is simply a road to nowhere?
Before I conclude, I should like to comment on, and ask questions about, immigration. The Government’s position seems deeply confused. I read on Monday a headline in the Evening Standard¸ “Brown battles back with 35,000 cut in migration”. In The Daily Telegraph on the same day I read, “Migrants to be made to learn English”. That all comes hot on the heels of the entirely implausible and almost certainly illegal pledge to deliver British jobs for British people.
So why is there a deafening silence on all those issues in the Queen's Speech? Will those breathless pledges be delivered, and, if so, how will they be justified? I think that the House deserves to know.
Over the past 10 years—and it has come back to haunt them—the Government have combined the worst of both worlds on immigration. They have combined tough-talking, headline-grabbing populism with serial administrative incompetence.
The Liberal Democrats start with three simple principles. First, an immigration system and the levers of its administration need to work. That is why we have long advocated—even before the Conservatives jumped on the bandwagon—an integrated border force with real resources and the right police powers, so that we know who is coming into and going out of the country.
Secondly, the Government should plan for the consequences of immigration, particularly in local areas where there are rapid changes of population. That is why it is essential—and we have always advocated this—that central Government grants to local government are provided more quickly, and reflect changes in local demographical statistics more quickly. It is also why, in the long run, we will continue to campaign for a genuine devolution of tax-raising powers, so that communities can decide for themselves to allocate resources where they are under pressure locally.
Finally, the Government should promote integration alongside immigration. They are two sides of the same coin. That is why it is self-defeating in the extreme for the Government to cut, rather than promoting or expanding, the resources for English language learning; and that is why I remain genuinely perplexed by the fact that both Government and Conservatives are prepared to turn a blind eye to the reality that hundreds of thousands of people are living, long term, in a twilight zone of illegality and exploitation, not paying taxes, and in the hands of some of the most evil criminal gangs in the country. It is shameful that neither of the other parties is prepared to face that reality head-on.
Indeed. One is not sustainable without the other: that much is clear from experiences around the world.
If those are the three acid tests—an immigration system that works, a system that plans for the consequences, and a system that boosts integration as well as immigration—I think that, on all three counts, the Government’s record over the past decade has been spectacularly disappointing. It is also depressing that, during the past two weeks, the Conservatives have seemed to be unearthing their old immigration prejudices, and indulging in the fantasy notion that we can somehow turn the mass movement of people across the world’s borders on and off like a tap. Quite simply, our country—on this issue, and on counter-terrorism—deserves better.
Let me begin by apologising to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench. I am going to talk about things that I know they have heard me talk about before, but if I stop talking about those things they might forget. It is just a reminder.
The Queen's Speech refers to a draft Bill on citizenship and immigration. I ask for that Bill to contain a requirement for those who entered the country as husbands or wives for permanent settlement not to be allowed to act as sponsors of wives or husbands from abroad until they have acquired British citizenship—that is, five years after entry. At present, on gaining indefinite leave to remain, an incoming spouse or applicant can leave the spouse who sponsored him or her, and immediately acquire a second spouse, and sponsor him or her to enter the country for permanent settlement. Many of my female constituents would go further and suggest that no one given leave to enter as a result of marriage should be allowed to sponsor a second wife, but I would not go as far as that.
It is conservatively estimated that 70 per cent. of members of Asian communities in northern towns and cities have arranged marriages with spouses from the sub-continent—in the case of the Pakistani community, the spouse is usually a cousin—and that necessarily has a knock-on effect on society in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that only 3 per cent. of women are literate in the Mirpur area of Pakistan, where the overwhelming majority of the Pakistani community in places such as Keighley originate. It is therefore not surprising that primary schools in my constituency, along with those in many other northern towns and cities, face the challenge of 95 per cent. of their annual intake being unaware of the existence of English as a language when they first go to school.
Satellite television and the increasing ghettoisation of communities, linked with an emphasis on transcontinental marriages and a lack of literacy on the subcontinent, has resulted in 50 per cent. of the Asian community in the Bradford district—including my constituency—having no English. That affects not only migrants but those born here. Bilingual or multilingual talent must be nurtured and developed as a great skill, but neglect of the common language in societies and economies is dangerous.
The teachers and schools in Keighley, like many others throughout the north, do an exceptional job in difficult circumstances, but whatever the value added by their valiant efforts to help the children in their care, the fact remains that the start of those children’s educational life has been impeded from the outset. From the very beginning, the level playing field that ought to be the right of every child is being denied to them. Such children are discriminated against by the tradition of their own community, and the results can be seen later in their lives. The Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities underachieve significantly at GCSE, in higher education and in employment compared with other migrant communities, or indeed the host community.
According to “Britain’s Immigrants”, a recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, 50 per cent. of the Pakistani community and 48 per cent. of the Bangladeshi community in the United Kingdom are economically inactive. Migration from an area where poverty and illiteracy are the norm merely transfers the problem to the new area if it is not addressed or accepted to be a problem.
As the hon. Lady might know, my constituency contains large Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. May I caution her over the figures that she gave in relation to economic inactivity? The family model in those communities is often for the lady member or members to stay at home and provide a valuable service supporting the family and looking after the children, but they may be counted as being “economically inactive”.
I agree with the hon. Lady, but she must understand that that is fine as long as it is their choice. In Keighley I increasingly find that it is not always their choice. Families discourage, in particular, the wives who have come into the country from learning English, and that is the problem with which I want to deal.
In that case I recommend services such as the one in my community, where schools are actively involving children and parents, especially mothers, in an outreach facility. The ladies are being encouraged to learn English in a safe environment, and to become involved with their communities. I believe that we can make a bigger effort to ensure that the situation the hon. Lady describes does not arise. I do not think we should just accept it; I think we should help people to move away from it.
I am not “just accepting” the situation. That is why I am talking about problems that I see every day of my life, in my constituency and my advice surgeries.
The roots of extremism in the United Kingdom stem from feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement, not in the impoverished and less literate communities but among people who, despite the impediments, have struggled to take advantage of education. It is the sense of having had to struggle, face the obstacles and perceive the differential between the bulk of a migrant community and what could be achieved that sows the seeds of extremism. What the analysis of those radicals does not accept is that, to a degree, many of the obstacles and segregation are self-imposed.
It is here that the alienation, resentment and radicalisation mature and fester: here is the source of home-grown extremism. I am not suggesting that the learning of English is a quick remedy for extremism, but ensuring that English is spoken to such an extent that everyone has the chance to compete and play an active and equal role in the economy and society will serve to alleviate the problems associated with alienation and segregation. Spoken English must be a prerequisite for anyone from outside the EU seeking to enter the UK, for the benefit of both the UK as a whole and, especially, the migrant communities. I therefore hope that that requirement will be contained in the draft Bill on immigration and citizenship.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. She has, rightly, persistently raised this issue over a long period, and I have the greatest respect for her. When I was the Foreign Office Minister in charge of the visa system I visited the visa office in Mirpur. There was a long queue of applicants clutching forms for United Kingdom visas. I stood in front of the queue and asked, “Does anyone here speak English?” Not a soul moved; no one in that queue of about 100 people spoke English. That struck me as remarkable given that they all wanted to come to England.
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. This is a sad situation, and I live with it constantly.
I have long called—for at least eight years—for the raising of the age limit to 21 years for both sponsors and those applying to enter the UK for permanent settlement on the grounds of marriage. Young people must know their rights, have the opportunity to receive an education that is not impeded, and have sufficient maturity to play an active role in determining their future. The threat of marriage for the sake of family honour or agreement, rather than for the interests of the young person concerned, cannot be allowed to deprive that young person of their right to an education and to fulfil their true potential. Having had two excellent marriages, it grieves me to see marriage being used simply to get around immigration controls. I look forward to a measure to increase that age limit to 21 being contained in the draft Bill on immigration and citizenship. Denmark and Norway have already taken decisive action in that regard, which has been broadly welcomed. A measure such as the one I propose would, of course, have to apply to spouse entry from all parts of the world.
I wish now to move on to another subject, as there is a dreadful housing problem in my constituency. I know that I will not get a reply on it, but at least I will feel better for having got it off my chest.
The Gracious Speech refers to a commitment to “affordable housing” and to the creation of
“a new Homes and Communities Agency”.
I welcome that. I have constituents in Keighley who are living in wholly unacceptable conditions, and the social landlord, Bradford Community Housing Trust Group, publicly admits that some of its housing stock in the Woodhouse estate needs up to £45,000 of repairs per home. The trust is making an increasing loss, if that is possible. The loss for this year stands at £18.5 million, as its stock decreases but operating costs increase. I have been told by the trust and the Housing Corporation that that is all part of a “30-year plan”. However, I am denied sight of the plan on the grounds that it might contain “sensitive information”. On the grounds that I will be pushing up the daisies in 30 years’ time, I am unlikely to get to know much about that. Therefore, I hope that the proposed legislation will contain measures to address that situation. In the meantime, my constituents are expected to live in substandard conditions and offered no explanation or hope other than a long-term strategy that neither I nor they are entitled to see.
Affordable social housing to rent is needed more than ever. It is the solution to the housing problem. The opportunities that are opened up via shared ownership are to be encouraged. However, a denial of accountability, financial openness and clarity cannot be allowed to shroud the reality of underachievement by a housing trust. I hope that the measures proposed in the Gracious Speech will address this difficult situation and improve the quality of housing for many of my constituents.
I am grateful for having an opportunity to take part in this section of the debate on the Loyal Address, and it is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). She will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, has already put forward some of the proposals she advocated in her remarks, and I pay tribute to her for having made such proposals over a long period.
The Gracious Speech referred to two Bills that are at the heart of today’s debate: one of them seeks to reform the criminal justice system, and the other seeks to change the law on terrorism. I shall, with considerable difficulty, resist the temptation to take issue with the many tendentious claims the Secretary of State for Justice made in his speech at the outset of the debate, because I want to concentrate on one measure which could find a place in either of those Bills: the admissibility of intercept evidence in cases involving serious crime.
That question has been the subject of repeated debate in another place, usually at the instigation of Lord Lloyd of Berwick. He has been indefatigable in his pursuit of this issue, and I pay tribute to his persistence and resourcefulness. Largely as a result of Lord Lloyd’s efforts, when the Serious Crime Bill—which has now been enacted—reached this House in the last Session it contained a clause that had been inserted in another place providing for such evidence to be permitted. Sadly, that clause was removed in Committee in this House. As far as I can tell, however—I apologise if my research has been incomplete—there does not exist on the record in this Chamber an extended account of the overwhelmingly strong case for the admissibility of such evidence. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Home Secretary, went some way towards remedying that omission in his excellent speech of today, and I propose to add to what he said in order to remedy it further.
In so doing, it would be wrong of me not to recognise that the Government have, in response to a suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, set up a committee of Privy Councillors to examine this issue. I am delighted that one of its members, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), is present. I have submitted evidence to it and hope to meet its members shortly. I also hope that they will report in time for their conclusions to be reflected in one or other of the Bills to which I have referred, and that they will report in favour of admissibility. I propose to devote the rest of this speech to an attempt to explain why.
It is remarkable that we appear to be one of only two countries in the developed world that does not allow the product of interception to be used in evidence in criminal trials—and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden pointed out, even that statement needs to be qualified. It is perfectly possible to rely in a prosecution in this country on intercept evidence obtained in another country. If incriminating conversations are intercepted by, for example, the Dutch authorities, the product of such interception can be—and, indeed, has been—admitted in evidence in the courts of our country. Only the product of evidence that has been intercepted by our own agencies cannot be used.
What is the reason for that surprising state of affairs? The Government have advanced a number of reasons for their continuing opposition to taking the necessary measures to effect a change, despite their acceptance of its desirability in principle. First, they say that such evidence is likely to be ineffective in securing the conviction of terrorists. Secondly, they say that it has, thus far at least, proved impossible to devise safeguards that are strong enough to protect sensitive methods of investigation from disclosure to criminals or suspected criminals who would exploit and abuse that knowledge thereafter. Thirdly, on occasion reliance is placed on the alleged burdensome nature of the procedure which would have to be followed if such evidence were to be used in court.
That third reason can be dealt with swiftly. The extra time and effort involved must surely be worth while even if only a small number of terrorists, or other serious criminals, are convicted as a consequence. The same point answers the first objection. It is inconceivable that intercept evidence could never help to secure a conviction, and it is not necessary to secure a large number of convictions to make the change worth while. After all, the Government have gone through judicial hell and high water to protect their system of control orders, yet there are only 14 such orders currently in existence.
No, the main argument against allowing such evidence to be used is the second of the three arguments that I identified: the risk of disclosing sensitive methods of investigation, which would then weaken our ability to protect ourselves from terrorist attack. If that risk were real, it would certainly have to be given great weight, but I contend that it is perfectly possible to identify procedures that would eliminate the risk altogether.
Two possible routes could be used. I have for some time been attracted by the model set out in the report of the Newton committee, which examined this subject in 2003. Paragraph 224 of that report stated:
“Another approach to the problem of confronting the suspect with specific accusations and evidence, without damaging intelligence sources and technique, would be to make a security-cleared judge responsible for assembling a fair, answerable case, based on a full range of both sensitive and non-sensitive material. This would then be tried in a conventional way by a different Judge. In our view this approach could be well suited for use in this limited context.”
Lord Lloyd, on the other hand, believes that the existing procedures on public interest immunity, as set out in part 25 of the Criminal Procedure Rules 2005, provide sufficient safeguards without the need to go as far as to devise the admittedly novel procedure referred to in the Newton report. I have recently become persuaded that in this, he may well be right.
However, there is a further long-stop safeguard that would also be available, and that seems to me to provide a complete answer to the fears about disclosure that appear to be exerting such a mesmerising influence on the Government. It is always open to the Director of Public Prosecutions to withdraw any particular prosecution. If, despite all expectation, the judge in a case ruled that a particular piece of sensitive evidence should be disclosed to the defence, the DPP could stop the case and withdraw the prosecution. I see no reason why, in reaching that decision, the DPP should not consult all the relevant agencies. The final say on the evidence to be disclosed would therefore not be left to a judge; the final say would be that of the DPP, which would surely be a complete safeguard against any damaging disclosure. That point seems not to have been understood by the Government.
In replying to the Second Reading debate on the Serious Crime Bill on 12 June, the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism and Police suggested, at columns 672 and 673 of Hansard, that such a provision might fall foul of the European convention on human rights and of what he called the “equality of arms” principle. I do not see how withdrawing a prosecution can possibly amount to a breach of the ECHR, of the “equality of arms” principle or of any other principle. The Government have never answered that point. I do not believe that it can be answered.
The change for which I am arguing today has widespread support. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary pointed out, the DPP has argued strongly in its favour, and so has his predecessor, Sir David Calvert-Smith. The previous Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, was in favour, and so is Lord Carlile, the independent watchdog in these matters, and Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, with whom I do not always find myself in total agreement. Support has also come from a number of bodies that have examined the issue, including Justice, in its October 2006 report entitled “Intercept Evidence, Lifting the Ban”, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, in its report of March 2007. So there is widespread support, and I believe that the case is overwhelming.
I close by citing the words of assistant commissioner Hayman of the Metropolitan police, given in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee:
“I speak from an ACPO and personal perspective. I have personally moved my position. I originally started off by being fairly unsupportive of the notion of using the material, mainly on the basis that it was starting to disclose methodology to the other side. I think that is now well and truly worn-out because I think most people are aware of that. It does not stop them still talking but they are aware of the methodology so that is a lightweight argument. The next point which I had reservations about was the true logistics about transcribing the material, where you could go into reams of material. Again, that is a fairly moot point now, given that you can be very selective about the things you are going to transcribe if you are very precise on your investigation and focused. I think I am moving, as I know ACPO is, to a conclusion that in a selected number of cases, not just for terrorism but also for serious crime, it would be useful. I think also it does make us look a little bit foolish that everywhere else in the world is using it to good effect.”
I think that the time has come for us to stop looking foolish.
Is not the best example historically of the tendency that my right hon. and learned Friend was describing in that very revealing quotation of President Richard Nixon, who knew perfectly well that his conversations were being tape-recorded, but still could not prevent himself from incriminating himself?
That is certainly an interesting example. I suspect that the implications of it are quite far-reaching. I might want to reflect on them before readily agreeing to the proposition advanced by my hon. Friend, but it is certainly an interesting thought.
I believe that it is time to allow intercept evidence to be used to help secure the conviction of those who are guilty of terrorism and other serious offences. I hope that we shall see legislation that will achieve that outcome on the statute book in this Session.
It is a pleasure and a privilege, as always, to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). The sentiments and views that he expressed I agree with entirely, and, indeed, it has meant that I can expunge totally from my speech the long passage that I had on intercept evidence, so he has done the House a considerable service.
I want to start with, and to spend some time on, the issue of imprisonment without charge or trial, and I shall begin by dealing with zealotry—not “their” zealotry but mine. I am zealous on the subject of civil liberty, which is the reason why I joined the Labour party and one of the reasons why I am still in it. I believe that civil liberty is the most important part of our political agenda, and it is our defining characteristic as a nation. It is worth repeating what the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), said in his speech, in a slightly different way. My parents’ generation did not fight—and in some cases die—in the last war for the national health service, the repeal of section 28 or many of the other entirely laudable and worthy things mentioned during the Lord Chancellor’s speech. Indeed, if we had given in to the blandishments of Herr Hess at the beginning of the war, we would probably now have a perfectly acceptable national health service—providing, of course, that one is not Jewish, black, gay, Serbian or any of the other persecuted minorities who came to this country and received here the security and freedom for which we are famous. I echo what the right hon. Gentleman said: that this House should give up the smallest part of those liberties through our collective gritted teeth.
I have said that I am zealous, but I am not a zealot on this subject. If the Government persuaded me that the risk to my constituents, or any other constituents, of mass murder and terrible crime was so great and they asked me to subscribe to a reasonable period of extension in order to assuage or minimise that risk, I would agree with them and vote for them because I would regard that as no more than my duty, however zealous I may be about my mainspring in politics.
The burden that the Government carry in these circumstances is a high one. This is not simply a question of the balance of probabilities—whether something may or may not be better. A high burden is involved when we are discussing liberties of this nature, including the ultimate liberty: the liberty not to be incarcerated without trial.
I accept that we are in a position of considerable risk, which has inevitably been increased by our foreign policy during the past seven years. The risk was increased by our decision to invade Iraq, but that does not mean that it has any bearing on whether it was right or wrong to invade; if I had believed that the invasion of Iraq was legal and necessary, I would have voted for it, notwithstanding the additional risk that would undoubtedly have been incurred. We must understand that, and I mention it only because we face an additional risk and we must take it into account.
I listen with respect to the head of MI5 and I have read his speech with considerable care, but it is simply respect. We have all considered the Butler report, some have done so in more detail than others, and we realise that the speech may deserve respect, but it is not holy writ. Therefore, we must examine the primary facts in order to decide whether the Government have crossed the high threshold in persuading us that this is necessary.
The Government have not done so on this occasion, for the most prosaic and obvious reason: they have not brought forward a single example in which the existing regime has failed us. The last time that we debated this, the then Home Secretary said that he had consulted his advisers, the National Technical Assistance Centre, and their advice was unequivocally that 14 or even 28 days is not enough time adequately to investigate heavily encrypted material. He said that almost exactly two years ago. In the ensuing time, there has not been one occasion on which the 28-day period has not been sufficient for the decryption of that material. If they came forward and said that they could cite four verifiable cases—I am not talking about names—in which we have been severely embarrassed and worried about our position, I would take a different view, but they have not done so.
I am sceptical about consultation on this matter, because I do not see what there is to be consulted about. The new Home Secretary brings a new, human and attractive face to her office, somewhat in contrast to those who have held it during the past 10 years. It is important that the new face should not be cosmetic. There is a feeling that consulting on this issue has a cosmetic ring to it. The principle is clear: we should not give away this liberty unless we are certain that it is necessary to do so. The Government must persuade this House as to whether it is certain to be necessary on the basis of the evidence that they have. It is as simple as that.
The scepticism extends to the unavoidable fact that we are now told that a period of 56 or 58 days, substantially less than before, is necessary for the police and the agencies to do their job. If that is the case, why were we Whipped two years ago to vote for 90 days? The threat has not receded since, so if 90 days was necessary then, it is necessary now. The unanswerable conclusion to draw from that is that these figures are not based on scientific analysis by the police or the agencies but represent the greatest number of days that can be got past Westminster. Ninety days did not work and the consultation period is, in truth, a draw-down process to see how close one can get before the weaker people who believe in this will give way. It is a bad way to do business, particularly on this issue.
May I deal briefly with the encryption problem that lies at the root of this, because I simply do not understand the approach? In the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 and other statutes, offences are specifically made and orders may be made compelling those who are suspected of crime or who are arrested to give up their encryption. They must provide the passwords or make the encryption legible and readable in English. If they do not do so, the power exists for them to be imprisoned. If a contempt of court is involved, that imprisonment can be endless. I simply do not understand why this power cannot be employed in order to solve precisely this problem.
Finally on this issue, what is wrong with the holding charge? It is used throughout criminal jurisprudence and there is nothing improper about it. A simple example is that when someone is found in possession of an offensive weapon, for example a knife, which is believed by the police to have been the weapon used in a murder and the murder cannot be proved until one has had the knife forensically examined, the holding charge for the possession of the knife is a perfectly reasonable way to proceed. The person is kept in custody while the necessary investigations are carried out. In dealing with terrorism, a wealth of offences can be used, not least possession of material likely to assist a terrorist. That provision is drawn so wide that in certain circumstances “Scouting for Boys” could be a part of such material. I am not suggesting that “Scouting for Boys” would be the basis for a holding charge, but possession of any material—if one does not have any material, there is not much of a case—could form the basis for a holding charge while investigations take place and that would not inhibit subsequent inquiry and interview. For these purposes, one does not even need a new Bill allowing interrogation after charge, which I would agree with in a spirit of reconciliation on this particular issue.
I shall move to a short piece of the Queen’s Speech that disturbed me and will disturb many judges and practising lawyers. It has little priority, because it follows provisions on transport and employer relations. It says:
“Legislation to reform the criminal justice system will continue to be taken forward, with the aim of protecting the public and reducing re-offending.”
I say to the Minister, in one simple, compendious sentence, that we do not need any more legislation to reform the criminal justice system. To put a slight gloss on that, I can say that what would be desirable would be a large and compendious Bill that had as its purpose scrapping most of the legislation that has been passed in the last 10 years in the cause of so-called reform of the criminal justice system.
In the last 10 years, the Government have suffered from legislative hyperactivity syndrome in respect of criminal justice matters. I have been to the Home Office only once. I went there briefly to see a Minister who subsequently fell from grace: these things happen. I did not explore the building, but in my mind’s eye I can see a vast, probably subterranean, room—similar to that immortalised by Roald Dahl in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”—out of which are churned ever more impenetrable subsections, deliberately designed to cause dismay and chaos in the criminal justice system.
The figures are interesting. In the whole of the 19th century, 34 Acts were passed that affected criminal justice. In the first half of the 20th century, there were 15. In the second half of the 20th century and up to this date, there have been 48, of which 35 have been passed by this Government. It is something of a feat to pass, in 10 years, more criminal justice Acts than were passed in the whole of the 19th century. Some 400 new offences have been created and 500 new sentences. Some of the figures that are kited are far higher, but I have removed from the count old offences that have been retreaded as new offences.
Why has that happened? Have our citizens become more venal or wicked in that period? No. As the Government never tire of trumpeting, accurately, crime has fallen steadily and consistently in the course of the last 10 years. We are therefore confronted by an extraordinary rule of mathematics, for which a knowledge of higher calculus is presumably necessary. It is that the fewer crimes are committed, the more crimes it is necessary to create. We will eventually reach a point on the graph at which the crimes are so few and the new offences so many, that every person arrested will be able to have their own personalised, hallmarked crime that can bear their name in perpetuity.
Behind that crass state of affairs lie some uncomfortable truths that we need to understand. As this is the Queen’s Speech debate, I can range a little wider into history to try to explain why we have had that wholly unnecessary blizzard of legislation and the dire effects that it has had on the administration of justice. The reason has nothing to do with jurisprudence or penology, but entirely to do with politics. Let us reflect on the remarkable fact that before the 1970s no manifesto of any major party contained any reference to crime and punishment. The reason for that was the widely held and wholly accurate perception that crime and punishment were not the business of politics, but of theology. Wickedness was not something that the House of Commons could control. We could have some effect on some of the areas that might give rise to crime, such as housing, impoverishment, indolence—if necessary—and educational deprivation, but on major areas of society, such as the mass media, the family, God and religious beliefs, it was rightly believed that this House had very little jurisdiction.
All of that changed in the 1970s, for two reasons. First, we embraced sociology as a science, rather than simply an enjoyable pastime. Secondly, the Conservative party perceived a wonderful political truth that they could use to devastating effect. The Labour party has always been the party of civil liberty—the reason that I joined it—partly because of trade union emancipation and partly because of a more liberal, Bloomsbury-type approach to society. The Conservatives perceived that they could gain an enormous political advantage. It was not difficult to portray that wonderful aspect of the Labour movement as meaning an approbation of the sinner and an indifference to the victim and it worked extraordinarily well. From the 1970s onwards, our reputation for being soft on crime was one of the albatrosses that were hung around the emaciated neck of the Labour party. It did us terrible damage, until the advent of new Labour. One of the precepts of the new Labour project was the essential need to outflank and eventually ambush the Tory party on the issues of law and order and to display a muscular, populist, Murdoch-pleasing legislation, running to hundreds of sections to persuade the people of our credentials. So has begun a Dutch or even worse auction on crime and punishment, and penology. It has done us no good at all.
Indeed, positive harm has been done to the criminal justice system. So manic has the process been, that many offences, and an even larger number of sentencing rules and rituals, are simply incomprehensible to those who pass them, those who receive them and the victims who hear them being handed out with a sense of stunned disbelief. A typical example is to be found in a Bill that is before Parliament at present. A couple of years ago, a gentleman called Sweeney committed an exceptionally serious assault and had a sentence passed on him that was totally inappropriate for the crime that he had committed. It was an insult to the victims and an affront to justice, and it caused an avalanche of criticism in the press of a perfectly good judge. As the judge carefully explained, he had no choice but to pass that wholly inappropriate sentence as a result of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, one of the great products of the Willy Wonka room in the Home Office.
As a result of the outcry, we now have, enshrined in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, an attempt to rectify the Sweeney problem. I shall read out a little of the provision, and I hope that the House will try to follow along. Clause 12(2) states:
“In subsection (3) (determination of the appropriate part of the sentence) at the end insert—
‘In Case A or Case B below, this subsection has effect subject to, and in accordance with, subsection (3C) below.’”
Subsection (3C) states:
“In Case A or Case B above, in deciding the effect which the comparison required by subsection (3)(c) above is to have on reducing the period which the court determines for the purposes of subsection (3)(a) (and before giving effect to subsection (3)(b) above), the court may, instead of reducing that period by one-half,—
(a) in Case A above, reduce it by such lesser amount (including nil) as the court may consider appropriate according to the seriousness of the offence”.
So there we are—that has sorted out the situation, then. My friends and colleagues in the criminal justice system will no doubt be looking forward to that.
The process that I have described has caused chaos in the criminal courts and repeated injustice in respect of victims and the sentencing of offenders. I invite the Minister or the Secretary of State to attend judicial seminars, as I do in my capacity as a recorder of the Crown court. It would be a pleasure to see the Minister there anyway, but I would invite her to appear before the judges, who, even to this day, remain members of the best cadre of such professional people in the world. I would like her to experience their raw anger and incredulity at the byzantine processes, the ludicrous homilies and mantras and the wholly inappropriate sentences that they are forced to wheel out day after day to burnish the Government’s populist credentials.
We have just heard a telling speech from the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). My only qualification of it is that he could have made it with greater comfort from the Liberal Democrat Benches. In voting against the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, for example, he would have been in no danger of remonstrance from our Whips, because we were deeply opposed to those provisions—and are, indeed, to the plethora of multiplied criminal justice legislation to which he so rightly referred. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Gentleman has a good record of voting against his own party, but it would be much more comfortable for him to vote as part of a party in which his position was ideologically acceptable.
The hon. and learned Gentleman also touched on something to which I hope all parties will listen: the danger of the politicisation of the criminal justice argument. The corollary of the process that he described, in which new Labour sought to outflank the Tories, is that opponents have to be described as soft on crime and drugs. Most of the leaflets that I have seen that have accused the Liberal Democrats of being soft on crime or drugs have been produced by the Labour party, which was confusing opposition to the practice of the sinner with opposition to legislation that does not deal with the problem that it is supposed to address.
All parties should listen to that message; perhaps the danger will come to us Liberal Democrats some day if we feel a need to retaliate as a party against being criticised as soft and we feel that other parties are not supporting sensible measures. However, everyone in politics must get away from dismissing civil liberties-based opposition as if it were support for conduct that civil libertarians believe either is not to be regulated by the state or is being addressed by measures that do such grievous harm to civil liberties that they should not be supported.
I also want to turn to the interesting speech made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I am one of the four members of the Privy Council inquiry; I am working alongside three extremely good people and I shall not comment on or prejudge the inquiry’s results. I hope that the Home Secretary does not do so either. I hope that she was misquoted, that—I am being charitable—the story that appeared in The Times compounded various things that she had said for different purposes and that neither she nor other Ministers have prejudged an inquiry that the Government set up.
One of the reasons the inquiry was set up was that there have long been disagreements within Government and among Ministers on that very issue—including, I am sure, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in power. Today we have heard the case for the prosecution, but I am also obliged to listen to the case for the defence and examine the evidence produced by both. I look forward to our meeting the right hon. and learned Gentleman in the course of the inquiry; he will find that extremely helpful and valuable.
I want to turn to some of the concerns of the Justice Committee, as we have now been renamed—as the Government rename their Departments, so the Select Committees are renamed: the former Constitutional Affairs Committee is becoming the Justice Committee, although it is still closely interested in constitutional affairs. Before I mention those concerns, I mention in passing a constituency concern that I felt when I read this part of the Queen’s Speech:
“My Government will continue to work closely with the devolved administrations in the interests of all the people of the United Kingdom.”
I said, “Oh yes? When will they start negotiating with the Scottish Government about pensioners’ bus passes?” The Government have rightly given themselves powers to ensure that, when it is introduced, a national bus pass can be made reciprocal with Scotland through a process of negotiation, but they have refused to embark on those negotiations. However, on the advice of the Prime Minister, the Queen uttered the words:
“My Government will continue to work closely with the devolved administrations”—
so I demand that Ministers here work closely with Scottish Government Ministers to ensure that, when the national bus pass is introduced, pensioners in my constituency can cross the border to their nearest shops or GP practice and that people on the Scottish side can come to Berwick or Wooler to do the same.
I turn now to the wider constitutional issues. I genuinely welcome the interest that the Prime Minister has taken in the constitution and the principles that should underlie it. His speech last Thursday had a refreshing emphasis on principle, particularly that of liberty. What could be more welcome to me as a Liberal than his acceptance that all policies and legislation should be subject to a liberty test? That principle is very sound, but it should be expounded more systematically and rigorously—in respect of identity cards, for example. They create a less free atmosphere for the many without capturing the few to whom they are allegedly directed.
The principle should be applied to another factor in the phenomenon described by the hon. and learned Member for Medway: the desire to legislate as a means of showing that the Government are doing something. There is a desire among Ministers to be seen to be doing something other than general politics. The door of what he described as the Willy Wonka room in the Home Office is opened when Ministers say, “We must be seen to be doing something!” Civil servants rush around to find them something to be seen to be doing. That is when the cupboards are cleared and the shelves ransacked for bits that can be made into legislation—to show that the Government are acting. The liberty test also needs to be applied in those circumstances.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the other weasel phrases sometimes heard about legislation is that it is being used “to send a signal”? Legislation is not for sending a signal, but for putting in statute. I would prefer a scriptorium to a Willy Wonka room in the Home Office, which often seems to send signals to all sorts of people who do not need them.
I wholly agree. Legislation is for defining the law and determining what is and is not an offence, not for sending signals. Ministers can make speeches to send signals as much as they like, but they should not use the legislative process or criminal justice to do so.
Another aspect of the liberty principle is that it needs to be applied to existing legislation. The Prime Minister and Home Office Ministers need to go back through the statute book and apply that principle to some of the stuff that has been introduced in the past decade.
I move to another point of principle. I want to question the increasing tendency on the part of the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor, who did it today, to qualify liberty by reference to responsibility—they say that with freedom comes responsibility. Of course we want people to behave responsibly; society runs a great deal better if they do. Ministers are fully entitled to promote responsible behaviour and I hope that they will do so by example as well as sermon. However, one cannot qualify liberty by reference to behaviour other than by the use of the law to determine what is a crime and what loss of liberty follows conviction for it. If a person commits a crime, they lose some of their liberty—through a custodial or community sentence, or the loss of money as a result of a fine. Their liberty is rightly affected by the fact that they had committed a crime and broken the law. However, outside penal institutions, rights cannot be made contingent on general good behaviour; they can be limited only by the due process of the law. We cannot have some kind of people’s soviet ruling whereby someone loses a measure of their free speech because they have failed to help with the scout troop or to use their time and energy to help the parish council in the litter-clearing exercise that was rightly undertaken. There are lots of good things that people should do and that I want them to do—I am involved in encouraging and supporting voluntary organisations—but we cannot make people’s willingness to behave responsibly the basis on which legal rights exist and on which a failure of duty leads to those rights being taken away.
There is a dangerous confusion between what can be defined by law, and defines the extent of rights, and the promotion of good behaviour in society, which I strongly support—after all, I spent some of my Sundays as a Methodist local preacher getting into pulpits and encouraging people to observe the precepts of the Christian gospel. However, the pulpit is the place for that, not the statute book, which must contain a clearly defined understanding of what can be determined by law. For that we go back to something that the Prime Minister was ready to quote: John Mill’s essay “On Liberty”. When liberty is restrained, it is to protect the liberty of others, not to enforce our particular moral views or to encourage good things.
I want to turn to some specific items in the Gracious Speech. It says:
“Proposals will be brought forward to renew the constitutional settlement and strengthen the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the people.”
That sounds very good and very grand. The Justice Committee is to take evidence on devolution 10 years on, including the English question and the issue of the regions, given that we now have a situation where much power is exercised at regional level without any democratic accountability. These are not questions that admit of easy solutions; indeed, with every solution come new questions and problems. We have recently heard from Conservative Members arguments about what was called in the 19th century the “in-out” principle—English votes on English laws. Some people outside this House argue strongly for an English parliament. My party has traditionally argued for regional assemblies. Everyone is trying to address a genuine problem, which must be done in the context of a United Kingdom in which England is much larger than the other units—so large that when looked at from my end of the country London is further away than it is from much of Scotland. Purely London-based solutions do not necessarily answer this. The Justice Committee is holding a major inquiry on devolution 10 years on—not to review how it has worked in Scotland, because we see that as the province of the Scottish Affairs Committee or, in the case of Wales, the Welsh Affairs Committee—but to see how it has affected the United Kingdom as a whole. One consequence of that is that we will need to look pretty closely at the situation in England.
In the context of the Government’s saying that they want to strengthen the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the people, I am minded to raise the small matter of the referendum on local government reorganisation. In Northumberland, we had a referendum in 2004 to address the question of, first, whether there should be regional assemblies and, secondly, whether there should be one or two unitary authorities to govern the whole county of Northumberland, at present served by a county council and six district councils. People voted by a substantial majority not to have a regional assembly, so we are not having one. People voted by a substantial majority to have two unitary authorities, not one, so we are going to have one. The Government have decided that because certain stakeholders they chose to consult—namely, the chief constable and the north-east chambers of commerce—would like one authority, that outweighs the vote of the people who voted in the referendum. Those stakeholders were chosen by the Government and, almost without exception, cover areas much larger than the one or two authorities that are under discussion—it is much more convenient for them to deal with fewer authorities, not more, and they tend to look at it that way—but their votes carry more weight than those of the people who voted in the referendum. The Government still have quite a bit to learn about how to apply the principle of strengthening the relationship between Government, Parliament and the people.
Another issue that will be considered in the course of this Parliament is that of judicial appointments. The Government recently, quite rightly, changed the judicial appointments system—a reform that I strongly supported and that the Committee examined, and is monitoring, in detail. Some of the objectives are not initially being met and problems have arisen. There have been significant delays in judicial appointments and difficulty in ensuring that we are getting diversity by the proper and accepted route of identifying candidates for judicial office who are fully suited to it but come from a wider background than has been the case hitherto. The new system is gradually bedding down, so it may not be a good idea to make fundamental changes again so soon, although I fully accept the argument behind the Government’s changes, which is to minimise ministerial, and therefore potentially political, involvement in judicial appointments.
The Government are considering this against the background that they are still in conflict with the judges following the creation of the Ministry of Justice. There is still an unresolved dispute between Ministers and judges about whether it was created on a basis that will protect judicial independence, particularly in a situation where the Department to which they relate has in its brief the prison system—that all-consuming, voracious eater-up of Government money. Judges rightly fear that the functioning of the judiciary could be impaired, financially and more generally, by being co-located with the prison system. The Government did not have much alternative to setting it up on the basis that they did, but they were wrong not to have sought to resolve the dispute beforehand. For the Lord Chief Justice to read in his Sunday papers that there was going to be a Ministry of Justice was clearly no way to go about it.
In their paper on the subject, the Government talked about the judiciary in Parliament and the question of confirmation hearings. My Committee has been firm in its opposition to the idea that we should hold confirmation hearings for the appointment of judges. We have all looked at the American experience, which might be sufficient to put us off, but there are more compelling theoretical reasons not to do it. In this country, we choose judges not according to the views that they hold but according to their ability to set aside those views and make objective judgments. It is therefore irrelevant if a judge is of a rather conservative disposition or a rather liberal one—we want to know whether he can make judgments according to the law that are not unduly influenced by the dispositions that he might have.
I am sympathetic to the position that the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee have taken, but it involves a growing difficulty, particularly as a consequence of the Human Rights Act 1998. The decisions that judges are being asked to make are increasingly political in flavour. Given that, for example, they now have to decide on issues of proportionality, which were traditionally always reserved for elected Members of Parliament, is it not understandable, and perhaps inevitable, that their views will be seen to be relevant? Is that not a particularly damaging consequence of the new responsibilities that have been entrusted to the judiciary?
I wonder whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is still feeling the pain of the many judgments against the Home Office during his time as Home Secretary. In so far as there may be truth in what he says, there is another reason not to have confirmation hearings—to ensure that we continue to have a process of choosing judges for their objectivity, not one in which we seek to place in position judges who might give the result that particular Governments want at particular times. The process that he attributes to the Human Rights Act was always likely to go on anyway, but in Strasbourg rather than in our own courts. I am rather more confident of the ability of our own judges, against the background of our tradition, to be as objective as it is possible to be in the kind of situation that he describes than I am about a mixed panel of judges who come from very many different traditions.
Another problem arises from the changes that the Government have made—that we will be plucking from the House of Lords the Law Lords, who without any doubt made extremely valuable contributions to debate, although in the constitutionally difficult situation that, until they resolved that they were not going to do it any more, they were potentially framing legislation on which they might subsequently pass judgment. That has not been the practice in recent years because they decided to absent themselves from issues on which they might give judgment or cases on which they had previously spoken during the passage of the original legislation. We will lose from the House of Lords that ability to learn how things will affect, or have affected, the judiciary. Following discussions that I had with the past and present Lord Chief Justice, my Committee has successfully developed the solution that judges from every level should appear before the Committee, which then reports to the House on the evidence that they have given on issues such as how the judiciary is coping with the pressures on it or the working of particular pieces of legislation. Such questions are divorced from the political process, and we have posed them in an atmosphere that enables judges to give valuable evidence without feeling that their position is compromised in any way.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a number of the sitting Law Lords do excellent jobs as chairs or members of all-party groups and that they contribute a great deal in a totally non-party political context? Does he also agree that, if the House of Lords is not reformed in the foreseeable future, former Supreme Court judges should go there as Cross-Bench peers?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Law Lords—and former Law Lords—make an extremely valuable contribution, but the Committee took a strong view on the matter, believing that either no justices of the Supreme Court should go to the second Chamber in retirement, or that all of them should. In other words, the Government should not be allowed to pick and choose from among Supreme Court judges as it might be thought that those judges were waiting to see whether they would get the rather attractive retirement option of being appointed to the second Chamber.
My inclination is that no Supreme Court judges should be so appointed, and indeed that we should continue to employ them for as many years as we reasonably can. Sometimes we get a bit too precious about age restrictions in the judiciary. In earlier years, when we had 85-year-old judges, we may have gone to the other extreme, but we may have got a little too fussy about judges who may still be able to render active service.
The Government seem to be groping for an alternative to confirmation hearings. They have looked at the idea of post-appointment hearings, but I think that they would be an unnecessary formality. My Committee takes evidence from judges when it is relevant to what we are doing, or when we sense that judges want to give evidence about a particular matter. I see no benefit in bringing a judge before the Committee for an evidence session just because he happens to have been appointed head of the Queen’s bench division in the past two or three months. There is no logic in that, and it risks formalising what I believe is developing into a fruitful and effective process, by which judges at every level—from the Lord Chief Justice to lay magistrates—give evidence about every aspect of the work of the courts when it is most valuable and appropriate to do so.
The Government should forget confirmation hearings and not try to construct some alternative to them. Such hearings may be appropriate for those people—the regulators, ombudsmen and so on—who might better be regarded as officers of the House, but they are probably a false trail for members of the judiciary.
I turn now to some of the other issues arising from the Government’s constitutional agenda. I am very pleased that, at long last, the Government have abandoned their crazy scheme to use fees as a proxy to restrict the freedom of information regime. That would have been seriously damaging, and would have prevented the complex of FOI requests that often enable us to get at the real truth of whether something is working or not.
I warmly welcome the Government’s decision on that, and their moves to consider other matters, such as the 30-year rule. That is excellent, although I and my Committee would like them to go further and make the Information Commissioner an Officer of the House, paid out of the parliamentary budget rather than the Department’s budget. It is not a good idea for the poacher to determine the gamekeeper’s budget. The Justice Department is often criticised for its handling of FOI issues, and I would much prefer the Information Commissioner to have the same independence as that enjoyed by the Comptroller and Auditor General or the Scottish Information Commissioner, the latter being appointed and funded by the Scottish Parliament.
In passing, I want to mention ecclesiastical appointments, which fall within the Justice Department’s responsibility. The Prime Minister, who comes from a good Scottish Presbyterian background, is anxious to divest himself of involvement with them. The Government said that they were going to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor, but they have had to take a step back—literally, in the case of the way that the latest Lord Chancellor stepped backwards from the throne yesterday. They forgot that the Lord Chancellor appoints about 1,000 people to various ecclesiastical posts.
The Committee took evidence about the appointments system from its customers—the people in the parishes to which the Lord Chancellor makes appointments—and we have never come across a group of people more satisfied with the civil service. All the parish representatives were unanimous in their praise of the Downing street officials who manage the task. We were told that those officials were very careful in identifying a parish’s needs and in following up to make sure that their judgments were correct and that the people appointed had appropriate support.
We then spoke to three bishops to see what they thought. Each had a completely different view about what should be done with the patronage if it were taken away from the Lord Chancellor and was in some way handed over to the Church. So we were confronted with people who thought that the present system worked extremely well, and with three bishops who could not agree about what system should replace the current arrangements. To me, that does not seem like an environment in which a reforming Government can move very easily, and I therefore counsel them to be a bit careful. As a non-conformist, I can well understand the arguments of principle, but it was a fascinating evidence session. Before Ministers take the matter much further, I hope that they will sit down and read the evidence that was given on that occasion.
I turn now to party funding. Mine is an all-party Committee, and we agreed unanimously on the principles involved in party funding and the outline proposals to deal with it. We were clear that there was great public concern about big money flowing into political parties, from whatever source. We believed that any new system should offer visibly cleaner politics, based on a voluntarily agreed and binding framework for a limit on donations that would put no one party at a disadvantage.
Hayden Phillips took those principles and developed them a little further in the proposals that he put forward. The Constitutional Affairs Committee addressed the questions of large private donors, such as Lord Ashcroft, and trade union funding. It was not easy for Conservative or Labour members of the Committee to reach an agreement on those matters, but reach one we did. That involved each side recognising that no solution would be sufficient if it ignored the problem that was perceived to exist with the other party.
No progress can be made on funding if the question of trade union contributions is not addressed. We accept the arguments about the individual element in those contributions, but we also recognise that trade unions are significant donors of block sums of money, both nationally and in individual constituencies, over and above individual affiliation. Moreover, it is clearly impossible to ignore the scale of donation to the Conservative party, something that the Liberal Democrats have experienced only to a much more limited—and occasionally controversial—extent.
None of us can ignore the criticisms that others make of aspects of the system from which we benefit. That made consensus desirable, and my Committee also felt that greater taxpayer support should be conditional on removing big paymasters, of any kind, from the political system. Taxpayers will not want to yield up tax for that purpose if they do not get visibly cleaner politics as a result.
Consensus is highly desirable. I am very disappointed that the all-party talks seem to have broken down at the moment, and I do not think that any party can have a veto on progress in this matter. However, whether the Government are able to make progress will depend on whether they can retain a broadly even-handed approach. The Government will have to get legislation through both Houses of Parliament, and they do not have a majority in the other place. Cross-Bench peers, as well as my colleagues, will be looking for evidence that the Government are bringing forward a settlement that is reasonably objective. If that settlement cannot be achieved by means of a formal agreement among the parties, the Government will go ahead and legislate. I would not criticise them for doing so, as no one should have a veto on this matter, but they would be successful only if the basis of the legislation were widely seen to be objective.
I shall not go into too many more of the matters arising from the Government’s constitutional agenda, as we shall have many more occasions to do so. I merely want to say that progress towards reform of the House of Lords must continue to be made, and that I look to the Government for some momentum in that regard, rather than deferment. I also remind the Government that they will have to return to the question of electoral reform, and that they have still not fulfilled their commitment to publish a document that they have been preparing for I do not know how long. I have no great hopes for the document, as I suspect that those who wrote it were looking over their shoulder the whole time. However, we cannot look at the British constitution from a basis of principle, as the Prime Minister wants to do, without asking the question: does the system ensure that the opinions of voters are fairly represented in Parliament in a way that enables government to be conducted in an orderly and consistent manner? Such questions must be addressed and that means looking at electoral systems.
I conclude by considering a worrying omission—the absence of the coroners Bill from the Queen’s Speech. The measure has been an issue for some time, especially since the two Shipman inquiries, which made clear how deficient the existing coroners and death registration systems were. In a report in 2006, the Constitutional Affairs Committee was extremely critical of the draft Bill for two major reasons. The first was that the Bill did not sort out the resources problem. It attempted to create a national structure while leaving coroners dependent on myriad systems of hand-to-mouth support—sometimes from police authorities, sometimes from local authorities and sometimes from their own solicitors practices—to run the coroners system. Secondly, the Bill did not tie together the coroners and death registration systems. We cannot deal with the problems identified by the Shipman inquiries without marrying together those two systems.
When the Bill did not appear in the Queen’s Speech last year I was reasonably content; indeed, in a small way, I felt it might have been a victory for the Committee that the Government were forced to reconsider the Bill and perhaps undertake a bit of a fight to sort out the resources issue, which involves talking to local authorities as they provide most of the resources for the existing system. I thought that the Government would be able to introduce an improved Bill as a result of that process, but it has not happened. I received a courteous letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), which states:
“As you are no doubt aware, the Coroner Reform Bill was not included in today’s Queen’s Speech.”
It noted that the Government were still committed to reform, and went on:,
“we intend to bring the Bill before Parliament as soon as time allows”.
One of my more charitable colleagues said, “That means we’re going to get the Bill, doesn’t it?” I said, “Oh, no, no.” I have been in the House 34 years and I have often seen that language used. It almost always means that the Bill is not coming at all—it is like the bus that is just around the corner.
The right hon. Gentleman has given us an interesting piece of information. The document “The Governance of Britain—The Government’s Draft Legislative Programme” firmly included the coroners Bill. I assume the document is still relevant but it has clearly been superseded by the Queen’s Speech, so that calls into question the whole point of putting the draft legislative programme before the House in the first place.
Indeed. I, too, wondered about the status of the document. There can be nothing of greater status than the words put into the mouth of Her Majesty when she delivers the Gracious Speech so I am puzzled about the relationship between the two documents.
I am taking the uncharacteristically cynical view that the coroners Bill is not about to hit us. That is serious because coroners throughout the country know that the system they are trying to run is ramshackle although they are doing their best with it. The coroners who conducted the two inquiries into the Shipman affair both indicated that they believe the proposals made so far would not meet their concerns. The Government have an opportunity, but they are being seriously neglectful of a situation that affects many of our constituents.
I do not argue that the answer is lots more inquests. The Committee took the view that we probably have rather too many inquests in the English jurisdiction—the Scottish jurisdiction does not have them at all; it has fatal accident inquiries, but only rarely. A larger number of inquests is not necessarily the answer. The system may not require a huge addition of resources but it requires much more coherence so that it does not miss Shipman-type cases altogether.
I realise that the Government will make some reforms that can be carried out in a non-statutory way. I realise, too, that they have tried to address the serious problem of military inquests arising from Afghanistan and Iraq by giving more resources to the two coroners most affected—in Oxfordshire and Wiltshire—but that simply illustrates the creaking and ramshackle nature of the system. It is only through phone calls from Departments and offers of extra help that we can deal with things that the system should be capable of coping with already. The Government must return to that matter, and the Committee will continue to monitor what they are doing on that and other issues.
Like other Members, I welcome the chance to take part in the debate on the Gracious Speech and to speak about security.
National security and terrorism are the most important things on the agenda today. I worked for a couple of years at the Home Office as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the current Attorney-General, and to those who trivialise the threat of terrorism, I say, “Think again”. This country is under serious threat. I have no time for the conspiracy theorists who say everything is got up by the Government and the security services: national security is vital.
One measure I welcome in connection with making our nation and our communities feel safe is a unified border force. North East Lincolnshire, where Cleethorpes is located, sounds like a nice, rural area, but that is misleading. We have one of the biggest and busiest ports in the country at Immingham, where, as with the other Humber ports of Goole and Hull, a phenomenal amount of freight traffic enters the UK. All too often, those of us in that part of Lincolnshire feel a bit forgotten in debates such as this one. When we talk about national security and border forces, we probably naturally think of our large cities, such as London, and ports such as Dover, but the sheer volume of traffic in places such as Immingham means that we need to consider the area seriously in any debate about national security. I shall be keen to see how a unified border force will pan out in areas of the country such as the one I represent.
In addition to our ports, we have an airport in my constituency. Increasingly, people trying to enter the UK clandestinely are avoiding some of the more “traditional” ports of entry. I have forgotten the length of the UK coastline—I knew it when I was at school—but it is phenomenally long. People are using smaller ports and airports to try to enter the country clandestinely, which has implications for national security. If it is easier to enter the country through those ports and airports, people who want to target the UK could use them, so I hope that Ministers will ensure ample security coverage outside the main cities and the southern coast ports of Britain.
Security is not just about big national interests, vital though they are; people’s sense of security and safety depends on how they feel in their communities. According to the British crime survey, crime has decreased, but we would probably all say that people feel no safer in their communities. People’s sense of personal security depends largely on what happens when they open their front doors, what people see when they walk down the street, what happens in their workplaces, what they read in national and local newspapers, what they see on the local news and what they hear on the radio.
I worked as a journalist for many years before entering this House. I do not know whether other hon. Members agree, but I feel that in recent years our local and national media have focused more and more on crime. Journalists must report the news, but whenever I open a local newspaper, it seems to me that there are many more terrifying banner headlines compared with when I was younger. That gives the impression that the law has broken down in all our communities, which is not the case, because it is usually a minority who hold a community to ransom through their lawless behaviour. In many ways, politicians are also responsible, because we always talk about crime, and there is almost an arms race on who can introduce the toughest legislation. I am not blaming a particular party, because we are all complicit in a situation in which crime has gone down but people do not feel commensurately more safe and secure.
Last night, through the wonders of satellite television, I watched the local news from my area, “Look North”, which included yet another report of an attack on Humberside fire and rescue. When the fire brigade was called out to deal with an arson attack on an estate called the Willows, it was deliberately attacked. What sort of people would do that, given that four firefighters had lost their lives just two days earlier? The thugs involved broke into properties and removed fixtures and fittings, to which they then set light, and when the fire brigade arrived, they deliberately attacked it.
Following that report, and similar reports in the past couple of weeks, people have contacted me to ask what the Government are doing and to suggest the need for legislation, but legislation has been introduced. The Father of the House introduced a private Member’s Bill on attacks on the emergency services, and it became law. Those provisions came into force in the past couple of months, and people need to be reminded that they exist. When people saw that news report, however, those provisions did not make them feel any safer, because they saw the break-ins and arson attacks—it was all very graphic.
In my part of the country, people are worried about antisocial behaviour, and I guess that people are worried about it up and down the land. People do not feel safe if, when they walk out of their front doors, they see graffiti and broken windows, or if there is noise at night. In that case, they feel that crime has taken hold, which makes them more fearful, although crime has gone down.
My hon. Friend is discussing the cognitive dissonance between what people read about and see on TV and what they experience in their lives. Although there is widespread collection, examination and ratification of crime statistics, no parallel information is gathered in relation to antisocial behaviour, graffiti and other matters that people worry about. Although crime is falling, we do not have the data to reassure people about other matters that alarm them about the quality of their lives and the security of their homes.
My hon. Friend makes some valid points. Although the police are judged on how they deal with antisocial behaviour, the gathering of statistics on behaviour that often stops short of the criminal is not particularly robust, and perhaps we can consider that.
I am afraid to say that North East Lincolnshire and the area covered by Humberside police was rather late to pick up on the national agenda—on police community support officers, for instance. I know that some people argue that we need more warranted officers, but when PCSOs were on offer, I and other Members of Parliament for the area urged the police authority to go down that route. Unfortunately, the police authority did not agree, so it was one of the last parts of the country to get community support officers. That may have fed into people’s feeling that they are not safe, despite the fact that crime is going down. They are beginning to see the community support officers on the street, and I am pleased that the current chief constable has worked hard to pull the situation back because we started so very late.
I raised the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who kindly visited the constituency and met people who were troubled by antisocial behaviour. He came up a couple of months ago, and I think that he found the visit very instructive. When he was being questioned by victims of antisocial behaviour, I found it interesting that people were again saying, “Why don’t the Government do something?” It was similar to the response to the attacks on the fire services. He responded, “The Government have done this, and have done that.”
We should consider how well councils, the police and other organisations with which we work to tackle antisocial behaviour and crime are using the powers available to them. There are two unitary authorities in my constituency, and one of them is certainly a lot further behind the other in using the powers available to it—when one has experience of two neighbouring authorities, one can compare and contrast. I want the Government to give people a bit of a push to use the powers that are already available.
Probably only a minority of people are responsible for the antisocial behaviour in our communities, and they hold us to ransom. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill is a carry-over Bill, but I welcome one particular aspect of it—the extension of crack house closure powers to deal with premises at the centre of serious and persistent disorder or nuisance regardless of tenure. That is vital. Whether councils are slow to act or not, they have powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, as do registered social landlords and housing associations. However, there was a gap in relation to private landlords and owner-occupiers. I am pleased that the powers are now available to tackle that part of antisocial behaviour.
Literacy and numeracy are linked with criminality and antisocial behaviour. It is a sad fact that the majority of people who commit serious crimes in this country have very poor literacy and numeracy skills. The same goes for the whole prison population, and we have to tackle that problem by taking a more integrated approach. I do not know how many Members saw it, but there was an instructive documentary on TV. People will think that I spend all my time watching TV—in fact, it is rather rare that I do, but this documentary was very instructive. It was called “Last Chance Kids” and I think it was filmed in Barking and Dagenham; it was certainly that part of the world. It was about a primary school that focused on ensuring that every child gained some ability to read in a year. The head teacher had given herself a year to try to improve such skills. It was instructive to note that young boys with the poorest literacy and numeracy skills were the most disruptive in the class. Antisocial behaviour, which could lead to more serious behaviour, was therefore beginning in primary school. The pupils were bored and, as they progressed through the school, they had no connection with what was happening, so they became disruptive in the classroom and in the playground. They began to bully. By the end of the year, the head teacher had managed to get all the children reading, and their behaviour improved enormously.
We must therefore consider such matters when we discuss criminal justice and antisocial behaviour. Drug treatment orders are currently available when someone is convicted of a crime, but should not we consider numeracy orders? That might sound a bit trite, but prisons do not tackle offenders’ literacy and numeracy. We must examine that in greater depth. Literacy and numeracy could be improved, for example, through offender management when people are released from a custodial sentence or in other ways. However we do it, we must make people who commit crimes literate and numerate. If we are to break the cycle of criminality, we must give them the necessary skills, which start with the most basic—literacy and numeracy. I would love tests to be conducted on those convicted of a crime to assess their skills.
In the neighbouring constituency of Grimsby, which is also covered by North East Lincolnshire, there is a wonderful project called Space, which is run by the Rev. John Ellis. It featured in The Sunday Times magazine a few weeks ago. Like the head teacher in the east end who was trying to get some of the toughest kids and those with most difficulties reading, Space takes some of the most challenging young people in our community and tries to break the cycles of antisocial behaviour and criminality. It is achieving astounding results with some of those challenging young people. We must get people reading and improve people’s skills. I hope that the Government’s agenda and some aspects of the Queen’s Speech will contribute to that, but it is not easy to do. It will take a generation because it has to work through society before we genuinely experience the impact of such policies.
Regeneration is also necessary to tackle antisocial behaviour and criminality and make people feel secure in their homes and communities. Sorry about this, folks, but I am going to mention another television programme. I am sure that some hon. Members have heard of “Location, Location, Location”. It recently covered the worst and best places to live in Britain. North East Lincolnshire came out as the sixth worst place. That was based on all sorts of statistics. We are a coastal area, with infrastructure problems; we are remote and so on. However, if a local authority and other agencies are trying to get investment and bring in teachers and doctors to their remote urban area, they do not need Phil and Kirstie going around saying that it is the sixth worst place to live in Britain. I am sorry to say that Grimsby regularly features in a book called “Crap Towns”—I am not sure whether that is unparliamentary language. Barrow upon Humber in north Lincolnshire has been judged an excellent place to live. It is, therefore, not all bad news, and Cleethorpes beach has blue-flag status, which is wonderful.
How is North East Lincolnshire council trying to bring investment into the area and get away from the image of Grimsby as a dreadful place to live? The council wants to change the name of the local authority from North East Lincolnshire to Grimsby. It makes no sense to use all that money to change the name of the local authority, which is well described by North East Lincolnshire, because that is where it is. The money could be better used in tackling antisocial behaviour, for example.
Finally, I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will be brief. I am not sure how many barristers are still left in the Chamber, although I see that some of the usual suspects have gone, so I might be safe to talk about this—[Interruption.] Ah! I might even get some answers, now that one of them has walked back in. Thanks to changes that the Government introduced, I recently had to spend some time on jury service. It was very instructive, particularly when one not only had voted for the legislation under which the defendants had been charged, but had even been a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the time and therefore knew the legislation fairly well.
It is not often that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) and I agree, but from my experience as a juror I thought that the judges were excellent in their handling of cases. I thought that the police were excellent, too. However, my opinion of the prosecution and defence barristers was somewhat lower.
The cases in which I was a juror involved sexual offences. Having served as a juror on such cases, I still have concerns about how we handle them. I got the impression that people judge the victim, particularly based on how they behave in court; indeed, I have read about the issue since and spoken to various organisations. If we are to achieve justice and deal with victims, we have to do something about people’s perceptions of victims and how they should behave in court. We need a far better explanation of what constitutes consent in cases involving sexual offences. We also need much more simplicity in saying what “beyond reasonable doubt” means, which does not necessarily have to mean beyond all doubt.
The barristers might be able to help me here, but I did not understand why, if a sexual crime is involved, the jury did not get to see a transcript of the victim’s statement to the police. The jury receives only a statement from the defence and has nothing against which to compare and contrast it. I am told that there are good legal reasons for that; but if one is judging a case in which it is one person’s word against another’s, it is wrong to have just one version of events and not to be allowed the other version. We cannot do justice if that system is maintained.
Thank you for calling me in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I also thank the House for bearing with me.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). I listened carefully to what she said, and she made a commendably bipartisan speech—[Interruption.] Unusually so, I hear. I assure the hon. Lady that nobody in the House is trivialising the threat, but many risk trivialising the liberties that we enjoy. That is the concern that the Opposition have about much in the Queen’s Speech.
I agree with the hon. Lady on the need to toughen border controls. I hope that she will support our policy, which is to ask for a proper border police force, rather than the re-badging of organisations as the Government have misleadingly proposed. I agree with her strongly about the fear of crime and was interested in what she said. In my constituency, crime is mercifully low, but antisocial behaviour remains a concern in every community. As she rightly said, the solution to antisocial behaviour is not more legislation but good old-fashioned policing. I am not even convinced by the antisocial behaviour order procedure, as it is not being enforced and breaches are treated with complete contempt. She was right to say that often what we need are not new measures but the better enforcement of existing ones. That will be one of the themes of my speech.
The House is quite sparsely attended today, but we have been treated to some of the finest speeches that I have heard here for a long time. I am thinking of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Home Secretary, who made a measured and important contribution, and of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), to whose wise words the Government should listen carefully. I am also thinking of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who brought great wisdom and objectivity to his remarks.
However, with due deference to all three, I am thinking particularly of the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). He made a fine speech, even by his standards, and that is saying something. His doctrine of non-interventionism and his love of liberty suggest that he is in the wrong party—[Interruption.] Perhaps there is room for dispute; the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed suggests that the right hon. and learned Gentleman belongs with the Liberal Democrats, but I believe that we are now the authentic defenders of liberty and that he should think of us instead. I see the hon. and learned Gentleman returning to the Chamber. I invite him to read my invitation to join the Conservative party in tomorrow’s Hansard. His two doctrines of non-interventionism and liberty underpin much of what I want to say, not only on matters directly relevant to today’s debate but more generally on the Gracious Speech.
I should like to say, through the Whips on the Government Front Bench, that I am very grateful to the Government Chief Whip for doing all that he could to resolve the unsatisfactory handling of the re-formation of the Select Committees following the machinery of government changes earlier this year. I am currently in limbo, because the Department of Trade and Industry no longer exists and its Select Committee was wound up at the end of the last Session. We were supposed to have a seamless transition to the new Committee. I am not sure whether the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed still exists—
He is lucky. Mine does not. I speak as a simple Back Bencher. I see on the Order Paper today, however, that our Committee has been re-nominated and I hope that it will get going again very quickly. I want to put on record my gratitude to the Chief Whip, but I hope that we shall not see a repeat of the unfortunate circumstances that arose at the end of last Session.
The Government have spoken of the need for an increased role for Select Committees. The Lord High Chancellor, to give him his proper title, spoke briefly about that during his speech today. I would have liked to have asked him what he meant by an increased role, as I have seen only rather limited proposals for confirmatory hearings, which have their limitations. In a way, Select Committees have that power anyway. We certainly enjoyed our de facto confirmatory hearing with Lord Jones of Birmingham when he appeared before us in his role as the new trade Minister. I am not sure whether he enjoyed it quite so much, but we certainly had a good time. There also seem to be proposals for increased debates on Select Committee reports, which would be good. All too often, such reports are written and then simply gather dust. However, Select Committees already have power to revisit reports and to reopen inquiries if they are dissatisfied with the progress that is being made, so I shall be interested to see exactly what the increased powers for Select Committees will involve.
The Government appear to be saying a great deal about improving scrutiny, and I welcome that. One innovation to which I am particularly looking forward is the new provision for topical debates at the end of Question Time. That could be quite a challenge to Secretaries of State, who will be expected to lead those sections of Question Time. That will be good. I am puzzled, however, by the draft legislative programme. I had not realised, until the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed told me, that an item had been quickly and peremptorily dropped from it, and I agree with him about the importance of the coroners Bill. I do not think that we need a draft programme, however. Instead, the Government should be putting their energies into draft Bills. That is what really helps better scrutiny in this place.
I want to refer to about seven different Bills, but I will try to be brief; the House should not worry, they will not all get the exploration that I would like to give them. So far as I can tell, only one of those Bills exists in draft, which is unfortunate. The Government need to think again about whether pre-empting the Queen’s Speech in July actually serves any useful purpose. Certainly it was too late for the old Trade and Industry Committee to examine the Bills proposed in the draft legislative programme, because we just could not organise a meeting in time following the very late announcement. Some of the Bills from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform are very welcome, but I do not see the point of the preliminary announcement.
My main subjects today are not confined to the Home Office or, indeed, to the Ministry of Justice. I apologise to Ministers, but I intend to use the latitude of the second day of the Queen’s Speech debate to range more widely over issues relevant to tomorrow’s debate on local government, next Tuesday’s debate on education and Wednesday’s on the economy. As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes suggested, many issues need a more holistic approach. I hesitate to use that word and I am struggling for a better one, but joined-up is equally a cliché—[Interruption.] Yes, a broad approach; I am grateful for that suggestion. I refer to issues that cannot easily be pigeon-holed into individual days of debate or departmental responsibilities. Competitiveness, skills, climate change, security and energy supply—these are issues in respect of which many Departments have a role to play.
I suppose that my overarching concern—I noticed it in this Queen’s Speech as I have in previous ones—is that the Government seem to be addicted to legislation, regulation and interference rather than just effective administration. Why cannot Government Departments, Government organisations, public services and local authorities be left to get on with the job and do things better rather than this constant shuffling of the pack? I am thinking of what will be the Trade and Industry Committee’s last ever publication, which comes out tomorrow. It deals with public procurement. There are some very important recommendations in that report, but as far as I can tell none requires new legislation to make it work. I suggest one motto for the Government: “Doing less better”, which would be a good idea.
Let me deal with issues that specifically concern the Home Office and, to some extent, the Department for Work and Pensions. I am thinking of the scandal over recent immigration statistics. We do not need a criminal justice or immigration Bill to deal with the problem; rather, we should let Departments do their jobs better. One of our recent Select Committee reports—“Europe moves East”—drew attention to the woeful inadequacies in immigration statistics and suggested mechanisms available to the Government to provide better and more accurate estimates. It does not require legislation to improve the position; it requires the Government to get on with the job of running government more effectively.
I had intended to quote the Select Committee report at length, but I will not do so. I hope that the Government will respond thoughtfully to our suggestions for better statistics, which are really important not just for public services but for the whole future of the UK economy’s competitiveness. We need to know with greater certainty how many immigrants are over here and we need to know their long-term intentions. How many of them will remain here and how many will go back to their home countries, taking with them the skills and good will for this country that they fostered while they were here?
I would like the Home Office to think very carefully about one particular issue in the report. There is evidence that central and east European migrant workers who come here to work in the agricultural sector rapidly move on to higher skill jobs elsewhere or to other jobs that they find more congenial. The agricultural sector, and particularly the horticultural sector, is thus short of people to pick and pack produce, which has potentially serious consequences for the availability of British food.
On Saturday, I talked to a farmer who is cutting his strawberry crop by half because he does not believe that he can find the workers to pick his strawberries. He is going back to arable farming over large areas of his land. At precisely the time when British consumers are demanding more products, that is a very unwelcome development indeed. I hope that the Government will think again with the utmost care about the abolition of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. We still need Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians and Romanians on those tightly monitored and well organised schemes to ensure that we have the people in place to provide British consumers with the British food that they want to eat. Again, however, that does not need new legislation; we just need to use existing legislation better. Indeed, perhaps ironically for a Conservative, I think that it is better not to scrap a piece of legislation that is already on the statute book.
Another example of where further legislation is unnecessary relates to education. We are getting an education Bill, but it will not sort out the most pressing education issue facing my constituents. I have given notice to the two other Members concerned that I would be raising this matter. I am pleased to see one of them in the Chamber, but I appreciate that as a Whip he is not able to respond to the comments that I am about to make. Worcestershire’s rotten funding deal is what disadvantages our children and our schools. We need to close the gap between ours and the better funded authorities—a gap that has grown in both absolute and relative terms over the past 10 years.
I observe in passing how great it is to have the time to debate the Queen’s Speech, but what a shame that we are not debating the comprehensive spending review or the pre-Budget report. In “The Governance of Britain”, the Government said that debates on those statements were literally automatic and should be an important part of this House’s scrutiny of the Executive. We seem to be denied the chance of a debate on those issues this time round, however, so the Queen’s Speech is the next best vehicle.
I am disappointed that the current Home Secretary—a Worcestershire Member of Parliament—who will be replying to the debate, was not able to address the unfair funding gap for Worcestershire when she was a Schools Minister. I am even more disappointed that she chooses to attack the local education authority for the cuts that it is obliged to make to local services as a result of the unfair funding deal that she was not able to address. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) is shaking his head. He and I had quite a strong exchange recently about the issue of school balances. It is utterly outrageous that the Government ever planned to tax schools for making prudent provision for future financial years. Of course excess balances need to be treated with considerable concern, and reduced where possible. Many schools in Worcestershire, however, must save up across the end of a financial year for things that other schools, in other parts of the country, take for granted.
The idea that schools would lose money automatically for making prudent provision was an outrage. I was disappointed that the hon. Gentleman originally supported that policy. I am glad that the Government had a change of heart, and I hope that he now admits that the policy was wrong. I disagree with his comment that the county council is awash with cash. We do not need new legislation in the Queen’s Speech to address the huge financial problems that the county council faces in finding £25 million in savings. The Government have the power to put that right now, but instead Ministers and Government Members prefer to attack local people, head teachers, governors and councillors for their attempts to deal with the unfair situation.
That leads me to another future concern. We do not need a health and social care Bill to address the looming crisis in Worcestershire and around the country of the growing number of elderly, mentally impaired patients suffering from dementia and a range of other diseases of old age. The Government have given the NHS a 4 per cent. increase this year and have given local authorities less than 1 per cent. Let us guess whom they will blame when local councils have to make cuts that the NHS does not have to make, and when those elderly people pay the price. They are setting councils up to fail, and they will blame councils. The blame, however, lies with the Government. We need not a health and social care Bill but a better balance between the different parts of the care system. It is one of my overall themes that many of the problems that we face need not new Bills but a new Government.
The other main theme of my speech is that we are at the 11th hour on a number of issues. Time is running out on many issues of concern to my Committee, which I hope will be the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee in a few days’ time. Such issues include: a skilled work force for the future; a secure energy supply; and a competitive, flexible Europe. Those issues are addressed by Bills in the Queen’s Speech, but given that the question of liberty has so rightly dominated this afternoon’s debate, the Government are approaching too many of those problems with unacceptable authoritarianism, burdened with a legacy of complacency.
I shall be briefer on the following subjects than I had hoped, as they are not strictly relevant to today’s debate, but let us take the example of the energy Bill. I will probably support that Bill in the Lobby, subject to its precise detail. How could any Conservative oppose a measure to cut carbon emissions, secure the best energy mix for the UK, encourage the private sector to fund, construct and operate new nuclear plants, assist private sector investment in gas supply projects and create a framework for private sector cash to be channelled into carbon capture and storage projects? What worries me, however, is that the Government have come to the subject so late. A legacy of complacency makes the Bill desperately overdue.
The current energy review flows from a missed opportunity—the 2003 energy White Paper. The writing was on the wall then, but the Government chose to ignore it. A realisation of the serious future energy gap that we face has kick-started the new energy review process, which has been under way for two years. Three consultations on nuclear power have taken place, but still no formal decision has been taken on whether to give the go-ahead. The public’s perception, I am afraid, is that it is just a rubber-stamping exercise, and that is not helped by the fact that the nuclear installations inspectorate has already begun a public consultation on potential reactor designs, before the Government’s announcement.
The Government should, say, two years ago, have made a more honest, rapid and prudent declaration that they wanted new nuclear power stations and pressed ahead then with the measures necessary to deliver them: persuading the public of the need; dealing with the nuclear waste legacy; and above all, creating a stable price for carbon. The Government still express confidence in the EU emissions trading scheme, and I hope that they are right. I am glad that they have reserved the option of taking additional powers should that scheme not deliver the price for carbon, but it is crucial not just for nuclear but for renewable energy.
The only area in which there seems to be progress is planning. I am delighted that the Government are trying to deal with that issue, but I worry that they may not be getting the methodology quite right. I am particularly worried about the fact that they are paying no attention to renewable heat and not enough attention to combined heat and power; but those are subjects for another debate.
Some people say that we need to be, in John Howard’s memorable phrase, “alert but not alarmed” about future energy supplies, but I am becoming a bit alarmed. More than 30 per cent. of our supply will shut down over the next 20 years, and all our nuclear power stations except Sizewell B, as well as many older coal-fired stations, are due to be closed. There is a real sense of a lost opportunity. This energy Bill should have been in the Queen's Speech two or three years ago, and I am sorry that it is so late.
I had to laugh recently when I read “Energy Markets Outlook”, published by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The Minister for Energy commented that the report suggested the existence of
“significant medium-term opportunities for the construction of new electricity generation capacity in response to expected demand and forthcoming plant closures.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2007; Vol. 465, c. 5WS.]
Of course there are significant medium-term opportunities, but we are in a panic: we need that generating capacity really quickly.
Let me return briefly to the planning issue. I hope that the planning Bill strikes the right balance between local accountability and national need, but I am nervous about the creation of the new commission. I think that there are other methods of ensuring the necessary clarity and enabling public inquiries to take place in a much shorter time. I hope that this Bill is the right one, but I am very apprehensive about it: I fear that it will take a sledgehammer to crack a nut, destroying local accountability in the process.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes raised another issue that is directly relevant to the debate. The education and skills Bill is potentially very important because, as she said, there is a strong correlation between criminality and low levels of educational attainment. Ask any magistrate, and he or she will say that that is true.
Skills shortages in the UK work force are now chronic. Only about half our population have the equivalent of national vocational qualifications at level 3 or higher, and 31 or 32 per cent. have qualifications at level 1 or lower. Those are not the qualifications that the modern economy needs; it requires qualifications at level 3 or higher. One in four maths teachers are not specialists, but they are teaching maths because of shortages. The number of A-level physics students has declined by 38 per cent. over the last 17 years, while 26 per cent. of state secondary schools have no physics specialist and 12 per cent. have no chemistry specialist. One in six British adults does not have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old, and 50 per cent. of those people do not have that level of functional numeracy.
I am wearing my pass around my neck in order to demonstrate that the literacy skills problem may even extend to the Serjeant at Arms Department. I hope that when our passes are next reissued the word “It’s” in item 2, relating to unauthorised possession of the pass, will lose its apostrophe.
I think that the error has been duly noted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am encouraged by that.
The centrepiece of the education and skills Bill is the extension to 18 of the minimum school or training leaving age. I feel that that is an authoritarian approach from an authoritarian Government. It does not address the real issue, which is how we can motivate young people to want to be trained and how we can upskill the current work force. That is where we desperately need to improve our game. As I said earlier, employers now see level 3 as a benchmark. Countries in central and eastern Europe, behind the old iron curtain, have much higher levels of vocational and academic qualification, which give them a sharp competitive edge in the difficult world that we now face.
I think that the Bill sets the wrong agenda. We should not force people to do things that they do not want to do; we should encourage them to want to do those things. I agree that the number of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—has risen to a scandalous level under this Government over the past few years, from 160,000 to 220,000, but we should encourage young people to stay in education rather than forcing them to do so. I wonder what would have happened if Richard Branson had been commanded to take A-levels in English literature and philosophy, rather than going off and making his fortune. I do not think that compulsion is the right way in which to deal with such an important issue.
What the Government need to address are the reasons for the poverty of aspiration that exists in too many of our communities. Broken families, welfare dependency, inner-city deprivation and discrimination are all symptoms of a broken society. The Government are appearing to be tough on skills shortages when they should be tough on the causes of skills shortages.
The last Bill to which I shall refer—I shall make it six rather than seven, in view of the time—is the European treaty Bill. I think it is a matter of trust that there should be a referendum on the European treaty. Trust is the paramount reason. Almost every Member was elected on the promise of a referendum on the treaty. The treaty is the constitution by another name and we should, on the grounds of honour and trust alone, have a referendum.
I have another major concern, however. Europe must face up more than it has done to the consequences of globalisation and an increasingly competitive world. I discern in this new treaty all the old instincts of the old Europe, such as the instinct to centralise—to take power away from countries and communities and to impose on them regimes that are not necessarily those required to survive and flourish in a competitive world.
I had hoped to speak for longer on this matter, but I shall truncate my remarks. We need a different kind of Europe. Let me return to my theme of authority. The Government say that we do not need a referendum because this House will decide, but this House has a large Government majority and Members will be whipped to support the Bill—although some brave Labour Members will break ranks and say, “No, we should have a referendum and let the people decide on this important question of a permanent transfer of power away from this House to the European Union.” I fear that by following that course of action the Government will again prove my central theme to do with their authority: the complacency of this Government. Europe needs to change, but the Government are using their authority to ensure that it does not do so.
It is a pleasure to have an opportunity to speak on this aspect of the Gracious Speech.
I made my maiden speech on Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, and I am now a member of the Committee on it. I have listened intently to the debates in Committee and, as a newcomer to the House, I have been bemused by the position that Opposition Members have taken on certain aspects of the Bill.
First, I shall address what has been important about this Government’s approach to criminal justice, and especially antisocial behaviour. The Government have a long and proud record on tackling those issues and can boast that they are firmly on the side of the victim and want there to be strong communities that can live in harmony without the fear of crime stalking the streets. They have gone some way towards achieving that. Since 1997, overall crime has fallen by a third. Car crime and burglary rates have more than halved. Adult reoffending rates have fallen. There have also been reductions in people’s fear of crime and perceptions of antisocial behaviour.
Neighbourhood policing has a key role to play in building confidence in the fight against crime in local areas. That is why every community will by April next year have a neighbourhood policing team working with local people to focus on the crime issues that matter to them. I have seen that for myself in the village of West Cornforth in my constituency. I was recently involved in a neighbourhood policing exercise in that village. Agencies were working together to clamp down on antisocial behaviour blackspots and looking out for signal crimes such as graffiti that they could tackle at an early stage before things got out of hand. The youth project there has also helped to give responsibility to young people, and given them ownership of how they organise and run the project.
As a consequence of neighbourhood policing, proactive local agencies and a community not scared to face challenges, antisocial behaviour has fallen significantly in the area. In Sedgefield, crime is more than 20 per cent. below the national average. Neighbourhood policing is helping to secure that. In West Cornforth, a balance has been struck between providing something for young people to do through the community youth drop-in centre while, at the same time, policing in a firm but neighbourly way.
There is still more to do, however. That is why I am pleased to be involved in the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. Its provisions will help tackle crime on the estates where I grew up in Sedgefield, and elsewhere. Violent offender orders will allow courts to impose post-sentence restrictions on those convicted of violent offences. The Bill will extend the existing crack house powers to tackle premises at the centre of serious and persistent disorder or nuisance, regardless of tenure. There will be new powers to deal with nuisance or disturbance on NHS premises. The creation of youth rehabilitation orders will provide community sentences for children and young offenders. These provisions will, once again, place the Government on the side of the victim and the community. However, our approach to ridding our communities of crime needs to be holistic and to offer a balance—as shown in West Cornforth—between punishing the criminal and providing potential offenders with the opportunity of not offending, stopping them in their tracks, especially when they are young, turning them around and setting them on a different course.
We all hear in our constituencies of young people who might be causing problems on estates, standing on street corners being a nuisance. We hear of young people on the streets, in back alleys and elsewhere, drinking illegally. However, this is not an issue for public houses; rather, it must be addressed by shopkeepers and supermarkets, where it is perhaps possible to buy 20 cans of beer for £10. On occasion, young people get somebody aged over 18 to go into a supermarket to buy £10-worth of beer, so that they can drink it outside.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Durham constabulary, which in my constituency—and perhaps in his—is using laws that this Government have given it on test purchasing in order to take a proactive stance and prevent the illegal sale of alcohol to youngsters?
My hon. Friend is right—Durham constabulary has a very good record on this issue, including in my constituency. However, the responsibility needs to fall on shopkeepers and supermarkets, as well. There has to be a combined initiative in cracking down on this problem.
I have always thought that, before we start criticising young people, we as a community must offer them the opportunity to do something else other than stand on street corners. That is why the Bill introduced in the Gracious Speech to use money from dormant bank accounts to invest in our communities, especially in youth services, is a tremendous idea. Giving young people something to do in their spare time is surely more productive than their becoming frustrated and taking out that frustration on local communities. My approach is this: if young people want to use youth centres, that is fine; if they do not, that, too, is fine. However, if they choose the third option—being disruptive in their community—the police and local agencies should have the powers to ensure that that disruption is stopped.
However, it would be wrong to give the impression that all of today’s young people want to cause trouble—they do not. Just the other day, two young people, Grant Parker and Georgia Howe, came to my constituency office to ask for support in starting a youth forum in Newton Aycliffe. I will support them. They want to gather together a group of young people to talk about the changes that they would like to see in their area, and to get across the very valid point that a lot of young people do a great deal of good in the local community.
Last week, I visited 1407 air cadet squadron in Newton Aycliffe, which consists of 54 young people between the ages of 13 and 20 from Newton Aycliffe, Chilton and elsewhere in the constituency. They are commanded by Flying Officer Karin Scott, and they have won the Lindisfarne trophy in two out of the past three years because they are seen as the most outstanding air cadet squadron in the north-east. Their squadron is one of many throughout the country. They learn to fly, sit for a diploma in public service—equivalent to four GCSEs—and take part in the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. Many of them wear the millennium volunteer badge because of the work that they do in the local community. Their funding arrangements are fragile, and they are not treated the same as Army cadets. That is an issue for another day, but I wanted to highlight the work that they do as an example to us all. I am proud that they are a part of my constituency.
The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill will be another laudable addition to the statute book and it will make sure that the police have the powers to ensure that our communities are safe. Given the activities undertaken by the communities themselves, I believe that great progress can be made in securing a safe environment for all our people. I must add at this juncture that the Bill is yet another piece of legislation protecting our people that the Opposition voted against. They talk tough—and then vote soft. They voted against the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the Police and Justice Act 2006. When they were in government, crime doubled, violent crime rose by 170 per cent., robberies increased by 400 per cent. and convictions fell by a third. It gets worse. They cannot even make up their minds on whether they want to punish offenders. As for the Liberal Democrats, they have said that they definitely do not want to punish offenders.
In Committee on the afternoon of 25 October, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and their colleagues moved an amendment to clause 9 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. The clause was on sentencing. Their amendment addressed the purpose of sentencing and proposed to delete the phrase “the punishment of offenders”. They saw the purpose of sentencing not as being to punish offenders. I had been an MP for just three months at the time and was amazed to be sitting in a room with legislators who were seriously considering removing from a Bill on criminal justice the fact that the main purpose of sentencing an offender was to punish him or her.
The amendment was put to a vote. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and his one Liberal Democrat colleague voted against punishing the offender. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough and his colleagues abstained; they could not make their mind up whether they wanted to punish the offender or not. The voting patterns of the Opposition on that day took talking tough and voting soft to a new dimension. They have now entered the realm of not only voting soft, but talking soft. Their approach to criminal justice is bizarre and bears no relation to the needs of the community that we represent. I, like the rest of my Labour colleagues, voted to keep punishment as an integral part of the criminal justice system. We now know that no matter how much the Opposition parties talk about crime in future, they either do not want to punish the offender or cannot make up their mind about whether or not they want to do so.
I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman says with great interest. Is he aware that we are now on 29 criminal justice Bills since 1997? Does he feel that plenty of talk has gone on in this Chamber over the past 10 years and that legislation has been used as a proxy for real action to tackle the serious problems faced in the streets in his constituency and in mine?
One need only examine our good record on crime over the past 10 years to see the results of those Bills. The number of crimes has been cut by a third over that period. We have a proud record, and if something takes five, 10 or 20 Bills, that is the approach we should take.
That is right, and the Liberal Democrats are now saying that they do not want to punish someone who has committed a crime. It is also fair to say that we need reform; part of sentencing must be reform and rehabilitation to protect the public and ensure that the offender makes reparations. However, let us remember that for every crime there is a victim. If we say that punishment plays no part in the criminal justice system, the British people have every right to laugh in our face, and the offender is given every reason to reoffend. I am pleased that Labour Members are on the right side of the argument.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson). I am sure that all the emotions that he has expressed could be reflected by all of us in our constituencies, but perhaps in slightly different ways.
I want to talk exclusively about the Government’s proposals to increase the maximum period that terrorist suspects can be held from 28 days to 56 days or beyond. May I start by asking the Minister exactly what has changed since we went through this difficult, painful and unnecessary process 18 months or two years or so ago, when the Government, apparently supported by elements of the police force and the security services, were saying that we needed to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days, rather than for the 56 days that is now being discussed? Has the threat changed? Has it diminished? Are we likely to be investigating less complex cases in future? I do not think so. When I listen to the head of MI5, the Home Secretary or the Government generally, or to my rhetoric, it is clear to me that the threat is just as complex. It is thus hard to understand why the Government can reject accusations that this is a political issue rather than one that is bent upon the protection of this country.
The issues of plea bargaining, post-charge questioning, and the use of holding charges and intercept evidence have arisen. I declare an interest, because I have been involved in all of those activities practically in fighting the IRA, albeit a few years ago. I understand all of these matters and have employed them. But none of them is particularly significant. I respect the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) about the use of intercept evidence, but if one talks to practitioners about any of those measures, they will say that they are certainly useful, but they are not a silver bullet that can put terrorists away without further reference. If such evidence becomes suddenly admissible in court, it will not mean that charges and accusations can be cleared up with the snap of the fingers. They are useful tools, but they are not the pre-eminently important issue with which we are dealing.
I therefore ask the House not to be distracted. Whatever the Government say—I am totally on side in trying to reach some consensus on this difficult subject—about post-charge questioning and the like, they are but placebos when compared with the main issue of the extension from 28 days to 56 or beyond.
I have been involved at the sharp end of a similar sort of problem and I have railed against the windbags, the bureaucrats and the politicians—those who do not daily face criminals and terrorists or deal with the problems that arise from their activities. It is hard for police officers and members of the security services to understand why a bunch of card-carrying civilians do not say, “Yes, you can have whatever powers you need. If you say you need them, we will grant them, because the one enduring liberty that stands above everything else is the ability to live in peace and without threat.” It is therefore hard to understand why Parliament stands in the way of granting those powers.
I can sympathise, and even empathise, with the stand that many in the police are taking. I respect the fact that the Government have advanced some sensible solutions for judicial review for those being held without charge every seven days, and other forms of review, including debate in Parliament, of those being held for longer periods. That is sensible, liberal and laudable. Any of those solutions should work, but if we look at the lessons of history, we will see that they will not work.
Whatever we do and whatever we say, if we extend the period of detention before charge, our enemies—wrongly, in my view—will label it internment. Would it be internment? Would it bear any resemblance to what went on during the war years, when Italians and Germans were held? Would it bear any resemblance to what I saw in the 1970s in Northern Ireland, when it was predominantly Catholics who were held? Of course not. It bears no resemblance whatever. But would that stop our enemies claiming that it was internment? Absolutely not.
If we hand that weapon to Islamist fundamentalists, those who would damage this state not just physically, but morally and politically, we would do ourselves a grave disservice. We would immediately lay ourselves open to further alienating the community from which the majority—although not all—of the problem stems. It is crucial that the British Muslim community is kept on side in its entirety—or as close to its entirety as we can get. If we consider what happened in the 1970s in Northern Ireland, we see that the one word “internment” would—I believe, having listened to the evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee—alienate good, honest, loyal, properly religious and truthful Muslims.
Secondly, and probably even more damagingly, anything we do to damage the flow of intelligence from the relevant communities will turn off our only important weapon in fighting the people whom I am talking about. We can rely on information, observation and analysis, but none of that equates to proper, hard intelligence. Believe me, anything that we do that damages our touts, informers or resources, or that alienates people who are giving information, will damage the fight against terror.
My next point harks back to what I saw being done in Northern Ireland. The more we take technically innocent people and allow them to be locked up for up to, let us say, 55 days before being released without charge, the more opportunities we will give our enemies to contort the truth, exercise black propaganda against us and twist facts. There is plenty of precedent for that sort of thing; some would say that a number of incidents from the past two years already fall into that category. Once such things happen, those individuals who have been held without charge for that lengthy period will become recruiting magnets for Islamist fundamentalists and totems for radicalisation, just as the IRA used its ex-internees for such purposes in the 1970s in Northern Ireland.
My message is simple. I understand why we want to do such things. I understand any policeman or security service person who says that he or she needs such powers, and I empathise with them. However, we must learn the lessons of history. Once we are labelled yet again as a nation that intends to intern its people and as an illiberal tyrannical society and not a democracy, the terrorists whom we are trying to defeat will have dented us—and dented us badly.
I support the Gracious Speech. Like the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), I shall touch on a number of constituency issues. The first is the welcome inclusion in the speech of the commitment to affordable housing.
I have described my constituency as a rural one with urban problems. It covers a rural area with two medium-sized towns and a number of former mining communities. Since the late 1990s, there has been a problem in those former mining communities: it has been difficult for young people to get on the property ladder, given the restricted social housing. If people want to stay in those villages, as many do, there is a real problem, as they can no longer afford to do so.
Although I welcome the commitment on affordable housing, I question whether—and I shall return to this theme in another context—the answer is to set up something called the homes and communities agency. My heart sinks when the Government announce another initiative whose answer to a problem is to set up an agency to sort it out. As one proud to have been a local councillor for 12 years, I think that we need to give more powers back to local government to tackle affordable housing. We do not need to try to reinvent the wheel by setting up an agency that will try to sort out all the problems.
I have been critical of some local government in Durham and I continue to be so when it does things wrong. However, it is accountable to local people and, if new local housing is to be built, councils should be the vehicle not only for providing that directly but for doing so in partnership with housing associations and the voluntary sector. There are some good examples of where that can be done. I would rather it were spearheaded by local councils, along with local Members of Parliament, than yet another agency be set up, which, if it is anything like what we have had so far as regards a Whitehall-centred view of the world, will take little interest in what local people want. Moreover, local councils are democratically accountable, whereas another agency will not be. Nevertheless, the commitment to affordable housing is very welcome.
I also get a sense of foreboding from the idea that the new settlements are going to be called eco-towns. I am not a signed-up member of the anti-eco tendency, but I wonder whether that is just another label that will be slapped on a poorly designed initiative that will get all the money rather than that money being directed into former mining housing in my villages, for example, and into local councils where it will do the most good. I am not sure that many of my constituents are bothered about what type of house they live in, or what it is called, as long as they have one. A better way forward might be to invest money to things such as home insulation for existing housing stock.
Another welcome aspect of the Gracious Speech is the commitment to education. My constituency has some obvious social problems. South Stanley is in the top 20 most deprived wards in the country. Despite that, the local secondary school, led by a dynamic head teacher, Janet Bridges, is doing fantastic work not only in raising A to C grades to over 50 per cent. but in tackling the issue of pupils aged 14 or 15 who suddenly want to drop out of the education system. I would be completely opposed to trying to tie them into education until the age of 18 if it was just about trying to put them through the mill of examinations. The proposals are welcome because they will allow those people to stay in education and training, not suddenly drop out of the system as is happening now. I ask Ministers who will be piloting this piece of legislation to come to Stanley school of technology and look at the work that Janet Bridges is doing in trying to keep some very difficult cases in the education system. It may not be the system that we all recognise, based on trying to get exams, but it is about ensuring that people leave school with some basic life skills. That is important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) said, in constituencies such as mine the problems of crime and antisocial behaviour involve exactly the kinds of children who are dropping out of the education system and cannot see that they have a place in the world. I am a big believer in the idea that people need what I call a place in the world. The first thing that most people ask when they meet someone is, “What do you do for a living?” That is difficult for a person who does not have a job or has no hope of getting a job or meaningful training. The commitment has to be seen as a great opportunity for communities such as mine.
Alongside that, we should be trying to raise aspirations. Stanley has one of the lowest education staying-on rates anywhere in the north-east. I do not accept that its pupils are in some way less intelligent than those in other parts of the north-east—we just need to ensure that they, and their parents, are given opportunities and aspirations to stay on until university and go further. That is why I am pleased that Durham county council’s latest proposals for academies look to bring sixth-form education back to Stanley, which is long overdue.
I turn now to the proposals on the NHS. Two weekends ago, The Sunday Telegraph carried a four-page spread about how bad the service is. It spoke about how terrible it is that long waiting lists mean that people have to travel as far as India to get operations. Interestingly, most of the people mentioned lived in the south-east of England.
I was elected in 2001, and the disgrace then was that waiting times for orthopaedic operations at my local hospital—which used to be the local workhouse—were in excess of two years. Because mine is a former mining area, a lot of people need such operations, but there will be no waiting lists at all for them later this year.
In my constituency, we have a fantastic new community hospital and a general hospital that cost £97 million. Last week, I met representatives of the local primary care trust, which has earmarked money for the new Stanley health centre—the fifth new GP or NHS facility in North Durham in recent years. That is a fantastic achievement, but the Government need to concentrate on the good things that have been done, and to tackle the bad management that can still be found in some parts of the NHS.
With the greatest respect to Ministers, I do not believe that we need the proposed care quality commission. That would be yet another quango, and what would it do? In my previous life as a councillor, I found that local councils were very good at doing such things as improving the care offered in residential care homes. Local environmental health departments looked after matters such as the quality of food and health and safety in such homes. In my capacity as chairman of the environmental health committee in my area, I more than once had to sign documents to close down residential care homes, but I am not sure that anything will be gained from having yet another commission.
Moreover, if the Government really want to empower local people and local government, they should give them more responsibility. Local people can scrutinise local NHS services and hold the relevant bodies to account. As an electorate, they also have what no commission or quango ever has—that is, the power to hang a sword of Damocles over the heads of the people charged with running services. If those people do something wrong, they will get voted out.
Although I believe that local government should have a larger role in the NHS, we should also celebrate what has already been achieved. We in North Durham and the other Durham constituencies can be very proud of our record in that record.
I also welcome the local transport Bill proposed in the Gracious Speech. For once, I believe that the Government have listened to calls from me and others to give more responsibility to local councils. People in my constituency rely on bus transport, but two companies—Arriva and Go North East—have monopolised that provision in the north-east of England. Those companies are able to remove routes that they consider to be unprofitable, or to ask for subsidies from the county council to run a service.
For people without a car who live in a village such as Quaking Houses in my constituency, access to a bus is a necessity, not a luxury. I recognise that mass employment is not going to return to North Durham—those days are long gone—but we do need good transport links to jobs along the A1 corridor, on Tyneside or down in Teesside. Since deregulation, however, bus companies have been able to cut routes willy-nilly, and I welcome the proposals in the local transport Bill to give councils more control over such matters.
I must mention the Go North East bus company, if for no other reason than to annoy it. It has continually taken routes away and left communities high and dry. Peter Huntley, its new managing director, seems to be quite an honest individual in many ways. When he was accused at a public meeting of not caring about the performance of bus services, he replied that his responsibility was to his shareholders. Some companies are interested only in profit rather than in social needs.
Mr. Huntley wrote to me in the summer asking to meet me, apparently because I had single-handedly upset his company’s profitability. I replied, “No problem”, but about two days before the meeting I was sent a briefing note that I was clearly not supposed to see. It claimed that my continued criticisms and my standing up for my constituents were severely damaging the business and set out how the company was going to sort things out. I wrote back pointing out that if I was seen as the problem there was not much point in meeting. I hope that the proposed Bill gives councils the right to take on operators such as Go North East and deal with them.
Another issue in the Queen’s Speech was youth provision, which will be welcome news to one of my constituents who raised the matter with me during one of my street surgeries a few weeks ago. It was also mentioned today by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield and is important in some of the small communities and villages in my constituency where there is no leisure provision except the local youth centre or the village hall, so I welcome the proposal to claim dormant bank accounts and direct the money to youth facilities, such as Chester-le-Street youth centre, which does fantastic work but needs investment. The early assignment of such funding is important.
The proposed employment Bill will tighten the minimum wage regulations and deal with employers who flout them. When the minimum wage was introduced, the Conservatives were all doom and gloom and said that it would lead to more unemployment. In the north-east, 111,000 people are better off owing to that legislation and nearly 60 per cent. of them are women, so anything that can be done to bear down on what I admit is a minority of rogue employers who are still trying to flout the rules will be welcome.
I welcome the proposals on flexible working. We live in increasingly difficult times when both parents work and people have to look after aged relatives and children, so I welcome the fact that the Government are taking flexible working seriously. If it is done properly it can lead to better productivity, as more enlightened employers are aware. I used to be a full-time GMB official and many years ago the Littlewoods organisation’s extremely flexible approach to care and facilities for its largely female work force improved productivity.
It is all right for the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to claim that those proposals are one of his great ideas, but we need to keep reminding people, and reinforcing the argument, that when the Conservatives had the chance to vote for proposals on paternity leave, they voted against them. We need to remind people of the fact that the Conservatives voted against measures such as the minimum wage, which has given an economic boost to many families in my constituency. We need no lessons from the Conservatives about decent employment rights.
Immigration is a topical issue. I think it is a good thing for the UK. Over the past few years, immigration from the aspirant countries of eastern Europe has led to more employment and has filled labour gaps—even in the north-east we could not get people to fill certain jobs. The proposed points system is the correct approach in looking at the skills we actually need. The right hon. Member for Witney says that we need to have a grown-up debate about immigration. We do, and we need to recognise that whether we like it or not we are a nation that has been built on immigration—from 1066 onwards. It is the Victorianised view of Britishness that skews that argument. In most communities, immigration has not only led to economic benefits, but enriched the culture.
People discuss Polish immigration to this country as though it were something new. When I was growing up in the South Yorkshire coalfield, I went to school with many children who had Polish-sounding names. After the second world war, when the communists took over in Poland, many Polish people stayed and worked in the coal mines of South Yorkshire, where they integrated well. It is important to recognise that Polish immigration is not new and that it can add to the economic good of this country, rather than detract from it.
My hon. Friend is right that there are many hidden histories in the UK of people who have come to this country to work and who have integrated. Is he aware that in the Victorian era a lack of workers in the Fife coalfields was met by people from Lithuania?
I did not know that, but local communities across this country provide similar examples. In the north-east of England, for example, there was mass immigration from Ireland in the 19th century to build roads and railways, and Ireland also provided a lot of the labour for the Durham coalfields and the Tyne shipyards. If we are to have a grown-up debate, we must recognise that history.
There is an onus on people who say that we have had enough immigration and that it should stop to say what the number should be. Any artificial cap would be a mistake. For example, students studying in this country provide positive benefits not only by bringing cash to Durham university and other universities in the north-east, but by allowing people to understand the culture of the UK—in many cases, people who have studied here are great ambassadors for the UK when they return to their countries. If we are going to have the debate, we should put it in its proper historical perspective, and people who want to talk about numbers need to say what the numbers should be.
I want to discuss two issues that were omitted from the Queen’s Speech. When the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) raised the issue of a coroners Bill, I was not pleased by the Lord Chancellor’s response. The Lord Chancellor implied that only the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk wants such a Bill, but many Labour Members want to see its introduction. The Bill exists in draft form, and it is long overdue, because we need to bring up to date the archaic coroner system in this country. The draft Bill followed an excellent report by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which we debated earlier this year in Westminster Hall. The Bill would provide an opportunity not only to bring the coroner service up to date, but to tackle some issues that affect our constituents.
I chair the all-party group on cardiac risk in the young, and the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young is anxious to see the introduction of the coroners Bill. One issue is the need to introduce a system to ensure that when young people die suddenly of cardiac failure it is properly investigated and the statistics, which can influence the debate, are kept. At the moment, the problem is that the sudden deaths of young people are investigated differently in different jurisdictions. Such cases are, for example, sometimes put down to drowning. In areas in which coroners are proactive, there is not only support for families, but the death is registered as a cardiac death. That is important because CRY estimates that eight young people a week die of sudden cardiac failure, and only a coroner system where such information can be held centrally will allow us to argue the necessary case for screening in the health service for young people who do sports. I hope that there is time during the Session to introduce a coroners Bill because I and many others would welcome it.
Finally, I was a little concerned that there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech about our covenant with the armed forces. There has been a lot of talk about the way in which we treat the men and women who serve in the forces, and their families. The Government have a good track record on delivery in this area, but we need a grown-up debate on the covenant—a point that the Royal British Legion and others have raised. A Bill or even a White Paper that addressed the matter would have been welcome.
We need to consider what the Government should do and what charities should do. If people join the armed forces, we need to think about what they should expect from the Government if they are serving abroad, or the minimum standards for things such as housing. It appals me, having been involved in the report of the Select Committee on Defence into armed forces housing, that the Ministry of Defence can say that it is satisfactory when an emergency repair takes two days. If someone in local government had tried to claim that, they would have been shot. An emergency repair should be done within hours.
We need that debate and we must focus on what should be provided for servicemen and women, and their families. It is not just a political problem. Senior generals have turned a blind eye to the matter and concentrated a lot on equipment and warfighting. They have not considered the support we should give to members of the armed forces and their families. The matter is put into clear perspective when people are severely injured or dying abroad.
With those remarks, I welcome the proposals in the Gracious Speech. It adds to 10 years of massive improvement in a host of areas throughout the country. In my constituency of North Durham, things are not perfect, but they are very much better than when I was elected in 2001.
I am sorry that the Lord High Chancellor has not returned to his place, because I wanted to welcome him to the Chamber in his plain clothes. We all enjoyed seeing him in the full garments of his position yesterday, but I wonder whether he noticed the comments made on television by his predecessor, Lord Falconer, who observed that he was not wearing a wig. He said that that was like wearing pyjamas with no top. I hesitate to say any more on this matter, because I know that Mr. Speaker has also elected not to wear a wig on many such occasions.
The Government must surely be worried that the former Lord Chancellor is growing to be an increasingly effective media commentator. Indeed, some of us might observe that he has become a loose cannon thundering around on the Government’s deck. I suggest to the Lord High Chancellor and the Prime Minister that it might be a good idea to have a further conversation about the former Lord Chancellor’s pension if he is to be shut up, and made to stop giving advice about the Government’s lack of vision—much of it no doubt unwelcome to them.
There is much that we can welcome in the Gracious Speech. However, it was striking that the Lord High Chancellor dwelled so little on the Government’s proposals and focused so much on ours. That is the mark of the current Government. He chose to focus first on our original proposal, which the Government have adopted, to introduce a British Bill of Rights. It was difficult for Conservative Members to understand his exact point when he criticised us for proposing something that the Government now wish to introduce. Indeed, when he wrote about the issue recently in The Daily Telegraph, he simultaneously called for a debate and accused anyone who questioned the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 of regressing into narrow xenophobia.
Surely those remarks should be directed at some of the right hon. Gentleman’s colleagues. The previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, when dealing with the specific issue that the Lord Chancellor claimed that we had got wrong—the margin of appreciation—said that he wanted to tackle
“the issue of court rulings which overrule the government in a way that is inconsistent with other EU countries’ interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Similarly, the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) said of the Act:
“Too often we are fighting crime and terrorism with one hand behind our back.”
In the summer, the Lord Chancellor told me at the Dispatch Box that there was no difference between him and the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts on the Human Rights Act. Apparently, there is. However, we will continue to lead the debate on the proper balance in relation to human rights. We will make the sensible case for a new legal framework, which balances rights and responsibilities and safeguards liberties while trying to fight serious crime.
Did my hon. Friend notice that the Lord Chancellor referred today to the British judiciary? Does he agree that there are circumstances in which it is imperative that our judges are required to follow United Kingdom law made in the Westminster Parliament and not law derived exclusively from the European convention or, indeed, European law generally?
My hon. Friend and I have debated the matter previously and our position is that we want British judges to apply the law with regard to the values that we propose to set out in a British Bill of Rights and responsibilities. We do not propose to resile from the European convention but we believe that our judges would have more latitude if that British Bill of Rights were in place. The Government, too, apparently believe that now. Perhaps they can explain the exact difference between their position and ours, given that they appear to have adopted our policy to introduce a British Bill of Rights. We have yet to see of what it will consist. Until we do that, it is difficult to judge the merits of the Government’s proposals.
Similarly, the Lord Chancellor dwelled on proposals that formed no part of the Queen’s Speech. They are our proposals to tackle the imbalance in the constitutional settlement that the Government introduced in the form of Scottish and Welsh devolution. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the right hon. Gentleman seemed preoccupied by that and fiercely criticised our proposals for English votes for English laws.
I have two points to make in return. First, the Lord Chancellor should take care when citing Gladstone. Gladstone’s answer to the problem was to reduce the representation of Irish Members of Parliament. If the right hon. Gentleman prays Gladstone in aid, perhaps he will state whether his answer is similar. Secondly, we have heard his objections to our policy on the English question of giving Members of Parliament representing English constituencies the decisive say on English laws, so I have a simple question for him: what is the Government’s answer to the problem? It cannot be acceptable simply to take the advice of the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and not ask the West Lothian question in the first place, which seems to have been their position so far.
In the 1990s, the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues realised, just as we came to realise, that the threat posed to the Union, which he spoke so much about, came from English Members of Parliament imposing unpopular laws on Scotland. He should understand that the threat to the Union today does not come from giving English Members of Parliament the decisive say on English laws. That threat comes from Scottish Members of Parliament having the decisive say on English laws. That is the imbalance that has already arisen and which was created by the Government’s devolutionary settlement. It is no good for the Lord Chancellor simply to criticise our proposal. He must come forward and say how he proposes to address that imbalance, which has weakened the Union. Our position is that we wish to see the Union strengthened, and it can be strengthened only by giving English Members of Parliament the decisive say on English laws.
So fixated was the Lord Chancellor on our proposals that he talked very little about the Government’s own. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill—one of the Bills that have been carried over into this Session—barely received a mention. However, hon. Members in all parts of the House were critical of what has been described as the Government’s legislative incontinence—other words were used, too—in constantly resorting to more legislation and laws, in the belief that that is the way to address the problem of crime in this country. The hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) criticised the Government’s drive for more legislation, while my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) said that they were addicted to legislation. He offered some good advice, which is that they should concentrate on doing less better.
If there is one indication of the failure of the Government’s approach in that regard, it is that although the Gracious Speech talked about the aim of reducing reoffending and even suggested it as the purpose for introducing the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, the fact is that reconviction rates have soared. Reoffending rates have soared, despite a succession of criminal justice Bills. The Government have signally failed to deal with the problem of reoffending. Indeed, I shall argue that there is no way we can deal with reoffending unless we deal with the problem—the crisis, indeed—of overcrowding in prisons.
The second major Bill forming part of the Gracious Speech is the draft constitutional renewal Bill, which contains the Prime Minister’s big idea. The Gracious Speech promised proposals to
“renew the constitutional settlement and strengthen the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the people.”
Fine words and grand aims indeed, but let us examine the proposed components of the Bill. We agree about giving Parliament the power to make treaties or approve going to war, abolishing the royal prerogative in that regard. Indeed, our democracy taskforce, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), proposed those very measures. We welcome legislation to underpin the independence of the civil service, whose independence has so often been compromised under the Government’s stewardship in the past 10 years. We welcome that legislation, because it is three years since the Government published the draft Civil Service Bill and seven years since they said that they were committed to such legislation. If we are at last to see it, that will be welcome.
We welcome the review of the restrictions on protests in Parliament square. We all agree that a better balance is needed in that respect. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern about the noisy, static and semi-permanent demonstrations that interfere with people who are seeking to work in and around the House. There are, however, legitimate concerns about the unwarranted restrictions on liberty that were imposed by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, and by the order that brought in the tight restrictions on demonstrations in Parliament square.
In that context, I have one question for the Home Secretary: will she clarify the proposal in the consultation paper for the “harmonisation” of the laws governing the right to demonstrate in the designated area around Parliament square and those relating to demonstrations elsewhere? I imagine that the objection that has prompted the Government to review the provision relates to its impact on civil liberties and, in particular, to the fact that the public have to seek the permission of the police to demonstrate. Without that permission, even the most peaceful demonstration will fall foul of the criminal law. I am sure that that is the objection that the Government are seeking to address. However, if the effect of their proposals were, through harmonisation, to extend the provision to demonstrations outside the purview of Parliament square and its environs under the terms of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, that would be a step in the wrong direction that would lead to serious deprivation of civil liberty. I would be grateful if the Home Secretary clarified what “harmonisation” means in that context.
We welcome the proposals for pre-appointment hearings by Select Committees, although they do not go far enough to strengthen the legislature against the Executive, which is one of the declared aims of the constitutional reforms. The House must be given control over its own timetable, and the power of the Whips over Select Committees—with their enhanced role, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire—must be reduced.
None of those measures is in itself objectionable. Many of them do not go far enough, but all of them miss the point. Indeed, the fact that the Lord Chancellor dwelled on many of our proposals suggests an implicit concession that the Government have spectacularly missed the point. Nothing has been proposed to address the constitutional imbalance created within the United Kingdom. There is very little in the Queen’s Speech about House of Lords reform, in spite of the Lord Chancellor’s intentions, although I accept and respect the fact that that matter is now effectively on ice until the next election. Of course, there is nothing on the constitutional outrage of a referendum being promised on the EU constitutional treaty but not delivered.
Trust will be rebuilt between the people and this place and between the people and the Government not through the measures that the Government have proposed in their legislative package, worthy though they are. It will be rebuilt only when the power that has been taken away from individuals and communities is genuinely returned to them. That will not happen under these proposals. We are fond of quoting Polly Toynbee, who said of the Government’s constitutional renewal Bill that it was a
“grand name for good but uncontentious tidying up”.
Surely that is an accurate summary of the constitutional renewal proposals.
We have before us a Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that we have already started to debate, which does not actually say much about immigration. We are to have a citizenship and immigration Bill. The Government seem to believe that if they mention immigration in the titles of their Bills enough times people might think that they are doing something about it. Let us take a closer look, however; it is extremely difficult to work out what will form such legislation.
The briefing about the citizenship and immigration Bill accompanying the Queen’s Speech, in which the commitment was given to produce such a Bill, consists of just one sentence:
“The purpose of the Bill is to take forward any recommendations emerging from the Goldsmith review of citizenship requiring primary legislation.”
If we go to the Goldsmith review on citizenship, we find one small page on a website, telling us that citizenship is “an important common bond”—a profound observation, no doubt. Lord Goldsmith goes on to tell us that he needs the public’s views in order to carry out this work and that the review
“will report to the Prime Minister in March 2008”.
We therefore know nothing about what will be in the citizenship Bill, so it is very difficult to debate its proposals sensibly.
Similarly, we know nothing about what will be in an associated part of the Government’s constitutional reform agenda—the statement of British values. We are all waiting with bated breath to see what will be in this statement of British values and what it will add to our British way of life. Perhaps it will be the Prime Minister’s newest and most notorious phrase, “British jobs for British workers”. Will that be enshrined in the statement of values that the Government will propose? As the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) said last night:
“It lacks credible arguments, and some have suggested that it appears to amount to little more than employment apartheid.”—[Official Report, 6 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 124.]
Conservative Members are highly sceptical of the Government’s attempt to describe a statement of values, but until we have seen it, how can we possibly judge the worth of that aspect of the constitutional renewal package? If, as we saw yesterday, the Government are clueless about their vision, how can they credibly set out a vision for the whole country? As the Labour-supporting historian, Tristan Hunt said:
“Rather than wasting time on a statement of inevitably vacuous values, ministers should focus on bedding down the reforms they have introduced… Given that the government is having enough trouble setting out its own vision, it really doesn’t need to take on the country’s as well.”
Thus we have a citizenship Bill, a citizenship review and a statement of values, but at least we have them, even if we have absolutely no idea what will be in them. That is better than the position on the coroners Bill, which is missing altogether from the Government’s legislative programme. As several of my hon. Friends have observed, it was in the Government’s draft legislative programme and it deals with an important issue. The Government promised the House a Bill on that subject four years ago and we are still waiting for it.
Here is a summary of the Government’s Queen’s Speech proposals so far: we have a coroners Bill that is dead on arrival; we have a Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill whose clauses are dying by the day as the Government are removing them, even though the Bill has barely been published; and we have a citizenship Bill that is with us only in spirit. Is it not clear that this is a Government with the life drained out? They are bereft of new ideas and making policy on the hoof. The single thing that characterises this Government is surely their incompetence.
The Lord Chancellor barely touched on the issue of prisons. So busy was he attacking our constitutional proposals that it no doubt suited him to gloss quickly over the present situation in our prisons. There is surely no greater index of the Government’s incompetence than their management of the prison system. They have systematically ignored successive warnings about overcrowding, failed to provide sufficient prison capacity, and presided over appalling overcrowding in our prisons—a quarter of them now have cells that are doubled or trebled up. That shows the level of overcrowding, which is impacting on the prison system’s ability to rehabilitate prisoners and deal with them properly.
What is the Government’s answer to the problem? It is not to provide short-term emergency capacity—certainly not: we have heard nothing about that. Their answer, which was instituted just as the Lord Chancellor took office with the Prime Minister alongside him, was the early release of offenders. About 8,500 offenders have now been released early as a consequence of that scheme, often before even the halfway point of their sentence. Of those, 1,500 have been violent offenders, and 120 crimes have been committed by offenders who should have been safely behind bars. What does that say about the Prime Minister’s claim that he wished to punish criminals? What does the Home Secretary have to say about the fact that 292 prisoners have been released from three prisons adjacent to her constituency in Redditch—more than in any other town in England and Wales apart from Doncaster?
Prisons are full to bursting point, and the Government should now tell us what they are going to do about that. Instead, we see precisely the wrong approach from them. Rather than providing sufficient capacity, they seek to fetter judicial discretion and prevent the judiciary from sending people to prison. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill would remove the ability of magistrates to suspend sentences. The Prisons Minister has suggested that he will consider giving guidance to the judiciary to reduce the use of custodial sentences.
We have a straightforward position: sentences should fit the crime, not prison capacity. It is up to the Government to ensure sufficient prison capacity to enable the judiciary to hand down sentences in accordance with the crimes presented to them. It is telling that judges are increasingly speaking out about the way in which their hands are tied in that respect. Newspapers reported this week that a frustrated judge, Timothy Mort, complained that he felt forced to hand down a suspended sentence and let an offender go due to the growing overcrowding in Britain’s prisons. He said to the defendant:
“In the current climate, when the prisons are full, I will have to suspend your sentence—
an option that will be taken away from him in any case under the Government’s proposals.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the Government’s early release scheme, which will see 25,000 offenders released in a full year, has been that at least 500 of the offenders released so far have been foreign national prisoners. So much for the Government’s pledge to remove those foreign national prisoners back to their country of origin. Not only have the Government failed to do that but they have released them early. How will the Government rebuild trust in politics if they make such pledges and then renege on them in such a grotesque manner?
Another issue on which the Lord Chancellor did not say as much as we expected was that of party funding. The Government have said that they are committed to a fair and transparent system of political party funding that does not disadvantage any party. How can they say that with a straight face? We regret the collapse of the cross-party talks on funding, but let us be clear about the cause of that collapse: the cause is the fact that the Labour party cannot kick its dependency on trade union funding. We support a comprehensive cap on donations, to apply to individuals, companies and trade unions. The Labour party, however, is unwilling to give up the £8 million of affiliation fees.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was smirking as he said that—he obviously did not believe a word that he said. As the record will show, Sir Hayden Phillips put forward a proposal, which was a negotiating position, that reflected accurately the position at which the three parties had arrived before that meeting—the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has attended every meeting, as have I, and the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has not attended a single one. The record will also show that it was a very late decision by the Conservative party leader to back away from a position on which we were very close to agreement that led to the talks being scuppered. The Conservative party was to blame, entirely and exclusively, for the collapse of those talks.
That sounds rather similar to the justification that the Prime Minister offered for failing to go to the country, having marched his troops to the top of the hill. It is totally unbelievable. Everyone knows that the reason why agreement is not possible is that the Labour party will not give up its trade union affiliation fees.
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. I would love to agree with him that this was similar to the disgraceful retreat from a general election, but in fact the Lord Chancellor was absolutely right in his description of the process that led to the breakdown of the talks, which was caused by the Conservatives walking away.
We cannot agree to a cap on donations which is not a comprehensive cap on donations. What the Government are seeking—not in the interests of the country but out of partisan self-interest, to coin a phrase—is an unequal cap that would not apply to £8 million worth of trade union affiliation fees. That is what they could not agree to, and that is what meant that the talks could not continue.
We are presented with the specious argument that affiliation fees should somehow not count as donations that should be capped, but everyone knows that control of those fees is in the hands of the union barons, not those of individuals. Everyone knows that in many unions, individual members must opt out rather than in. Everyone knows that union members have no real choice in where the funds are deployed, and everyone knows that in the general election of 2005 a majority of trade unionists voted for parties other than Labour. So how can the Labour party justify the single direction of those funds towards itself?
The hon. Gentleman may not understand that the current arrangements that we are all operating were amended on at least three occasions by the Conservatives, who told the Neill committee in 1998 that they had no further changes to make to arrangements that they regarded as entirely satisfactory.
If it is true that, as the hon. Gentleman claims, individual trade union members do not know about opting out, why have at least 20 per cent. of members of most large unions chosen to opt out—entirely voluntarily?
The Government have introduced changes requiring annual approval in relation to companies, but they always seek special arrangements in relation to the trade unions. What we are talking about is the unequal application of a cap.
The country will understand perfectly well that the Government’s position in this respect is totally untenable. A donation from a trade unionist is an individual donation, but a block donation from a trade union is not. The affiliation fees amount to a closed shop. They should be brought within the ambit of overall spending controls. If they are, agreement between the parties will be possible, but until the Labour party is willing to give up its addiction to trade union funding, it will not be possible to reach such an agreement.
I agree with my hon. Friend.
We will relish the opportunity to talk about this issue every day until the Government realise that it is doing them a great deal more damage than good in the eyes of the country to have effectively prevented any agreement on the control of party funding. Such controls must apply equally. We have all seen the way in which a communications allowance voted through by the Government, allowing an extra £10,000 worth of public spending, has been used by Labour Members for party-political purposes, for which they have had to apologise. I have with me a leaflet that was distributed by the Secretary of State for Transport; a Cabinet member, she has had to apologise for what was said in it. Public funds have been used to distribute a leaflet to her constituents in which she talks about the Labour Government investing
“so much in improving early years’ services”
“Labour’s commitment to investing in and modernising”—
I apologise to the Secretary of State for not having given notice, but that is as nothing compared with the offence committed by Labour party members in abusing the communications allowance in this way. They seek the continuance of trade union funding exempt from the controls that they believe should apply to individuals and companies, and the continuance of Government funding, which they have sought to abuse in distributing party political propaganda to their constituencies. We are happy to talk about this matter day after day, until the Government realise that they must approach such matters with the interests of the country at heart, rather than their own narrow partisan interests.
We do not believe that there should be a single extra penny of state funding for political parties until proper controls for all donors, including the trade unions, can be observed, because we have the interests of the taxpayer and the public at heart. We know what Members on the Government Benches have at heart: the interests of their party. That was made clear from a Press Association report of 14 December 2006 which contained the following quote:
“The Labour Party cannot accept a statutory uniform donation cap…It would also undermine the Labour Party federal structure”.
That is no reason not to accept a cap. We should not be considering the interests of party in this matter; we should be considering the interests of the public.
Restrictions on campaign contributions of the kind proposed by the Government are internationally unique; in no other country would similar restrictions be introduced. Not even in staunchly social democratic Sweden are the unions given such exemptions. This is a blatant attempt to gerrymander campaign finance; it is done for electoral gain and it will not wash.
Finally, I turn to terrorism and the contributions on it in the debate. While we have been debating the matter—with Members in all parts of the House expressing reservations about aspects of the Government’s proposals—the London assembly has passed a motion of no confidence in the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The Home Secretary now has an opportunity to reconsider her view on the matter. The commissioner’s position has become wholly untenable. Although we can talk as much as we like about measures to deal with the terrorist threat facing the country, there will be no confidence among Londoners or his staff while he remains in place. The Home Secretary has made a grave misjudgment in continuing to back him. She should now have regard to what the London assembly has said, and review her position on the matter.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), among others, raised the issue of intercept evidence. I point out to the Home Secretary that I dealt with the Serious Crime Bill in Committee, and that a provision to allow the use of intercept evidence in trials—inserted in that Bill in the other place as a result of an amendment moved by Lord Lloyd—was removed by the Government on the basis that this matter could be considered by the Joint Committee. We argued at the time that a close and genuine look had to be taken at the use of intercept evidence, and we hope that that remains the case. It is clear, as my right hon. and learned Friend and others said, that intercept evidence is used in international practice in dealing not just with counter-terrorism, but with serious crime such as gangland crime. It remains extraordinary and anomalous that we in this country take a purist view and do not allow the use of such evidence.
However, the issue that really preoccupied the House today was detention without trial. We look forward to hearing the Home Secretary’s answer to the powerful case made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary against the Government’s proposal. She will have a very hard job answering objections that were raised in all parts of the House to the Government’s apparent proposal to extend the period of detention. They must demonstrate that they are acting in the interests of the country in putting it forward, and they must set out far more convincingly than they have so far done the case for extension beyond 28 days. The absence of that case was exposed well today in all parts of the House.
Here, there is an irony. On the one hand, this Queen’s Speech sets out proposals that will considerably increase the time that people can spend in custody without being charged—effectively, a form of internment. Simultaneously, it sets out measures that seek to reduce the prison population. The Government are seeking to let people who have been convicted of serious crimes out of prison before the end of their sentence not just for ideological reasons, but because they have failed to provide sufficient prison capacity. That is indeed a rich irony, and I contend that this is an uncomfortable position for any Government to be in, but a particularly uncomfortable one for a Government led by a Prime Minister who lectured us just two weeks ago about the importance of liberty.
This Government have demonstrated in every other respect that they do not have the interests of the victims of crime at heart. We have seen the end of custody licence and the early release of criminals, 18 days before the end of their sentence. We have had automatic release after half a sentence has been served, and the restriction of the use of open-ended sentences. I understand that the Home Secretary objects to that, but that the Lord Chancellor has proposed that those sentences be restricted. Perhaps the Home Secretary could set out her position on indeterminate sentences for public protection. There was also the extension of summary justice—taking cases out of the courts and putting administrative justice in the hands of police officers. Moreover, more than 1,000 serious offences have been committed by tagged criminals. Cars have been given to prisoners in open conditions, including 33 murderers. Magistrates have been stripped of their sentencing powers.
The story of this new Government is that they are introducing measure after measure that is softening their stance on crime, and they are doing so for one reason: their incompetence in failing to provide adequate prison capacity. Recidivism rates have been driven up, and re-offending has increased by 10 per cent. The costs of crime have grown enormously and it is time for a fundamental change of approach. Regrettably, we will not get it from this Queen’s Speech or in the next two years.
Today’s debate has been wide-ranging. Many valuable contributions have been made from both sides of the House, although I must address the comments made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). First, I find it pretty shocking that he would feel it appropriate in a debate such as this to fling around accusations about the spending of fellow Members of Parliament with seemingly no willingness to back them up. Secondly, and even more shockingly, he used a debate such as this to call again, as has the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), for the removal of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The Metropolitan police and its Commissioner lead this country’s fight against the terror threat. I think all accept that the threat is serious in scale and nature, and is growing. It is of course right that over the past two years the Metropolitan police and others have worked hard to learn the lessons of the tragic events of 22 July 2005, but responsible politicians should set that in context.
The context is that 15 days after the deaths of 52 people in London and the day after another potential attack on Londoners, the Metropolitan police was dealing with the largest manhunt that it had faced. Politicians in this House, and Opposition politicians in the House and in the Greater London authority who have called for the sacking of the Commissioner, will never have to face the split-second decisions in life-and-death policing operations that the police do. We should consider soberly and seriously the impact that our statements have on such people. I believe that responsible politicians should back those who are protecting us against the terrorist threat.
A range of good contributions were made today, and I want to mention some of them. In a wide-ranging contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) covered many of the elements of the Gracious Speech. I disagreed when he referred to those superb servants of Ministers, Parliamentary Private Secretaries, as a menace. None of those present today deserved those comments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) made, as she frequently does, a well-informed and important contribution. She touched on forced marriage and some of the requirements that we will need to consider carefully as we ensure that in this area no element of compulsion or pressure is being placed on people. She spoke wisely, as she always does on this issue.
I was not present when my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) described me as the new, human and attractive face of the Home Office. That is probably a career-limiting comment, if ever there was one—[Hon. Members: “For whom?”] For myself. More seriously, he also agreed with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) in arguing the case for allowing intercept evidence. I would like to take this opportunity, particularly with regard to the comments made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), to deal with the allegation made by the shadow Home Secretary that somehow I had sought to pre-empt the decision of the Privy Council review. That is absolutely not the case and I should like to place on record my thanks to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and others who are undertaking that work with diligence.
What of course was actually reported in The Times was the Government’s view that one point that needs to be borne in mind when taking a decision about the use of intercept as evidence is the extent to which it is possible to do so given the risks to interception capabilities and techniques, including from exposure. That was not briefed to a newspaper, but was included in the terms of reference of the review. People should understand those terms of reference and that they were what was reported in The Times.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) made a thoughtful speech, especially about how victims are judged in sex offence cases. I agree with her that one of the areas that we need to look at very closely, as we redouble our focus on violent crime, is serious sexual violence, especially increasing the number of convictions in rape cases.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) rightly highlighted the benefits of neighbourhood policing in his constituency, where crime is 20 per cent. lower than the national average. Neighbourhood policing teams will be in every community by next spring. I remember the visit that I paid to my hon. Friend’s constituency just before he became a Member of Parliament, when I was pleased to view the work of the local neighbourhood policing team, backed up by Government investment in CCTV. That is very much part of what Government investment and policing developments will deliver everywhere.
In a wide-ranging speech, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) covered a variety of issues raised in the Gracious Speech and made important points about the role of youth work and schools in the prevention of crime and the creation of opportunities for young people.
The first responsibility of Government is to ensure the security of the country and its citizens—tackling crime in our communities, addressing the threat of terrorism, strengthening our borders and protecting people’s identity. We have made good progress in each of those areas but, as the measures in the Gracious Speech made clear, we must continue to anticipate, and respond to, the changes and the challenges that have the potential to weaken our security in the future, including the dangers of an increased terrorist threat; the challenges, as well as the opportunities, of global migration; and new and disturbing developments in criminal activity. Those are the focus of the provisions outlined in the Gracious Speech.
On crime, over the last decade, we have shown that we are not afraid to act to put in place the protections we need. Our policies are having a real and dramatic effect, and they are being felt in every community across the country. Compared with 10 years ago, crime has been cut by a third. Violent crime has been cut by 31 per cent. Burglary and car crime have been halved. The chances of being a victim of crime are at their lowest levels for 25 years. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice said, those are not the symptoms of a broken society. To suggest otherwise is just plain wrong, and I think that even Opposition Members know that.
We have not been afraid to take action, including investing in the police, building confidence in communities and introducing tough measures to fight crime and the scourge of antisocial behaviour. We have had to do that despite the obstacles that Opposition Members have put in our path. They voted against tougher sentences for murder and sexual and violent offences. They voted against the ban on handguns and against the five-year minimum sentences for unlawful possession of a firearm. They opposed powers to crack down on disorderly drinking. They told us that antisocial behaviour orders were a “gimmick”. They should tell that to the nine out of 10 local councils that have seen concerns about antisocial behaviour drop significantly in the last few years.
We have also made good progress on our promise to increase police numbers, which are up more than 14,000 since 1997, with an additional 16,000 community support officers.
The Home Secretary mentioned the proposed 16,000 additional police community support officers. Can she explain why the Government’s manifesto promised to deliver 24,000 PCSOs? What has happened to the 8,000 who appear to have been lost? She now says that only 16,000 will be delivered.
They are not the “proposed” 16,000 police community support officers, but the 16,000 police community support officers. In 1997, their number was zero. Alongside neighbourhood police officers, they are the people who in every neighbourhood are providing the visible, responsive policing that will make a difference.
On crime, policing and antisocial behaviour, on immigration and identity and on counter-terrorism, the Government have put protections in place for good reason. We will extend those protections through the measures announced in the Gracious Speech. Their ultimate aim is to support and amplify our liberties and freedom—the freedom for everybody to get on with their lives as they want in safety and within the law.
That way of life and those freedoms remain under threat. The threat from terrorism is serious and sustained, and is growing in complexity and extent. As the director general of the Security Service set out in his speech on Monday, we are currently contending with 30 plots and 200 groupings or networks comprising about 2,000 individuals. So far this year, thanks to the police and the intelligence services, 33 individuals have been convicted of terrorism offences in 10 separate cases with 15 guilty pleas. According to the director general,
“there remains a steady flow of new recruits to the extremist cause”
and he does not think
“that this problem has yet reached its peak.”
In bringing forward the counter-terrorism Bill, I want to act with proportion and precaution to address the threats that we face as a country. Of course, legislation is not the only answer to the problem; that is why we are providing extra resources to work with local government and faith and community groups—to prevent young people from turning to terrorism in the first place. As part of the comprehensive spending review, we have made extra resources available to the police and the security services to enable them to investigate and counter terrorism.
One of the good things that the Government have done, although they have not said so explicitly, is that they have stopped using terminology such as “Muslim fundamentalism”, “Islamism” and “Islamic extremism”. That is a good move, because I am sure that the vast majority of the Muslim community could not help but feel defensive when those terms were used.
However, it is not enough simply to say “terrorists” or “extremists” because we know that people say, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, and all the rest of it. May I suggest to the Home Secretary, as helpfully as I can, that the Government should use the phrase “unIslamic extremists”? That would show the type of terrorist we were talking about without putting them in the vanguard of the Muslim community, which is where they want to be.
I am not sure that I agree with that particular term. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a serious and thoughtful point about the impact of language on those who are part of our joint, shared work against the minority who choose to turn to terrorism. He makes the important point that language, alongside resources, legislation and other prevention work, is part of our work to tackle the problem.
We will not back away from legislation where we think it necessary. That is why, over the summer, my colleagues and I have consulted widely on possible measures for inclusion in the Bill. We have had many useful meetings and received many useful insights from hon. Members, law enforcement agencies and legal opinion—and, very importantly, from faith and community groups and those who represent the views of all our communities. Earlier this week, I was able to circulate draft clauses on key elements of the Bill to shadow spokesmen and to the Chairmen of the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I will try to be receptive to other proposals that they and other hon. Members may wish to make, and I will encourage direct access to officials on the detail of the proposals that we will place before the House.
I believe that we can secure agreement on a package of further measures to tackle terrorism and to deal justly with those found guilty of terrorism offences. They will include measures to enhance the investigation of terrorists and their activities by ensuring that the police and intelligence agencies can make full use of information and data; to strengthen prosecutions against terrorist suspects by allowing post-charge questioning; to improve public protection by strengthening arrangements for monitoring convicted terrorists after release from prison; and, I hope, to ensure that the police have sufficient time to investigate and to charge suspects.
In the consultation and elsewhere, I have set out why I believe that the time is now right to consider the extension of pre-charge detention—the period of time available to police officers to investigate, gather the evidence and question in order to be able to charge—beyond the current limit of 28 days. Others, too, have spelled out their view that this is the right time to consider it. Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, has said that our proposals
“will do much to bolster our ability to confront the threat. Importantly they seek to balance the liberty of suspects with the need for security and recognise that there may be occasions when 28 days will not be sufficient.”
Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has said that
“there is a real risk that an extremely serious terrorism event could take place involving a large number of terrorists in which it would be difficult, if not beyond possible, to carry out all the necessary inquiries within a period of 28 days.”
For understandable reasons, people want to focus on the maximum figure for the extension of pre-charge detention. I believe that it is right that Parliament should set this figure, but the first question for hon. Members to answer is whether we are willing to take the decision to provide the opportunity for police and investigators to go beyond 28 days in that pre-charge period. The trend towards an increasing complexity of plots, an increasingly international range of terrorist activity and an increasing amount of information that has to be sifted and analysed means that we have to consider whether we have the right protections in place and the right ability to carry out those investigations.
I am sorry—the Chief Whip slightly threw me by suggesting that I had only two minutes left; however, the good news is that I have an hour and two minutes.
The hon. Gentleman jumps to what I would consider to be the third question before we have identified the answers to the first and second. I believe that there should be a maximum period set by this House, but the first argument is whether and how we go beyond 28 days. We have set out in the consultation document the options for how that could be done, and I am determined to approach the provisions in a spirit of genuine openness with hon. Members. In that spirit, I turn to a series of questions that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden raised, as he has previously, about the detail of the investigation into the alleged airline plot. I spelt out the answers to those questions in a letter to the right hon. Gentleman earlier this week. I accept that he might not have been able to read and digest the information yet—
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has not received the letter yet, but it does set out the answers to which I have referred. I have also answered questions posed by him in the Home Affairs Committee that related to some of the cases that he mentioned.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden claimed that there was a delay in the investigation. I asked the Metropolitan police for their view, and they tell me that they are satisfied that there were no unnecessary delays in interviewing, charging or releasing suspects. Individuals were detained only while inquiries that provided realistic evidential opportunity were conducted.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden also alleged that the police had sufficient evidence to bring charges before they actually did so. The police report to me that, in the alleged airline plot, the decision to charge was made by the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS provided a team of dedicated senior prosecutors to review the evidence daily, and it authorised charges based on its assessment of whether the case had reached the necessary evidential threshold.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden also suggested that resources had not been used efficiently, especially because of shift working. The Metropolitan police inform me that, during times of peak demand—and including during the investigation into the alleged airline plot—they run a shift system to process the product or exhibits recovered during the numerous searches that are carried out. However, they tell me that they do not carry out forensic searches of premises or scenes on a shift pattern. There are a number of reasons for that, one of them being that, historically, best evidence has been achieved when one officer has control of a scene from start to finish. In other words, that is the most effective way to gather information.
I have copied the letter to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden to other hon. Members, and will make sure that the information is available in the Library. I do not want the House to be in any doubt: I will seek to build a consensus wherever that is possible, but I am determined to act to address the grave and growing threat posed by terrorism to our safety and security. I am not prepared to wait until further attempts are made to bring atrocity, panic and recrimination to our streets and communities.
Will the Home Secretary return to the vexed question of the number of days for which a suspect may be detained? We heard her being tested a great deal about that on the radio this morning. She is not naming a figure, but it is widely known that something like 56 days will be the Government’s preferred option. If that is right, and if the consultations that she has undertaken suggest that would be sufficient, will she say why, two years ago, Labour Members were whipped to approve a limit of 90 days? That appears to be about twice the amount that is required.
While I am on my feet, may I tell the Home Secretary that I said earlier that she was the human and attractive face of the Home Office? She was not here at the time, so I must add that I was making a comparison with her predecessors. [Laughter.]
I thought that the rapprochement between my hon. and learned Friend and me was too good to last, but I can tell him that the Government have not decided on a figure of 56 days. As I have explained, we are seeking to achieve a consensus on that. Moreover, I see the argument as being about whether, and how, we provide the ability to extend detention beyond 28 days. It is not about whether a period of 56 or 90 days, or whatever maximum might be determined, is appropriate. However, I believe that Parliament should set the final figure, and will continue to work with colleagues to find a consensus.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that, if the detention period is to be extended beyond 28 days, the House should have compelling evidence that it is absolutely essential? Will she bear it in mind that the 28-day period was agreed without a vote once the 90-day proposal was defeated? No one in the Commons voted for less than 28 days and, despite its misgivings, the House of Lords likewise agreed to extend the existing 14-day period to 28 days. That shows that a consensus exists about the matter that, in my view, it would be quite wrong to break without compelling evidence. So far, I have not seen any such evidence, and I assume that that goes for all Members of the House.
When I appeared before the Home Affairs Committee, I spent a considerable time exemplifying my argument and providing evidence to my hon. Friend and others that there is a trend of growing complexity in the material gathered, the international links and the scale of the investigations, which I think—as do others, as I have identified today—provides a strong argument that there is likely to be a requirement for a period beyond 28 days.
My hon. Friend and other Members appear to be asking me to put us in a position where the evidence we provide is the inability of the police to bring a charge against a suspected terrorist because they run up against the buffers of time—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend says, “Exactly”, but I do not want to be in a position where a terrorist suspect is held up to the limit of the existing provisions, is released because there has been insufficient time to build a case and then goes on to perpetrate a terrorist act. That is the question that all Members must answer. If such a case arose, Members and the general public would rightly ask why the individual had been released, why we had not studied the trend of terrorist activity and investigations, and why we had not acted to provide greater investigatory powers when we could still have done so. That is the first question that Members have a responsibility to answer.
If, as the Home Secretary says, there is a trend of growing complexity, when two years ago the Government recommended that their Back Benchers should vote for 90 days, surely there is a case for an even longer period now—unless the Home Secretary admits that the Government were wrong to recommend 90 days two years ago.
The Home Secretary is obviously not about to answer the straightforward question put by our Scottish nationalist friend, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), but will she consider this point? Does she not accept that her approach to the question this evening, like her approach to it this morning, rather implies that the Government are hoping to get as long as they can out of a process of political negotiation? That cannot be a satisfactory approach. The background is that the Government went for 90 days but had to settle for 28 days, which, in my recollection, was a figure more or less plucked out of the air. If we are to reach a rational solution to this important question, the Government must consider how to put together some evidence for the length of time that might be required in a complex, difficult, multi-defendant case. At the moment, the Home Secretary sounds like somebody negotiating the price of a commodity, inviting her critics to put up the first offer, whereupon she will try to bargain to get more. This is a question of civil liberties, and that is not a sensible way to approach a big issue of criminal justice.