Debate (3rd Day)
Moved on Wednesday 18 November by
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:
“Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament”.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to be opening today’s debate on Her Majesty’s gracious Speech, not least since it is usually the lot of Ministry of Justice Ministers to close this debate. Today, we discuss the Government’s proposals on home affairs, justice and constitutional affairs for the final Session of the Parliament.
Such Sessions can often seem to generate more heat than light. Our contention is that the Bills we are debating today show that the Government remain as committed as ever to delivering a fair and just society.
Noble Lords will recall the series of books by the late, great journalist, Mr Anthony Sampson, entitled The Anatomy of Britain. This series was periodically updated and the last edition, published in 2004, was called Who Runs this Place? The Government’s answer to this question is unequivocal: the UK belongs to its people. The legislation that this House will consider during this Session and debate today says that loud and clear, putting power into the hands of the people and helping to make our communities safer and more secure.
Today, we are considering two major pieces of legislation: the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill and the Crime and Security Bill. In addition, we are looking at two other Bills, less contentious perhaps but none the less valuable for that: the Bribery Bill and the Third Party (Rights against Insurers) Bill. In another Bill, the Children, Schools and Families Bill, there will be clauses dealing with the transparency of family proceedings in court.
If the House agrees, the Third Party (Rights against Insurers) Bill will follow the new procedure for uncontroversial but worthy Law Commission Bills. It has already been used successfully on one such Bill.
I turn to the Crime and Security Bill. I am proud to be part of a Government who have had such a positive impact on the criminal justice system. Crime is down by more than a third since 1997. The chances of being a victim are at their lowest since records began in 1981. Reoffending is down by 20 per cent since 1981 and youth reoffending is down by nearly 24 per cent.
We have reformed the penal system, with 75 per cent more serious and violent offenders in prison and a modernised prison estate with nearly 25,000 more places. We have continued to put the needs of victims at the centre of the criminal justice system. We have trebled the money that we provide to Victim Support, introduced new protection for victims of forced marriage, appointed Sara Payne as the first independent Victims’ Champion and published her report, which we are studying carefully. We have also announced proposals for a new national victims’ service. Eighty-three per cent of witnesses and victims have expressed satisfaction with the criminal justice system.
We are better engaging communities in criminal justice by giving them a say in the types of community payback projects that offenders carry out and allowing them to see justice being done through the use of high-visibility jackets. In 2008, 8.4 million hours of free labour were provided to benefit communities by offenders sentenced to unpaid work. Such work was valued at £48.7 million.
The Crime and Security Bill builds on these reforms. It will protect communities by making parents take responsibility for their child’s anti-social behaviour. The Bill will introduce new powers to help victims break the cycle of domestic violence.
It may assist the House if I summarise the main provisions of the Bill. It will help to make our communities safer, first, by making families take responsibility for their children’s anti-social behaviour by assessing parenting needs for young people aged 10 to 15 years and imposing parenting orders where they have breached their ASBOs. Secondly, gang injunctions for under-18s will make our communities safer and prevent young people from being sucked into a life of crime. Furthermore, it will prevent crimes against vulnerable people by tackling domestic violence with orders issued by police officers requiring alleged perpetrators to leave their premises for a fixed period of time, so victims feel safer in their own homes rather than seeking refuge elsewhere, as well as making sure that airguns are safely locked up and out of the reach of children.
It will also provide for criminal and exploitative markets to be closed down by preventing the use of unauthorised mobile phones in prison and so stopping organised criminals and terrorists from being able sometimes to continue their criminal enterprises from behind bars, as well as having licensed wheel clampers to prevent unscrupulous companies from exploiting their position by imposing exorbitant fines. Moreover, it will ensure justice for victims and families by protecting the public by making sure the right people are on our DNA database by indefinitely retaining the DNA records of convicted offenders and holding the DNA of those who are acquitted for a proportionate amount of time. Furthermore, we will retrospectively collect DNA from serious violent and sexual offenders, allowing us to take DNA samples from sex offenders returning to the UK following conviction overseas and to collect DNA from convicted offenders who are back in our communities.
I turn to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, already progressing in the other place and carried over from the previous Session. The Bill is a key package of measures designed to rebuild trust in our democratic and constitutional settlement by reinforcing the principles of transparency, accountability and probity across government. Noble Lords will hardly need to be reminded that a draft Bill was scrutinised in depth by a Joint Committee of both Houses and other Select Committees. I put on record again the Government’s gratitude to the members of the Joint Committee for their work, especially Mr Michael Jabez Foster MP, the chair, and the Members of the other place and this House who took part in the committee. We look forward to hearing the contributions this evening from the noble Lords who served on it.
The Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill continues the process of constitutional reform and further strengthens the role of Parliament in relation to the Executive. The Bill will do this by enshrining in statute the key principles by which the Civil Service must function: integrity, impartiality, objectivity and honesty. Secondly, it will provide greater clarity in how the Government conduct international relations by placing in statute the process by which Parliament has its say about the ratification of international treaties. Part 6 of the Bill will provide protection for the salaries of judicial office holders in certain tribunals and make provisions for a new method of obtaining medical assessments for candidates for judicial office. The Bill will also provide Parliament with more consistent and transparent information about public spending.
Your Lordships will no doubt take a particular interest in the important measures to ensure that there is a robust disciplinary regime in the House of Lords. The Bill will allow Peers to resign, or to be expelled from this place. It will also allow Peers to disclaim their peerage after resigning or being removed from the House. I also underline the Government’s firm commitment to abolish the hereditary by-election process in the House of Lords. Doubtless, noble Lords will wish to reflect on them in particular detail, but I underline the fact that those hereditary Peers who are currently Members of the House will not lose their seats. The Bill abolishes only the mechanism which allows further hereditary Peers to enter this House solely on the basis of their hereditary title. It does not seem to serve any of us to have a seat in Parliament decided by such minuscule electorates. We do not believe that the current situation is tenable. In this day and age it is not appropriate for new Members to join this House solely as the result of a hereditary title. No doubt we will debate this in due course.
As the gracious Speech made clear, we will be publishing draft provisions on comprehensive reform of your Lordships’ House. It seems self-evident that as we move towards a second Chamber more aligned with a modern democracy, it is unacceptable that one House should be supplemented with further hereditary Peers, however much we value—and we do—the contribution that the elected hereditary Peers continue to make to this place. The publication of a draft will also maintain the momentum towards comprehensive reform, to which the Government are as committed as ever.
There is a more general point here. The Bill is before us at a time when it is more important than ever that we make every effort to rebuild trust in our democratic and constitutional settlement. Continuing reform of your Lordships’ House is at one with this priority. I therefore look forward to the debates on that Bill with some interest.
I turn to the Bribery Bill, which was introduced into your Lordships’ House at the end of last week. It is part of a longer-term strategy for addressing bribery. The Bill is a revision of the draft Bill published in March, itself formed around a set of recommendations of the Law Commission and subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses. The Joint Committee on the draft Bill published its report in July. The Bill reflects the Government’s response to the report of the Joint Committee, which was published alongside the Bill last Friday. I record my gratitude to the Law Commission. We are also indebted to the Joint Committee, chaired by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, for its thorough examination of the issues and its helpful recommendations for improving the Bill. I note that three of the members of the committee—the noble Lords, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Williamson of Horton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lyell of Markyate—are down to speak in this debate. We look forward to hearing from them on this matter if they choose to speak about it.
Bribery is a global problem that is an insidious threat to ethical standards in public life and in the commercial field. The fight against bribery internationally is the fight for fair trade and overseas development, supporting access to justice and to open markets.
In recent years, we have seen some progress in the fight against foreign bribery. The United Kingdom ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption in 2006. The number of bribery investigations taken up by the SFO has increased, assisted by a properly resourced City of London Police overseas anti-corruption unit. We have seen recent successful prosecutions for foreign bribery of both individuals and corporate bodies. But there is no room for complacency here. As the challenges evolve, we need to develop the right tools to tackle them effectively. The Bill will provide a modern and consolidated criminal law of bribery, and I hope that it is supported on that basis. We believe that that law will provide our investigators and prosecutors with the tools they need to address bribery in business and public life and at home and abroad.
Modernisation of the law in this field is a priority, not only to deal effectively with those who offer bribes on the one hand or accept them on the other in our business or public sectors, but also to reinforce transparency and accountability in our international business transactions. It is vital that we work with our international partners to eliminate the corruption that undermines economic progress and development around the world. The offences of bribery of a foreign public official and the failure of a commercial organisation to prevent bribery reflect these priorities. However, I argue that business has nothing to fear from these provisions—indeed, it has much to gain. Clarity of the law will assist commercial organisations in assessing the suitability of their systems and should bring efficiency savings through, for example, reducing the cost of risk assessments. The enhancement of the UK’s reputation as a consequence of our reforms should allow UK business to compete more successfully in international markets. The Bill sends out a clear message that the UK is taking the necessary measures to empower our investigators, prosecutors and courts to tackle bribery effectively wherever and in whatever context it occurs.
I shall say a few words about the Third Parties (Rights against Insurers) Bill. This is a modest technical Bill, which replaces the current legislation covering that area that dates from the 1930s. The Bill will modernise and simplify the procedure by which claimants can recover money from the insurer of an insolvent wrongdoer. By agreement of the usual channels, the Bill will be introduced as the second Bill in the trial of the new procedure in this House for suitable Law Commission Bills. I am grateful to all sides of the House for their support for the use of that procedure for this Bill.
The three main benefits of the Bill are: first, that legal costs and delay will be reduced by enabling the claimant to sue the insurer direct without first suing the wrongdoer; secondly, that claimants will have better rights to obtain information about insurance policies earlier in the process; and thirdly, that it will include a wider range of insolvency and insolvency-type situations than the present law allows for.
This will be a short Session, and the legislation I have outlined today will give us plenty to get our teeth into. I have no doubt that the House will wish to consider and scrutinise the Bills that we introduce with its usual care and attention. But short though the Session may be, the legislation that we will introduce is part of vital reforms to continue our work of the past 12 years. We are attempting to make our communities more secure, enhance our democracy and rebalance how power is held and by whom. We look forward to hearing the contributions of noble Lords today and in our debates in the coming months. If I may pick out two speeches that we anticipate with more interest than any others, they are perhaps the two maiden speeches that we will hear today—the first from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol and the second from the noble Baroness, Lady O'Loan. We look forward to their speeches.
My Lords, it is a privilege to reply to the Motion on the humble Address. Earlier this year, the noble Lord, Lord West, made a comment that characterises this Government. When in your Lordships’ House there was a response to the updated national security strategy and the cybersecurity strategy, which were published in March, he said that he was impressed by the speed with which I and colleagues in this House had managed to read and absorb those documents. What does that tell us? Sadly, I fear that it does not say anything about our capacity for speed reading. Short Session or no, it is the paucity of the Government’s policy in important areas that allows us to absorb the Government’s proposals and legislation so quickly.
Related to that, in some areas the Government are taking their cue from these Benches. That is very flattering, but they are not doing a very good job of it. Why do I say that? Before I go on to talk about the Crime and Security Bill in particular, I should like to say that my noble friend Lord Henley will cover the justice and constitutional issues later.
The Crime and Security Bill is an example of the Government following our lead, but not doing it very well, and tidying up problems that they have caused in previous years. Take, for example, the proposals to reduce police bureaucracy. In January last year, we on these Benches said that we would scrap the stop and search forms in their entirety. The Government are trying to follow suit but, as ever, are not quite meeting the target that we set them. In July 2008, the Prime Minister pledged the following:
“We are clearing the decks, cutting the red tape, cutting back on bureaucracy, making it possible for policemen and women to spend far more time on the beat answering people’s inquiries, in touch with local communities—a visible presence on the beat so that more and more people will see a policeman or woman there and able to help them”.
How very desirable; no one disputes the desirability and importance of this. However, the Government’s own figures show that just 14 per cent of all police officers’ time is spent on patrol compared with 22 per cent of their time spent on paperwork. It was recently revealed that more than a third of all offences reported to the police are not investigated; they are dismissed as unsolvable in a process of screening out, which decides what crimes are worthy of attendance and action. One has the impression that form-filling to screen out an investigation is a higher priority than getting on with solving a crime.
In September, the Home Secretary told the Police Superintendents’ Association that the Crime and Security Bill,
“will take the first steps towards radically slimming down the form”,
for stop and search incidents. He said that the information that officers are forced to record when they stop and search a suspect could be reduced from 10 points to just two or three. He added that the changes could save up to 200,000 hours of police work every day. But in fact this Bill will reduce reporting requirements only at the margin; seven rather than 10 items of information will still have to be recorded, a reduction of three only. This means that the number of hours saved will be evidently much fewer than the Home Secretary’s projected 200,000. Why are the Government introducing a half measure rather than abolishing the forms completely? The Home Secretary’s calls for the police to visit every victim of crime sound hollow. I do not dispute that the public may indeed welcome the police visiting them, but what they really want is a proper and successful investigation.
There is a more fundamental problem with the Government’s programme. Over what will have been 13 years in power, Labour has allowed a society to develop that is characterised by national and personal insecurity. It has tried, and continues to try, to tackle this insecurity by developing an intrusive state and focusing on technical fixes. It does this rather than dealing with the root causes of insecurity: societal breakdown and a lack of national cohesion.
The lack of national cohesion brings me on to the terrorist threat. It is a threat that is still real. Although there was a reduction in the threat level earlier this year, for the first time since the appalling attacks of 7/7, this was a reflection primarily of the work to address the physical vulnerability of areas such as crowded places and the successes of our intelligence and security agencies, which I congratulate, in disrupting plots and networks; it was not because of a reduction in the drivers of terrorism. The real problem was, and remains, radicalisation.
One of the reasons why people are vulnerable to radicalisation and extremism is that the Government have failed to promote shared values and to make it clear that citizens have responsibilities alongside their rights. This is exemplified year on year by the increase in anti-social behaviour, domestic violence and other crime. In his opening remarks, the Minister mentioned some crime statistics, but he did not mention the figures relating to violent crime, which is still on the rise. There has, for instance, been a 68 per cent increase in recorded drug offences, which relate to and often involve violence. Domestic violence accounts for 14 per cent—I repeat, 14 per cent—of violent incidents. It also involves more repeat victims than any other crime. One can hardly imagine what goes on in some homes. There also has been an upsurge in alcohol-related violent crime.
In 2005, the then Home Secretary said that his party would “eliminate” anti-social behaviour by 2010—next year. Why does the Government’s own crime adviser say that they have let people down on anti-social behaviour? Why has the current Home Secretary said that the Government have coasted on the problem? Why do fewer than half the adults surveyed for the British Crime Survey believe that the police and local councils are dealing effectively with anti-social behaviour? How can there be community cohesion or inclusivity in such a context? It is an appalling commentary on what Labour has achieved—on the nature of the society that it has allowed to develop, if not encouraged—that many of the measures in the Bill are actually needed.
There have been no fewer than 27 policing and crime Bills since this Government came to office. Clearly, Labour did not get it right first time. Since then, delivery, compared with legislation—and there is a very legislative-rich approach—has been far from satisfactory. So much for Tony Blair’s pledge to be,
“tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”.
It is not just the Government’s failure to deliver against previous pledges that makes us question whether what is being proposed will ever be implemented properly. I return to my previous point that there is a more fundamental problem with the Government’s approach, which is that it does not tackle the root causes of insecurity—this business of the “causes of crime”.
In some ways, the Government recognise this and are trying to backtrack, realising that the existing system of anti-social behaviour orders, for instance, is not up to the task initially set. We on these Benches have pointed out numerous problems with this system. For example, it takes months for an order to come into force, orders are in place only after reoffending and they rely on appropriate parental authority and support for enforcement when, obviously, this authority and support are not always present and forthcoming. We know that unchecked minor crimes and signs of disorder lead to more anti-social behaviour and more serious crime. Small crime tends to lead to big crime.
How do we fill the gap in the existing system? Quick action is needed, which is why we on these Benches have proposed that the police be given new powers, such as the ability to put in place curfew or grounding orders, removing young troublemakers from the streets rather than simply dispersing them, or confiscating temporarily a young troublemaker’s possessions, such as their bike or mobile phone. We welcome the fact that the Government are approaching this issue, but it is too little, too late.
More should be done on this overall approach. For some time, research has shown that family circumstances can drive people to crime. There is a clear correlation between the propensity to offend when young and the likelihood of committing crime later in life. This is all part of the pattern of smaller crime leading to bigger crime. Why has it taken the Government so long to realise—it is welcome that they realise it—that giving a child an ASBO is likely to indicate a problem with family circumstances and parenting? One has to ask why these assessments have not happened before. It is not just family breakdown that can set young people on the conveyor belt to crime; it is also things such as education failure and welfare dependency. What is missing from the Government’s proposal is a comprehensive partnership approach with all the different groups and organisations that have a role in preventing criminality from arising in the first place.
Closely related to the issue of anti-social behaviour is that of gang-related violence. Young people committing anti-social acts of minor criminality may well be those who later become integral members of more serious gangs—another case of small crimes leading to bigger ones. Gang-related violence was discussed extensively during debates on the Policing and Crime Act that we have just passed. The new Bill seeks to extend the existing provisions to cover people under 18. One wonders why it could not have been done all in one.
I have two further questions. First, should it not be possible to tackle gang behaviour under, or by applying common sense to, the plethora of existing laws? One wonders why we have to put everything in statute. Secondly, any effective policy aimed at curbing gang activity must take account of the spectrum of gang organisation in the UK, which ranges from peer groups, through relatively durable groupings, to organised crime. I am not sure that the Government’s proposals will tackle the whole spectrum. I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on where the focus of the Bill lies and whether it will cover the whole spectrum that needs attention.
There are similar problems with other proposals in the Crime and Security Bill. For example, domestic violence protection orders are long overdue, but they are only temporary. I come back to the point that the extent of domestic violence in this country is very serious. There are real questions about how the orders can be effectively enforced. We will watch the Government’s trials closely to see what happens when the temporary orders expire—what is the next act? More important, how will the Government tackle the causes of domestic violence? I come back to the issue of needing to get under a situation that leads to the commission of violent acts.
We may in this Session be dealing with some symptoms of a broken society, but in other areas action is long overdue. I give as an example the new offence of possessing an unauthorised mobile phone in prison, which the Minister mentioned. It must be common sense that this should be an offence. It is already an offence to smuggle a mobile phone into a prison. Some prisons have rules against their possession. Therefore, how can it be that it is not already an offence to possess a mobile phone in a prison? Have the Government made an assessment of what the value of the new offence will be and, particularly as the existing offence has not stopped phones getting into prisons, how they will ensure that this now happens? Would it not be more effective to jam mobile phone signals in prisons, preventing the use of phones entirely, as has been suggested by the chairman of the Wandsworth prison independent monitoring board? It would make phones pointless if they could not get a signal.
In other areas we are dealing with a by-product of the Government’s tendency to treat people as guilty until they are proven innocent—the result of Labour’s desire for technical fixes to our insecurity. It is telling that half of all offences go unreported because people believe that nothing can or will be done or—I stress this point—because they believe that they may end up entangled with the police.
The DNA database is a good example and one that has been debated extensively in your Lordships’ House. It is well known that the Conservatives would follow the Scottish system, in which samples would continue to be taken from those suspected of a crime and retained throughout the course of any investigation. When an adult is convicted of a recordable offence, DNA should indeed be retained indefinitely. However, no DNA samples or profiles should be retained where criminal proceedings initiated against an adult did not result in a conviction. The only exception to that general rule would be where a person was charged with a serious offence comprising certain crimes of violence or of a sexual nature. In these cases, DNA would be retained up to a maximum of five years. It is not clear why, for example, there is a difference of one year in certain of the Government’s new proposals.
I should like to probe the Government’s proposals in one other respect. What is the evidential base for them, and has this been peer-reviewed, as in the case of the Scottish system? I understand that the evidence that informed the proposals is based on an analysis of arrests to arrests, rather than arrests to convictions. It would be helpful to know whether that is the case and why the result comes out as it does with a difference between the Government’s proposals and the Scottish system. I also understand that there is some uncertainty about the retention time of six years proposed by the Government and, indeed, whether that proposal will be compliant with the S and Marper judgment of the European Court.
Finally on the DNA database, I take issue with the Government’s suggestion that the proposals will mean that the system is more transparent and more open to appeal. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that my understanding on this is correct, but, if an application for removal is subject to a £200 fee, it seems to me that many individuals will be prevented from making any appeal or getting their names off the database. As I said, perhaps the Government are using the right of individuals not to be on the database to help to fill the big public sector deficit.
If the DNA database is one area where the principle of innocent until proven guilty is obscured, another is how cowboy wheel-clamping practices have spiralled out of control. I have some doubts about whether the Government’s proposals in this area will work in practice. They rely on the Security Industry Authority, which has failed to fulfil properly even its existing functions. What measures have the Government taken to improve the effectiveness of the SIA before deciding to give this organisation further and somewhat different duties? Based on the Government’s record of delivery to date, how effective any of these proposals will be is open to question.
There are also other areas where the Government should be taking more action but are not doing so. These include the policing gap in tackling serious and organised crime, public trust in policing, the resilience of critical infrastructure in relation to natural hazards—current proposals are limited only to flooding—the interoperability of the emergency services and tackling the country’s cyber-insecurity. All these are priority areas and they should all be the focus of attention. However, while this has been a legislative-rich Government —indeed, there has been legislation overload—not all priority areas, some of them very important, have been properly addressed.
I have two final points. The first is that the Government’s approach has not been to focus on providing security where only they can or should, which is the principle that should guide any Government. The second is that Labour focuses on dealing with the symptoms of wider problems. It has failed to realise that it cannot tackle the country’s insecurity with more technical fixes through legislation. It needs a reform platform to fix a broken society—one that tackles the root causes of insecurity by involving and working with individuals and communities. However, that can come only from a new Government.
My Lords, I want to say something about the proper sphere of the law. The law is not about government statements of intent, policy declarations or general exhortations. It is not a branch of the media or of the postal services for this or any other Government to send messages to the general populace—and certainly not to the voters.
In the legislative programme outlined in the Queen’s Speech, the Government propose to introduce the Fiscal Responsibility Bill,
“to require reductions in the deficit, with the aim of ensuring that the national debt returns to a sustainable path in the medium term”.
The purpose is stated to be to,
“put the Government’s deficit reduction plan on a statutory footing, in order to halve the deficit over four years and put debt on a sustainable path in the medium term”.
What is the purpose of a statutory footing? What happens if the targets are not met? Will it be justiciable by an independent judiciary in the courts? A Government cannot sue themselves. Is it conceivable that an Opposition, the Governor of the Bank of England or anyone else could take a future Administration before a judge and ask for an order to compel them to act in accordance with this legislation? It is patently absurd.
The noble Lord has my point exactly.
The Government also present us with the Children, Schools and Families Bill. Its purpose is stated to be to,
“provide guarantees for parents and pupils setting out what they can expect from the 21st century schools system. These will equip every child, every family and every one who works with them to meet the challenges ahead, and so help secure this country’s success now and in the future”.
This means, we are told.
“through new pupil and parent guarantees the Government is committing for the first time series of specific entitlements for all and providing a means of redress if expectations are not met”.
What is this “means of redress”? Will a parent who feels that a guarantee has been broken or a specific entitlement not given—for example, a place in a particular school, or specialised or one-to-one teaching—be able to obtain an order from a judge by way of judicial review to enforce that statutory guarantee? I do not think so. I suspect that we will see some watered down, bureaucratic system of complaint put in place—a complaint to be made to the very government department that is responsible for implementing these so-called guarantees.
The Government promise “21st century schools”; I should like to see them promising 19th century schools. They say:
“Building on over a decade of increasing school standards, this Bill will deliver the building blocks for a world class 21st century schooling system that meets the needs of every pupil so that they can achieve their full potential”.
Really? A piece of legislation—a Bill—rather than a body of competent and active administrators—will deliver building blocks to meet the needs of every pupil? Will that be justiciable in court? Pass a law and the thing is done? It used to be said—I always thought it rather unfair—that those who can, do and those who cannot, teach. Now we have a Labour gloss on the administration of government. Those who can, do and those who cannot, push a useless piece of legislation through Parliament.
The proposed Child Poverty Bill proclaims not a guarantee but an “accountability framework”. It will ensure that,
“for the first time Governments will be held to account on the success of their strategies to end child poverty”.
How? This time the blurb is specific—not through the courts but through annual reports to Parliament. Big deal. That will put a lot of money in a lot of people’s pockets.
Why do the Government not simply set out their policies, put them before the public and, if elected, do their best to achieve them? That is the point that the noble Lord was making a moment ago. Or is the purpose of this charade to set out targets in an attempt to bind a future Administration of whatever party, or combination of parties? These Bills will debase the statute book. A political manifesto is masquerading as a serious addition to the enforceable laws of this country.
We are promised a number of Bills. The constitutional renewal Bill will be dealt with by other of my noble friends. However, I was somewhat amused to hear the noble Lord say that this Bill is going to maintain the momentum of the reform of the House of Lords by the abolition of the by-elections for Peers. Back in 1964, when I fought my first election against Nigel Birch in West Flint, the Rhyl Chronicle contained my promise for a Senedd—an Assembly for Wales—proportional representation and the abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. This Government have really a great deal of momentum behind them, haven’t they?
To be fair, however, there is one Bill promised that stands out like a beacon, and that is the Bribery Bill. Unfortunately for the reputation of this country, it is 10 years late. The United Kingdom, rather reluctantly, became a signatory to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development anti-bribery convention in 1997. But, unlike all the other 36 signatories, we did nothing to modernise our law. In late 2001, an obscure section of the emergency legislation, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, prefixed the word “foreign” in the existing references to “public officials”, “public bodies” and “agents” who are capable of being bribed in the Victorian legislation that we have.
When monitoring was carried out by the OECD working group in 2005, it was found that not one individual or company had been indicted or tried for bribery of a foreign official. The inadequacy of the current law, based as I have said on statutes passed between 1889 and 1916, was highlighted when the Al Yamamah investigation was dropped in December 2006. As your Lordships will recall, the Serious Fraud Office said that it was,
“necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest”.
However, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said that it was not likely that a prosecution under the existing law would be successful. The reason was that it would be difficult to prove, as is necessary under the present law, that the person who banked the hundreds of millions of pounds paid in commissions by BAE did not have the authority of his principal, the ruler of the state in question.
As a result of that fiasco, the Law Commission was put to work, and it put out a consultation paper in late 2007. In November 2008, it produced its report and a draft Bill. The Government's own draft Bill was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses under the chairmanship of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and I served on that. A wide body of evidence was considered by that committee and it produced its report in July. The Government have now produced their considered response, accepting most of the recommendations.
So we have a piece of legislation coming before your Lordships that amends a hopelessly out-of-date and inadequate law and finally fulfils our international obligations in the criminal law. The issues have been fully considered by the Law Commission. There has been full cross-party scrutiny and evidence, and submissions have been received from all interested parties. Above all, it reforms a discrete part of the criminal law and is not the ragbag of criminal legislation that we have been accustomed to over the past few years. It is quite unlike, for example, the amendments to the law of provocation—to keep open an old wound from the previous Session—where there was criticism from all sides, including from the Law Commission. However, the Government cannot leave it alone. We have another pick-and-mix Bill to contend with: the Crime and Security Bill. The flagship provision appears to be to send parents to prison, or at least to punish them, for what their children have done: it will be not an ASBO, but an ASPO—an anti-social parenting order. Again, no doubt, the pernicious device will be employed of obtaining a civil order not only with a lower standard of proof but with the acceptance of hearsay evidence. That will lead to imprisonment for conduct that is not itself a criminal offence, as has been the effect with the ASBO.
While the Government surround us with legal guarantees and add new criminal offences to the 3,000 offences they have introduced in the past 12 years, there is nothing in the measures put forward to deal with the crisis in legal aid, particularly in family cases, and the 23 per cent cut that the Government propose in publicly funded criminal defence work. In their outline legislative programme last June, the Government referred to the value of professional services and their intention to sustain investment in public services. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Legal Aid and Assistance Act 1949, which was passed,
“to provide legal advice for those of slender means and resources so that no one will be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right”.
That flagship Act was passed by the brilliant Labour Government of 1945. That guarantee has now gone and is weakening all the time. Access to justice is an essential part of a free and democratic society.
Looking back over the past 10 years, it cannot be said that the flame of freedom has burnt brightly in the souls of this Administration. Consistent attempts have been made to weaken the right of jury trial, to undermine the presumption of innocence and to strengthen the powers of the state to conduct surveillance, to retain the DNA of innocent people and to create a database state with the collating and co-ordination of information about each citizen, the apotheosis of which was the attempt to introduce compulsory identity cards. Security means not just protection from those who wish to do us harm; security is necessary to protect our way of life and the values by which we live our lives.