Debate (2nd Day)
Moved on Wednesday 8 May by Lord Lang of Monkton
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 delight, an honour and a privilege to be opening today’s debate.
Yesterday we heard Her Majesty deliver the gracious Speech, followed by two outstanding speeches proposing and seconding the humble Address by my noble friends Lord Lang and Lord German. Both speeches were full of wit and wisdom and it was a pleasure to hear those voices from Scotland and Wales setting off the parliamentary year for this United Kingdom.
The debate proper was then opened by the Leader of the Opposition, and then by my noble friend Lord Hill in a tone of constructive engagement, which is already inspiring confidence in his leadership in all parts of the House. Now, and over the next few weeks, we will have the opportunity to examine the gracious Speech in detail.
We can already see the benefit of the fixed-term Parliament introduced by the coalition as we debate a gracious Speech firmly fixed on the issues of the day with a clear working year ahead and none of the “Will he, won’t he?” uncertainty of previous Parliaments entering their fourth year. As a result, we have a businesslike and practical agenda before us.
Today we will be discussing constitutional affairs, equalities, home affairs and the proposed reforms to our legal and penal system under the broad heading of justice and the law. As always, the linkage in policy between the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office will be as a seamless robe and I am delighted that the debate today will be closed by my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, the Minister in this House for the Home Office. I will be assisted throughout the year by my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a man who has performed so well at the Dispatch Box in recent weeks that I have been thinking of asking for him to be moved.
I have never hidden from this House the reality that, in the present economic climate, Ministers have had to make hard decisions and tough choices to achieve an economic recovery underpinned by fairness, but I believe that in our first three years, we have made the tough decisions necessary while sustaining that rule of law which underpins a civilised society.
I am proud that we have carried through the first reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act in almost 40 years, ended indeterminate sentences, clamped down on aggressive bailiffs, extended freedom of information and proactively provided more information than ever before via our transparency agenda. We have scrapped ID cards, increased parliamentary oversight of our security services, put restorative justice on a statutory footing, started reform of the European Court of Human Rights, via the Brighton declaration, and carried through a thorough update of our libel laws, all against the backdrop of a falling crime rate.
Here, I should like to pay tribute to the work of the outgoing Lord Chancellor, my right honourable friend Kenneth Clarke. I count myself lucky in my political career that I have had the pleasure of working closely with two of the big beasts of the Whitehall jungle, Ken Clarke and Jim Callaghan. Since last September, I have had the opportunity to work with the new Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, my right honourable friend Chris Grayling. I cannot pretend that there has been no change in approach since last September, but from day one the new Lord Chancellor and I have worked together as a close and harmonious team, and the gracious Speech reflects a radical programme of reform to strengthen our justice system.
We have clearly set out our priorities: first, reform of the criminal justice system and the courts, putting victims first and getting the various agencies around the table talking to each other. I am pleased that the new Victims’ Commissioner, our colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, has now taken up her post. We can also look forward very shortly to the criminal justice strategy and action plan, which will show just how we are joining up the different players and using technology to drive forward efficiencies. We are also consulting on a radical approach to how we treat our young people in custody. Despite fewer and fewer being incarcerated, more than seven out of 10 young people sentenced to custody still go on to offend again, so we have just consulted on a fresh approach to dealing with these young people by putting education at the heart of our youth justice system.
Breaking the cycle of reoffending is the key challenge not only in youth justice but throughout the criminal justice system. I have never doubted that prison works, both in terms of punishment and protection, but if we could break the cycle of reoffending the benefits for society would be enormous. The high rate of reoffending does not ruin just the lives of the victims of further crimes, very important though that is. It is also a dreadful deal for the taxpayer. We spend £3 billion a year on prisons. You do not have to be some woolly-minded liberal—if that is not a contradiction in terms—to see this as a bad return on investment if we continue to tolerate a high rate of reoffending. The worst part is that, at the moment, despite those sentenced to less than 12 months being most at risk of reoffending—I remind your Lordships that women are represented disproportionately among that group—they do not get help with rehabilitation. They are seen off at the prison gate with £46 in their pocket and very little else.
I have, earlier this morning, introduced the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, which will extend our rehabilitation measures for the first time to those serving sentences of less than 12 months. To carry through this rehabilitation revolution, we intend to open up the market to new ideas and new suppliers. We want to see a diverse range of new rehabilitation providers bringing new ideas and methods incentivised by their being paid, in part, for the results that they achieve. I have consistently said in this House that I have the highest regard for the probation service and those who work in it. The public sector part of the probation service will shrink, it is true, but it will have great responsibilities and increased status within the new structure. Before the Labour Party weeps too many crocodile tears over the demise of the old system, let me state again that we are using the powers contained in the previous Government’s 2007 Act to carry through the bulk of these reforms.
Finally, I have been genuinely encouraged by the response of the voluntary and not-for-profit sector in its enthusiasm for the opportunities to deliver real changes and new ideas to the challenge of offender rehabilitation. A number of noble Lords on all Benches have been campaigning for years for greater support to be given to those sentenced to less than a year; they have argued for better through-the-gate services and for more effective and better respected community sentences. I have to say to those noble Lords, very frankly, that without these reforms, much of what they have campaigned for would remain a pipe dream. With the legislation proposed in the gracious Speech, they have a real chance of becoming reality. The blunt truth is that we simply cannot afford the status quo, with offenders passing through the system again and again—more victims hurt, more communities damaged. I look forward to examining in detail our rehabilitation reforms in the very near future, as the Bill is starting its passage through Parliament in this House.
I turn to another measure which we will soon be considering in detail. The Children and Families Bill is a carryover from the last Session. It has already been the subject of constructive debate on all sides in the other place, led, for the Government, by my honourable friends Edward Timpson and Jo Swinson. The judiciary and local government have also been engaged in the development of the family justice provisions in the Bill. It includes a number of important reforms, such as introducing a 26-week time limit for completing care cases, and making attendance at mediation meetings a prerequisite for starting certain types of family proceedings.
Our guiding fundamental principle for the family justice system is that it must be about what is in the best interests of the child. Therefore, the Bill makes it absolutely clear that the court must regard the involvement of both parents in their child’s life after separation as furthering that child’s welfare, unless evidence shows that it would not. This legislation seeks to deliver a system that is more responsive, more efficient and in which more timely decisions are made to give vulnerable children the stability and security to enable them to make a success of their lives. I look forward to working with my noble friend Lord Nash on what I believe is a landmark piece of legislation.
I pay tribute to the work of David Norgrove, who chaired the family justice review. I am very pleased that he now chairs the national Family Justice Board, which has been set up to provide leadership and drive reform of the family justice system. We are already seeing the positive results of this approach, aided by local family justice boards.
This is also a timely opportunity to welcome Sir James Munby to his new post as president of the Family Division. As the new single family court becomes a reality next year, his drive and his judicial leadership will be essential to see the far-reaching reforms of the past few years carried through. I very much look forward to working with him.
I turn now to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which was introduced in the other place earlier today and on which the Home Office will lead. Persistent anti-social behaviour has a devastating impact on the victims and communities that need to be our priority. We are looking at this matter again because experience has shown that securing an ASBO has been a slow, bureaucratic and expensive process, often failing to change a perpetrator’s behaviour. That is why we are proposing new powers that are quick and easy to use and act as a real deterrent.
Breach of the proposed criminal behaviour order will be a criminal offence, with a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Obtaining a crime prevention injunction will be faster than securing an ASBO but breaching one would still carry serious penalties. The ASBO system we inherited is weighed down by red tape to the extent that orders can take weeks and months to process. By contrast, the new injunctions proposed in the Bill would see applications dealt with in days, or even hours in some cases.
The Bill will also carry on the vital work of police reform, where the input and experience in this House will be of particular value. I want to pay tribute today to Britain’s police forces. They face a series of challenges today that would have been unforeseeable to many who joined the force a generation ago, so under this Bill the College of Policing will get new statutory powers to enable it to carry on developing policing as the top-flight profession it is and must remain. The Police Negotiating Board will be replaced with an independent police remuneration review body, which will make evidence-based recommendations on police remuneration, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission will have its purview extended to oversee private-sector contractors and their employees.
The Bill will also tackle the iniquity of forced marriages, which are little more than slavery and are simply wrong. At the moment there is no specific offence on the statute book of forcing someone into marriage, so we are following up on the Prime Minister’s pledge of June 2012 and bringing forward provisions in this Bill to make forced marriage illegal and to make it an offence to breach a forced marriage protection order.
This Bill will also look at the fees charged to court users in civil cases to ensure that we can provide a modern and efficient court system. In particular, we will look at whether more funds can be recovered from commercial litigants to ensure that where people can pay more to access our world-class courts, they do so.
Finally, we also intend to bring forward further measures, subject to parliamentary time, to reform our immigration system, look at the public services available to those entering the country and reduce the complexity of immigration law.
No one can deny that, in the areas being discussed today, this is a Government full of ideas with a clear vision for the future. Even in the hardest of times, what government does must be tested against our commitment to the rule of law and access to justice and our willingness to protect civil liberties and human rights. We need to ensure that law-abiding members of the community are put first, that hard-working public servants on the front line are given our full support and that hard-working families can be confident in the knowledge that criminals are being brought to justice and communities kept safe.
I consider this House to be a House of candid friends. Such important measures deserve nothing less than your Lordships’ well informed scrutiny. The proposals from the MoJ and the Home Office are strong on ideas and radical in their solutions. I commend them to this House and look forward to debating their merits today and in the year ahead.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his introduction to the gracious Speech. He is quite right that today’s debate covers a wide range of issues: crime, policing, Northern Ireland, constitutional issues, the rehabilitation of offenders—which the noble Lord spoke about in some detail—and forced marriage. Those are all important issues but it is clear that the headline that the Government really want from the gracious Speech is that they are tough on immigration. After their rout in the county council elections last week the Government are now on a mission to persuade the public that they understand their concerns. The role of your Lordships’ House is scrutiny—to see whether these measures really do what the Government say they will. Will these measures make a difference? My noble friend Lord Beecham will say more about the criminal justice plans in his winding-up speech for the Opposition at the end of the debate, so I shall start with the Government’s proposals on immigration.
Obviously we want to ensure that immigration, which is important for and to the UK, is properly controlled and managed and is fair. However, the Government’s programme promises to take action on issues where action has already been taken, where other government policies make it virtually impossible to deliver and where they have not yet worked out how such action can be achieved. Nothing in the speech would tackle the undercutting of local workers’ wages and terms and conditions or the exploitation of foreign workers. Nothing in the speech would have a real impact in improving the enforcement of the national minimum wage. Where in the gracious Speech are the measures to tackle the abuse of student visitor visas by bogus colleges or the backlog at the UK Border Agency in finding failed asylum seekers?
The programme includes legislation to ensure that Article 8—the right to stay in this country because of family connections—is not abused. We agree with that, and it is already in the Immigration Rules which were passed unanimously last year when we said that it should be in primary legislation. Those who do not have the right to live in this country should be deported. However, while the Government are talking tough, their actions do not mirror their words. Last year, the Government deported 900 fewer criminals than were deported in Labour’s last year in office—a fall of 16%. The backlog in finding failed asylum seekers has gone up, and the number of illegal immigrants deported has gone down. The UK Border Agency stated that in 40% of cases it has not been able to deport individuals because of administrative problems with the Home Office and diplomatic complications. Despite ministerial denials, therefore, it would be foolish to believe that budget cuts of 34% and staffing cuts of 5,000 have not had an impact. Of course they have. Can the Minister give an indication of how the Government propose generally to tackle the issue and assure us that the proposed legislation is not just a rehash of previously implemented Immigration Rules without any new action?
On the issue of limited access to certain benefits for European Economic Area national jobseekers and retained workers for six months, this is already in current regulations and in DWP guidance. It is something of a surprise that the Government have flagged this up as something new. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what the difference is between the current law and the Government’s new announcement? Where are the changes that the Government have heralded? It seems to me that they are already in the guidance and that no real difference has been proposed. This is a missed opportunity because changing the habitual residence test would make a real difference. Although the test is effective in the majority of cases, one practical change which could be made quickly and very easily would be to add a presence test to clarify absolutely that jobseeker’s allowance cannot be claimed in a few days or weeks but that people will be expected to be in the country for some time or to contribute before they get anything back. Surely that would be more effective than the rehash which the Government have reannounced.
We agree with strong and effective action against those who employ and often exploit illegal immigrants. Such behaviour is already illegal, with fines of £10,000 for unknowingly employing each illegal immigrant and the possibility of a prison sentence for knowingly doing so. In so many cases the real problem is not the law but the enforcement of the law, with 800 fewer businesses being fined last year than were fined in 2010 under the previous Labour Government. Legislation can only ever be effective if it is monitored and enforced and in this case it is not. It is interesting that the Government now want to legislate for private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants and to face fines if they do not and rent to somebody who is in this country illegally. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister could say something about this and shed some light on how it will be enforced. Only a few months ago the Housing Minister, Mr Mark Prisk MP, dismissed our proposals for a national housing register of private landlords. Do the Government now intend to set up such a register? If not, how do they expect to manage the checking and monitoring of private landlords? Would it not be far more effective to monitor and enforce standards in private rented housing and thus prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable—proposals which the Government have consistently rejected?
Similarly, the proposals to restrict migrant access to the NHS seem very unclear. As hospitals already have a legal duty to recover charges from overseas patients, this, too, is a matter of better enforcement. However, the notion that doctors will become an extended arm of the border force has rightly been met with alarm by the Royal College of General Practitioners. Even Vince Cable—a Cabinet Minister in the coalition—raised doubts about this policy yesterday. He said:
“There is a question about whether people who administer GPs’ surgeries and hospitals should be in the business of checking”,
people’s status. Will we all need to take our passport with us to visit a GP, or will the Government reintroduce, or try to reintroduce, ID cards? Yet again, the Government are talking tough, but the detail of what will actually change, what will be different, and how it will be enforced, is totally obscure, particularly when the Government make such savage cuts to resources.
The same applies to the Government’s proposals on crime and anti-social behaviour. The Government are cutting 15,000 police officers. That makes it harder for the police and local communities to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour. While the Government boast of falling crime, what becomes increasingly clear from evidence and reports, some published last week, is that budget cuts imposed on policing are leading to more criminals getting away with it. Last year more than 10,000 crimes of serious violence were dealt with through community resolution. That meant there was no formal sanction, no caution and no criminal record: just an apology to the victim. That is despite the Government’s official guidance saying that this should not happen. I am talking about serious, violent crime. When serious criminals are not even being cautioned, it is clear that there is a crisis—and not one that can be wished away by toothless legislation.
I worry that the Government’s action on anti-social behaviour is equally toothless. They were very critical of Labour’s anti-social behaviour orders, which I accept were not perfect. However, instead of reforming and strengthening them, the Government have decided bizarrely to water them down. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said in his opening speech that the Government want to ensure a faster and more effective response. However, despite his claims that action could be taken in a matter of hours, the proposals for a community trigger to replace the ASBO would mean people having to wait until three separate complaints, or complaints from five different households, had been made before the agencies were compelled to take action. If we tell a complainant whose life is being blighted by anti-social behaviour that nothing will be done until there have been several more complaints, they will rightly conclude that no one cares. We understand how anti-social behaviour can blight people’s lives. That is why we propose a 24-hour guarantee to ensure a rapid response to complaints. We will discuss this further during scrutiny of the Bill and I hope the Minister will take seriously our suggestions, because we want to work with him to improve it.
In the announcement that forced marriage will be made a criminal offence, the Government are seeking to take further action on a very serious problem. Forced marriage can destroy people’s lives and should never be tolerated. That is why, when we were in government, we introduced protection orders through family courts to combat forced marriage, and why we support strengthening the law. We will be careful to scrutinise the legislation and work with the Government to ensure that the measures proposed do not end up being counterproductive in the fight to eradicate forced marriage in this country. We look forward to working with the Government to get the legislation that we all want to see on the statute book.
It would be helpful to have some clarity on constitutional issues that were widely promoted by the Government yet failed to appear in their programme. They consulted on a statutory register of lobbyists but have yet to issue their response. In February 2010 David Cameron said that he wanted to shine “the light of transparency” on lobbying so that politics,
“comes clean about who is buying power and influence”.
At the 2010 general election, he declared that lobbying was,
“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
Recent media reports that Ministers dropped plans for plain packaging for cigarettes because of lobbying by the tobacco industry served to highlight the need to regulate the lobbying industry and the fact that it remains as important as ever—so why are there no proposals in this programme?
The current draft proposals from the Government cover only a very narrow section of the lobbying industry. They have not proposed any code of conduct for lobbyists, without which there can be no mechanism to regulate the register. Details of the meetings that lobbyists have with government will not be included on any register. In many respects these are retrograde steps. The Government have to get serious about lobbying transparency. If we are to give an assurance to a sceptical public that politics is serious about cleaning up its act, we need action now. I am not anti-lobbying; I make that very clear. However, it needs to be open, transparent and regulated.
I will raise one further issue on constitutional matters and hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me. It is the transition to individual electoral voter registration. All of us in this House should—and, I think, do—want the widest possible participation in all elections. Turnout figures of 30% and even lower in local elections are truly shocking. Turnouts at general elections are falling consistently and we should be concerned. There is a general concern among all of us who wish to see the maximum turnout in elections that the move to individual rather than household registration will, if undertaken too quickly and without sufficient safeguards and resources, lead to a fall in the number of people registering to vote, and a loss of people who are engaged in the political system. A transition date for a new type of register to come into effect and go live has been set for 2016 but, during the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act, the Government gave themselves a reserve power to bring the date for individual registration forward to 2015 if they felt that the transition was progressing well. Who is to make that judgment? In the interests of transparency, and given the importance of the issue, it should not be rushed but should be put before an independent assessment of the impact. I hope that the Minister can provide reassurance on this. Will he commit to ensuring that the Electoral Commission is asked to assess and judge the status of the transition?
I am suffering from McNally’s throat, I think.
Finally, although it was not mentioned in the gracious Speech, I welcome the commitment yesterday from the Leader of the House that the equal marriage Bill will be brought before your Lordships’ House as early business. I look forward, as do noble Lords across the House, to passing that Bill. There is a real pride on these Benches that we introduced the Civil Partnership Act. As with this Bill, it drew support from across your Lordships’ House. We now have the opportunity to build on that legacy by extending marriage to those couples who wish to make that loving, lifelong commitment and have their relations celebrated and recognised in the same way as heterosexual couples.
This is a pretty thin programme for the coming Session, although we note, as always, the final sentence of all gracious Speeches:
“Other measures will be laid before you”.
As the Government’s Bills are debated in your Lordships’ House, we will look at the detail and support good legislation through scrutiny. We want to work with the Government whenever possible to ensure that we make real, not cosmetic, changes, which make a real and positive difference to people’s lives.
My Lords, I should like to use the opportunity afforded by this debate on the humble Address, with its particular emphasis today on the matter of equalities, to consider an issue that was not directly mentioned in the gracious Speech but may well be considered among those other measures that will have to be considered by Her Majesty’s Government during this Session. That is the question of gender equality on the boards of publicly listed companies, which is currently being considered by the European Parliament. A directive was considered by your Lordships’ European Union Sub-Committee B during the previous Session, and a report on that matter and the sub-committee’s consideration of it was debated in your Lordships’ House. At this point, I remind noble Lords of my interest as a member of that sub-committee.
The directive proposes that a quota will be set at 40% to ensure that there is gender equality on the boards of publicly listed companies within the European Union, and that, if companies fail to achieve that, sanctions will be applied against them. There is no doubt that achieving gender equality on the boards of publicly listed companies is vital. Much work has been done on that matter. Indeed, the report of EU Sub-Committee B clearly highlighted the vital loss of talent if women are not appropriately appointed to the boards of publicly listed companies.
A reasoned opinion was sent from your Lordships’ House and, indeed, from the other place, to European institutions in November last year, because serious concerns were raised about the nature of the directive and, indeed, a potential infringement of subsidiarity. The use of the reasoned opinion—the so-called yellow card—is a mechanism defined in the Lisbon treaty that provides for a test by Parliaments, rather than by Governments, of subsidiarity issues. The yellow card, which was the first stage in that subsidiarity test, required nine Parliaments in the European Union to send a reasoned opinion raising subsidiarity concerns. Regrettably, only six did so, so the mechanism to test subsidiarity failed.
Other concerns were also raised in consideration of the proposed directive with regard to whether the European Union had demonstrated that there was European added value by having a directive at European level mandating a 40% quota, rather than national Governments taking action themselves. There were also serious concerns about whether it was legal in European terms for this type of sanction to be applied against publicly listed companies if they failed. Nevertheless, the ability of that part of the subsidiarity test procedure to achieve a resolution of this matter had failed.
Moving forward, two committees of the European Parliament are now considering the directive and eventually it will come back to the Council of Ministers to be finally considered, approved and then sent to national Governments for transposition into domestic legislation. However, a serious concern arises with regard to the broader approach that our country has taken towards equality legislation. The Equality Act 2010 permits positive action but defines positive discrimination as unlawful and considers a number of potential situations of positive discrimination, of which one is the setting of quotas; that is made very clear in the Act. Under those circumstances, if the directive was agreed by majority voting at the Council of Ministers and returned to this Parliament for transposition, how would Her Majesty’s Government deal with setting a quota in domestic legislation, which would appear to be contrary to the terms laid out in the Equality Act 2010 as it represents positive discrimination?
Serious concerns arise beyond the important issue of ensuring gender balance on the boards of publicly listed companies. If a quota were to be established for that, would it undermine the standing of equality approaches and positive action in other important areas of equality legislation in our country, given that there is no quota for those issues but there is for gender balance on boards? That could have a serious undermining effect. Would the transposition and adoption of this directive into domestic legislation require a change to the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that setting quotas is no longer defined as unlawful in that Act? Indeed, might other measures be required? One possibility is to have a period during which a quota is allowed to apply. This is certainly the case with regard to the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which permitted all-female lists for parliamentary elections, European elections, certain local government elections and elections to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, but had a sunset clause which ensured that that provision ended in 2015. However, it was extended to 2030 under an amendment to the Equality Act 2010.
My reason for raising this issue now is that during this Session of Parliament it will have to be considered once again either by committees of your Lordships’ House or, indeed, by both Chambers of Parliament. Will the Minister provide further guidance on the approach Her Majesty’s Government propose to take to this important issue?
My Lords, the gracious Speech bears out the Government’s intention to work towards an orderly society in which a fair and transparent system of justice supports the aspirations of all law-abiding citizens as they cope with challenging times. I am grateful to the Minister for his clarifications and extra enlightenment. There is much in this programme to welcome, but one must emphasise the priority that needs to be given to the most disadvantaged within our borders. In President Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech, he memorably said:
“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”.
The Government have focused in particular on their proposals on immigration. There are real complexities involved in removing a small number of people who are considered very dangerous to us, but these hard cases should not detract attention from the human impacts of the immigration system. I will not forget the experience of joining the wrong queue for immigration at Heathrow, having to wait ages to be seen, and watching the distress of the families and elderly being poorly treated by overworked staff. The administrative splitting of the UK Border Agency will be welcome if it aids efficiency and speeds the processing of cases, especially as the so-called backlogs in the immigration system often represent real people who have been waiting many years for decisions, unable to work or contribute to our society. The emphasis on law enforcement raises some concerns about a presumption of guilt creeping into the system.
It may well be appropriate to take particular measures to reduce the pull factor for those contemplating coming to the UK, but the problem remains of inadequate practical support for those, including families with children, who are caught in the asylum system but cannot be returned to another country. Further, in considering whether a foreign national offender should be removed from the country, it is important that judges retain their discretion to make judgments between people’s Article 8 rights in terms of family life, and the risk of harm that the person presents. Not everyone appreciates that many organisations, including our own church, are global in reach, and it is becoming more and more difficult to invite visiting bishops and professors to make their contribution to the unity that we all seek.
In the Government’s proposals on curbing anti-social behaviour, the rationalisation of the system is broadly welcome, especially with the changes recently made in response to parliamentary scrutiny, but the nature of the new injunctions and orders carries a risk of net-widening. As many have pointed out, the measures proposed in the Bill are reactive. The Government’s strategy needs also to include preventive measures to address the root causes of anti-social behaviour and focus especially on early intervention and active support of family life. This is especially important because of the sanctions attached to breach of the injunctions and orders proposed. There is strong evidence that drawing children and young people into the youth justice system can often do them more harm than good.
On reform of the way in which offenders are rehabilitated in England and Wales, I warmly welcome the plans to extend post-sentence supervision to those serving sentences of less than 12 months. It is certainly true that the reoffending rate of more than 70% among young men in particular is shocking. However, there are organisations such as the church’s scheme in the Potteries that have succeeded, even in the most difficult cases, in bringing that figure down to 10%. I am sure that the Government will want to listen more carefully to such organisations. However, the plans to contract out most of the work currently done by probation trusts have perhaps been developed in haste; and this major change, which will affect more than 200,000 offenders each year, on the basis of a relatively untried system of contracting and with many questions unresolved about the effective management of risk in a fragmented offender management system, is itself a high-risk proposition.
The change in the regulation of gambling from a “place of supply” basis to a “point of consumption” basis, thereby drawing overseas operators into the scope of UK government regulation, is welcome and removes a manifest unfairness. The impact of the growing gambling industry on people’s lives, especially in areas of multiple deprivation, needs much more rigorous research in the face of relatively unsupported claims and counterclaims.
It is disappointing that there is no reference in the gracious Speech to minimum unit pricing of alcohol. Much as I welcome a drink after a long day in the Chamber, I cannot deny the evidence. There is a widespread consensus among health professionals about the usefulness of such a measure, and the Government have previously made a commitment to introduce minimum pricing.
In summary, I recall the words of St Paul, passing on in his letter to the Galatian churches the instructions given him by James, Peter and John about building successful multinational communities. He said:
“All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor”.
The citizens of this country rightly have an interest in maintaining an orderly and just society. Immigration, anti-social behaviour, gambling, alcohol control and all the aspects of ordering our society covered by the Government’s proposals present legitimate points of concern for us all. In addressing them, at a time of financial stringency, we must ensure that the solutions that we adopt do not tear us apart by bearing down disproportionately on those least able to make choices for themselves. We should continue to remember the poor.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate. Lichfield is next to my old constituency of Sutton Coldfield, so I listened to him with an even greater care than I might otherwise have done, and I strongly share many of the views that he has just expressed. I also agree entirely with what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, said at the end of her speech about equal marriage, which is something that I shall come to.
At the heart of any debate on constitutional affairs and equalities is parliamentary democracy and the importance of respecting that democracy. We in this House have an important role. We can advise, but it is the elected House that decides. It has the authority that comes from being the elected House—the authority that comes from the people or the citizen. It is in that respect that I want to test just two measures that will be debated in Parliament over the coming weeks, although neither was specifically mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.
The first is the proposed royal charter on the press. To be frank, I thought that that debate was over. No one thought that a few weeks later we would be asked to consider a rival royal charter put together by a number of big newspapers—a rival royal charter that, in the words of the respected media analyst Claire Enders, is,
“further away from what Leveson recommended than anything that has gone before”.
On 18 March, we should remember, there was a debate in the other place on the Government’s royal charter proposals. Everyone agreed that it was a compromise, but it was a compromise agreed by all three major parties in Parliament. A final line had been drawn, or so we thought. The Prime Minister said:
“My message to the press is now very clear: we have had the debate, now it is time to get on and make this system work”.
For the Labour Party, Mr Miliband said:
“Today represents a huge moment for the House. We are doing the right thing. Politics has failed to grasp this issue for decades, but today politicians have come together to put the victims first”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/3/13; cols. 636-37.]
And for the Liberal Democrats, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“Today we turn a page on the mistakes of the past and, finally, establish a proper independent watchdog to serve the British people while protecting our free press”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/3/13; col. 640.]
Therefore, there is no conceivable doubt about what the leaders of the three parties intended. They had agreed a way forward that protected the freedom of the press but which also sought to protect the public from the abuse of press power. No objective observer looking at what had been revealed by the Leveson inquiry could fairly argue that they were overreacting. The agreement followed the worst set of scandals to affect some of the national press for the past half century. The private details of phone conversations, not just of celebrities but of ordinary people, had been revealed. Great harm was done to individuals—to citizens—in this country. The scandal forced the closure of one high-circulation and profitable newspaper because of the action that had been taken. Journalists and quasi journalists have been arrested—about 100 to date—and 24 have been charged.
As Leveson made clear, the knowledge of what was going on was not confined to one or two rogue journalists or one or two junior executives; it went much higher than that. That is the answer to those who say that as phone hacking is a criminal offence no further action is required because the criminal law will look after all that. The point is that the culture of newspapers, where phone hacking was allowed and the results published, had to be changed. It was for such reasons that the Government proposed their royal charter. Even more important, that was why the House of Commons supported them. When it came to the crucial vote on damages, 530 Members of Parliament voted in favour of the Government’s proposals and 13 voted against. The next day the Times had the headline on its front page, “Press deal divides parties”. Divides parties? A vote of 530 to 13? Just imagine the Whips going into immediate crisis talks on that, or those nice people at the National Theatre who put on that excellent play, “This House”, based on Labour’s voting problems in the 1970s, immediately asking for a sequel.
There is a much more serious point. The Government’s royal charter of March has been subject to a barrage of black propaganda from the newspapers that eventually produced their own royal charter. No issue has been too small to build up an attack. An affair between two people at the inquiry is portrayed as invalidating the whole painstaking Leveson inquiry in spite of Lord Justice Leveson’s assurance that there was no effect whatever. The poor old Hacked Off campaign is portrayed as a deeply sinister organisation with unlimited funds to do damage to the British press. If anyone had any doubts about why the Government’s course was best, we had only to look at the tactics employed by newspapers whose self-interest is utterly clear. The truth is that this has been a David and Goliath struggle, and the Goliath has been the big national newspapers, which have had the resources to place deeply misleading and untruthful advertisements in their own papers and to instruct their reporters to get any story that might cast doubt on the Government’s proposals.
I very much hope that no one in the special adviser group, which seems to surround this Government just as it did the previous one, believes that if further concessions are given to the newspapers that are proposing their own royal charter, that will be to the benefit of the Government. Bluntly, it will be seen as a defeat, and it is not healthy in any democracy for Parliament and the Government to be defeated by an outside group, however powerful that group may be. We did not allow it with the trades union barons and we should not allow it with the press barons either.
The basic question I want to ask the Government is very simple: why have we paused? Why, to use the Prime Minister’s words, are we not getting on with it? The public are on the side of the Government and will remain so as long as the issue is fought with strength and consistency. The public are not fools; they know that newspapers are not innocents dressed in white. They do not want to challenge press freedom, but they to want to challenge the blatant misuse of press power.
My second point concerns the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which the noble Baroness referred to. Again, there have been calls that it should be put off or withdrawn. Frankly, some of the coverage is a misreading of what has taken place, because in truth the decision to carry it over to this Session was taken in February in the Commons with a majority of 464 votes to 38. That, I imagine, is exactly what the Government intend to do.
Let me suggest in principle why it would be quite wrong for this Bill to be put off or withdrawn. I entirely respect the deeply held religious views of those who are opposed. I underline that. I do not want to set out cases as if this is a Second Reading debate. That is to come. Suffice it to say at this stage that my personal view is that Parliament should value people equally in the law, and that enabling same-sex couples to marry removes the current inequity. A legal partnership is not seen in the same way and does not have the same promises of responsibility and commitment as marriage. There are many same-sex couples, including those working in the churches, who view marriage as fundamentally important and want to enter into that life-long commitment. It is therefore Parliament’s duty to enable that to happen, and in so doing strengthen the society in which we live today.
However, the fundamental point that I want to make is not that. I want to see this country setting an example of equality of treatment in a world where discrimination, prejudice and stigma are rife and are quite probably increasing. Let me explain in a few words why I feel strongly about this. Over the past months I have visited a range of cities and countries around the world looking at the HIV/AIDS position. Whether I have been in Ukraine or Uganda, what has shocked me most—perhaps even more than the deaths, which at least I was expecting—has been the widespread intolerance and prejudice towards gay and lesbian people.
An opinion poll in this country suggested that many Christians in Britain believed that they were a persecuted minority. I can only say that if anyone wants to see a persecuted minority they should look at the plight of gay, lesbian and transgender people around the world. As you travel you go to countries where homosexuality is a criminal offence and where people who are suspected of being homosexual are persecuted and even forced to leave their family homes. In one country a newspaper was dedicated to exposing homosexuals—to identifying them, photographing them and publishing their addresses—so that the local population could take action against them. In one case, this led to a murder.
You can go to countries where the most popular political cause is to toughen up the laws against homosexuality rather than to modify them. Action of that kind has been taken in Russia, while in Kampala a Private Member’s Bill promised capital punishment—now generously reduced to long imprisonment—for aggravated homosexuality and a penalty of imprisonment for those who suspected that someone was homosexual but failed to report it. You may feel that that kind of Bill would be thrown out. Not at all; the common view is that it will be passed.
I do not think that one Act passed by this Parliament or one action will suddenly bring the walls of discrimination crashing down. There are certainly actions that will help—not least, if I may say so to the Bishops’ Bench, ensuring that the churches in sub-Saharan Africa, including the Anglican Church, take a stand against what is happening there.
In some parts of the world what Parliament does may have some persuasive influence—probably not in Russia and Ukraine but quite possibly in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. It can have influence for this reason: the criminal laws against homosexuality were introduced into those African countries by British Governments in the days of the Empire. We were the authors; we set out what the standards should be. It remains the case that 42 out of 54 Commonwealth countries criminalise same-sex relations. We should remember that it was as late as 1967 when the law here was changed. Until then people could be imprisoned.
Even here, not all the antipathy to gays has been removed—not by a long chalk—but unquestionably the law has played its part in improving the position. The Bill, which will be debated later, is not only right but could have an important persuasive effect both in this country and abroad, and will set out our belief in equal and fair treatment.
As for the later debate, we should also remember, just as we remembered on the position of the press, that the Bill for equal marriage was passed overwhelmingly in the other place on a free vote, by 400 votes to 175: a majority of over two to one.
If my noble friend does not mind my saying so, I think that is a trivial argument. We all know—and he knows, because he has been in Parliament for exactly the same length of time as I have—that a whole range of things have been produced and passed that were not in party manifestos. I abolished the dock labour scheme, which I imagine my noble friend enthusiastically voted for and which was not in the party manifesto, and I can think of a whole of range of other things. That argument does not stand up. Let us debate on the issue, not on side points.
Of course, this House and my noble friend are entitled to suggest and propose amendments, but perhaps I may also suggest that that is going to the limit of our power. We are not entitled to defeat the will of the Commons on an issue of this kind: one that was decided, I repeat, on a free vote. It may be an unfashionable thing to say today, but the most important people in this country are not the bankers, self-interested columnists or special advisers who now appear to haunt the whole of Whitehall; they are the Members of Parliament. They are the only ones elected to Westminster. They take their authority from their elected position and they lose it when they leave. They have been elected by the people and they are answerable to the people. In my view, on both these issues—the protection of the public from a press abusing its power and the introduction of equal marriage—Members of Parliament have got it absolutely right.
My Lords, I am delighted that the gracious Speech contains measures to reduce crime and protect national security. As one who promoted the legislation on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act in my Private Member’s Bill, I welcome the coalition Government’s intention further to legislate for reforms in the way in which offenders are rehabilitated in England and Wales. I congratulate the coalition Government on some of their major successes so far, and I do not mind if my noble friend Lord McNally takes credit for them.
The first three years of the coalition Government have seen some important steps towards achieving a fairer and more effective criminal justice system. The Government have abolished the discredited and unjust IPP sentence, legislated to reduce unnecessary remands in custody, reformed the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and given legislative underpinning to restorative justice. Over the past four years, we have seen a dramatic and welcome reduction in the number of juvenile offenders in custody. Moreover, the rate of increase in the adult prison population has slowed down. In the past three years, between 2009 and 2012, the prison population has risen by an average of 1% a year compared with 2.5% to 4% a year during the period of the Labour Administration. I am particularly pleased to note that the Government are developing a determined strategy to divert mentally disordered offenders from the criminal justice system into medical and social care.
So far, so good, but we still face many serious challenges. Even after these welcome improvements, the size of our prison population remains a national disgrace. At the end of October 2012, 78 out of 131 prisons were holding more prisoners than they were built for, and over 20,000 prisoners were being held two to a cell in cells designed for one person. This country now has 153 prisoners for every 100,000 people in the general population compared with 102 in France and 83 in Germany. Far too many offenders are still sent into custody for short sentences and then released after no more than a few months. These sentences serve little purpose. They are far too short for sustained rehabilitation programmes, but long enough for offenders to lose their jobs and homes, which makes them more likely to reoffend.
On release, most of these prisoners do not receive supervision by the probation service, and the reconviction rates are much higher than those for other prisoners. I am pleased to see that the Government are now consulting on proposals to provide post-release supervision for short-term prisoners and I welcome the announcement made earlier by my noble friend Lord McNally. However, most of these offenders will be better dealt with by community orders. These orders can provide a longer period of supervision and of work to change offending behaviour than a short period of post-release supervision would provide. Our prison system still does far too little to prevent crime and rehabilitate offenders. We need to rethink an approach which spends such a high proportion of its resources on custodial measures which produce high reoffending rates.
The Government should legislate to make sentencing guidelines take into account the capacity of our prison system. This proposal was first made by the Carter report on the prison system in 2007, and it still makes sense. At a time when all other areas of public services have to work within the reality of limited resources, there is no reason why sentencing should be exempt. Requiring sentencing guidelines to take account of all available resources would concentrate sentencers’ minds on the evidence concerning the most cost-effective disposals available to the courts. Sentencing guidelines should scale down the number and length of prison sentences except for the most serious crimes. They should remove prison as an option for low-level non-violent crimes. Courts should be prohibited from using prisons, except for dangerous offenders, unless they have first tried an intensive community supervision programme.
We also need a strategy to reduce the use of imprisonment for women. Most of the women we send to prison are neither violent nor dangerous and most of them have few previous convictions. Imprisoned women have high rates of mental disorder, histories of abuse, addiction problems and personal distress arising from separation from their children. I was pleased to see the Government’s recent announcement that they are establishing an expert advisory board, to be chaired by my honourable friend Helen Grant, to develop policies for female offenders. I hope that with the assistance of the advisory board, the Government will set improved standards for women’s community sentences, resettlement and rehabilitation, mental health services, family contact and culturally appropriate support for foreign national women in our prisons.
We should also do more to keep restorative justice at the forefront of sentences, to help ensure that it becomes a central part of our criminal justice system. I greatly welcome the new provision in the Crime and Courts Act which provides for restorative justice in conjunction with deferment of sentence. The Government should build on this in future legislation by making restorative justice one of the statutory purposes of sentencing and by enabling courts to include specific restorative justice requirements in community orders and youth rehabilitation orders.
We should reduce the rate of imprisonment of people who have breached community supervision—for example, by missing appointments or being late back to their probation hostels. The number of people jailed for breach has escalated alarmingly in recent years as probation officers’ discretion over breaches has been restricted. The Government should consider introducing a graduated scale of punishment for breach of supervision, with prisons being used only for breach when less severe penalties have first been tried.
We should introduce tighter statutory restrictions on sentencing and sending young offenders into custody. This would involve reversing some of the measures taken by the last Labour Government, who legislated to enable courts to detain children at an increasingly younger age and for less serious offences. We should also raise the country’s unusually low age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 12. I hope to reintroduce my Private Member’s Bill on this subject next week. It would be more humane and more effective to deal with offenders under that age in family proceedings courts, as other European countries do.
A great deal remains to be done to eliminate racial discrimination from the criminal justice process. The disproportionate use of stop and search is even more extreme than it was when the Stephen Lawrence inquiry reported, and the proportion of the prison population from racial minorities is now higher than it was in the late 1990s. We should place a clear statutory duty on all criminal justice agencies to adopt numerical targets for reducing racial disproportionality in all their operations.
There is overwhelming evidence of the importance of providing practical help for offenders in order to reduce reoffending. I make no apologies for repeating the key statistics on this point to the House yet again. Getting offenders into jobs reduces their likelihood of further offending by between one-third and one-half. Providing accommodation for offenders reduces reconviction by at least one-fifth. Drug rehabilitation programmes cut the volume of reoffending by up to 70%.
Alongside the Government’s welcome proposals for post-release supervision for short-term prisoners, we should commission voluntary organisations to provide a national resettlement service for these prisoners to ensure that they receive support with their practical needs for accommodation, employment and drug rehabilitation on release. Such a strategy would help to move this country away from the unenviable position of having the highest prison population in western Europe. In doing so, it would help to concentrate resources on the measures that are most likely to protect the public by rehabilitating offenders and reducing reoffending.
My Lords, in Her Majesty’s gracious Speech yesterday, we heard that the Government will,
“promote a fairer society that rewards people who work hard … where aspiration and responsibility are rewarded”,
and where people,
“who have spent years caring for children”—
and, I hope, other dependent relatives—are given more help with their pensions.
As a psychiatrist, I have been reflecting on how these commitments will affect people with mental illness or intellectual and developmental disabilities, and their families—groups that I have particular knowledge of. In my experience, these people are not short of aspirations but their work opportunities are severely restricted. I am sure that it is not the Government’s intention to make people who cannot contribute economically feel like an unwelcome burden, but there is a risk that younger disabled people and older people nearing the end of their lives will feel unwanted. As Giles Fraser wrote in the Guardian last week, speaking about the end of life:
“I do want to be a burden on my loved ones just as I want them to be a burden on me—it’s called looking after each other … This is what it means to love you”.
We need a societal response that is also accepting of burden at all stages of life.
During the previous parliamentary Session, the Government took some laudable steps towards addressing the inequality and discrimination that people who have experienced mental illnesses have historically faced. The explicit inclusion, under Section 1 of the Health and Social Care Act, of mental health and mental illness alongside physical health and illness in new Section 1(1)(a) and (b) of the National Health Service Act 2006 is just one example, but the existing lack of parity between physical and mental health care is highly significant.
A recent, comprehensive report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Whole-person Care: From Rhetoric to Reality, estimated that mental illness represents nearly 23% of the disease burden in the United Kingdom, yet mental health care receives only 11% of the NHS budget. Despite mental illness representing the largest disease burden in the UK, it remains relatively underfunded, underresearched and underprioritised by politicians and policymakers. This situation needs urgent attention if parity of esteem and equality for those who experience mental illness is ever to be achieved.
Mental health is not just a matter for health and social care services. A recent study of people with depression found that more than three-quarters described discrimination in at least one area of their lives, and a quarter had not applied for employment because of their illness. The current financial crisis is at risk of disproportionately affecting those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This group often relies on state assistance to maintain equal access to basic human rights and to achieve the most fundamental of life goals, such as having a safe and comfortable place to live, and accessing education, healthcare and appropriate advocacy when needed. It is vital that in understanding the vulnerability of these people, their needs are prioritised and protected in all legislative changes.
This is perhaps never more important than in times of economic austerity, when competing demands on limited funds may result in disadvantage being compounded and those least able to advocate for themselves losing out to more vocal or visible interests. In striving for equality for people with learning disabilities, we need proactive legislation that addresses entrenched discriminatory practices and processes, and to scrutinise all legislative changes from their perspective.
Further legislation announced in the gracious Speech proposes to reform the way in which offenders are rehabilitated. This should provide the Government with an opportunity to access particularly vulnerable groups of people, who are often difficult to engage, with high rates of reoffending. The Prison Reform Trust, as part of its “No One Knows” project, estimated that,
“20-30% of offenders have learning difficulties or learning disabilities that interfere with their ability to cope within the criminal justice system”,
and I understand that 60% of prisoners have a reading age of less than five.
It is well documented that mental illness and addictions are significantly overrepresented in the offending population; for example, it is estimated that at any one time there are about 5,000 people with a serious mental illness in prison. Planned reforms to probation and rehabilitation services must hold these statistics to heart. Back-to-work programmes must include provisions for those with learning disabilities and literacy problems. Probation, substance misuse and mental health care services need to collaborate to improve the co-ordination of care and rehabilitation. Careful legislation and reforms backed by appropriate funding could bring great benefit not only to the individuals concerned but for society in its broadest sense.
On the question of victims being hurt and communities damaged, which was raised by the Minister, I must voice my disappointment about the lack of any legislation to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol. The BMA and the Royal College of Psychiatrists both believe that a minimum unit price would lead to a decrease in the thousands of alcohol-related deaths. This is not just a health issue but one that contributes to public disorder, domestic violence and homicide, as well as to suicide.
I will comment briefly on the Government’s plans to reduce crime. Fortunately, in this country we do not have the problem of firearms being widely available in people’s homes, as in the United States. Gun crime is relatively infrequent and, in wanting to reduce crime, the Government will be cognisant of this. However, noble Lords may not be aware that two-thirds of gun deaths in America are suicides and only one-third homicides—perhaps not what the Second Amendment, which permits American citizens to own guns, had in mind.
Our Government have the National Suicide Prevention Strategy, and the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness reviews all such deaths for people in contact with mental health services. After a decade of falling rates of suicide, there has been an upward trend since 2010. The highest rates of suicide in men since 2002 were recorded in 2011. Recent studies have shown what impact specific mental health service improvements have on suicide rates, but there is also evidence that restricting access to the methods used by suicidal people, including medication and guns, reduces the number of completed suicides. Maintaining a strong government position on suicide prevention at all ages and for all reasons is critical and, I suggest, needs a cross-government focus.
My reason for speaking about mental health and disability in today’s Motion for an humble Address is to raise awareness outside the health and social welfare agenda and to make the point that aspirations for a good life are also about relationships and respect, not just economic productivity.
Finally, while on the subject of respect, I must speak briefly about the Leveson inquiry. In supporting the royal charter and its attendant clauses of legislation, this Parliament took a historic step to protect citizens from abuse while safeguarding our free press from political interference. We should be proud of that and should now be able to look forward to the introduction of effective, independent press self-regulation. I trust that there really will be no looking back, despite attempts by editors and their organisations to derail the decisions made by Parliament by arguing for nothing more than the pre-Leveson status quo. Our press carries much responsibility for the tone of public discourse. I hope that our debates in this House will try to set a tone that others will follow.
My Lords, it is a great honour to take part in the debate on the most gracious Speech. Reading through the speech several times, I was struck by how central to everything is the economic situation in this country and how we have to measure everything against that.
The first statement in the gracious Speech is:
“My Government’s legislative programme will continue to focus on building a stronger economy so that the United Kingdom can compete and succeed in the world”.
I am fully aware that the debate today is considering constitutional affairs, equalities, home affairs, justice and law, but the state of the economy affects each and every one of those areas. We must arrange our finances to achieve the measures proposed; I suggest that we cannot debate any of them without considering the economy.
Despite all the valiant attempts of the Government to turn around the economic situation, and acknowledging that much has been done, the country remains in a fragile state. It is proving very hard to set the country back on the road to recovery. We can take some weak comfort from the fact that we are by no means in as serious trouble as many others. The message from the EU at the moment is decidedly grimmer, with members of the eurozone openly talking about huge and almost fatal difficulties.
It is imperative that we concentrate on the promotion of growth, on clearing up the financial mess left by the previous Administration, and on the necessity of creating new jobs, particularly for the young, who when they planned their futures, let us remember, never expected that youth unemployment would be one of the most worrying features of their post-school or post-higher education lives. The UK is to be given credit for having done much better than other EU member states, but so many young people today feel betrayed that the promises of good jobs in their bright future are not materialising.
Many of the measures proposed in the gracious Speech are excellent but will need a gargantuan effort to achieve. The energies and considerable resources of the Government must be focused on the economy.
Why am I speaking about the economy so much? The first reason is that I cannot take part in the debate on Monday, which will deal with the economy, because each Monday while the House is sitting—and occasionally when it is not—Sub-Committee B of the EU Select Committee meets to scrutinise documents, proposed directives and information from the European Commission and Parliament. The production of this mini-avalanche is relentless and the timetable is quite restricted. It is essential that we keep abreast and ahead. Secondly, I am convinced that the state of the economy is such that, as I said, every section of the gracious Speech can be measured against it.
Sadly, at a time when we face so many different and troubling challenges, the Government have decided to launch an astonishing attack on our tried and tested values by redefining marriage. Those of us who have been following the process in the other place knew perfectly well that the legislation was going to come here. It was perhaps wishful thinking that led so many people and sections of the population to believe that, because the Bill was not mentioned yesterday morning, it was not going to happen—mind you, that was put right within four hours.
Marriage is at the heart of our way of life, our communities and our country. The union of the two sexes, uniting men and women to each other and to their children, provides the foundation for human flourishing. We have heard today in this House a discussion about childcare and children not flourishing when they get to school because they have not had proper childcare. It is within the bounds of marriage that this happens.
Equality is put forward as the basic reason for this action by the Government, but very little more equality is needed. I think that we are talking more about equality in the name: some people want to say that they are married rather than suggesting that there is anything wrong with marriage at the moment or that marriage has equivalence with same-sex couples being together.
As everyone will remember, we had many discussions on the Civil Partnership Act. I remember clearly the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, agreeing that the Civil Partnership Act had caused more discrimination in another area. It is like pushing down one bit only for it to come up somewhere else. We were discussing the case of sisters—anyone who was there at the time will remember the injustice being done to them; your Lordships can look it up in Hansard. The noble and learned Baroness emphasised at the government Dispatch Box, “It is not for this Bill. I agree that it is discrimination, but it is not for this Bill at this time”. We accepted that, but when is it going to be tackled because, again, sisters are left out of it?
The evidence from social science is now emphatic that children do best when raised by their married mother and father. I mention just one example: a paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies observes that, even by the age of three, there are “significant differences” in outcomes between children born to married parents and those born outside marriage. Children born to married parents showed superior social, emotional and cognitive development. There are many other studies which provide powerful evidence of the positive benefits of marriage. Should we throw this up in the air?
Marriage will continue to be the bedrock of society only if it remains the legal union of one man and one woman. The current plans seek to change the meaning of marriage. Such a complete rewriting of a fundamental social institution can have only serious and some unpredictable consequences. Many people question whether the Government have the moral authority to attempt this redefinition. Most people in this country object to its imposition over their heads; they want marriage to remain as it is.
It greatly saddens me that my party is pursuing such a radical and aggressive social agenda and in such an undemocratic fashion—and I repeat, “undemocratic”. I listened carefully to my noble friend Lord Fowler, with whom we have jostled many times on these issues. I say that there is no mandate to make this change since the idea is not in our manifesto—nor indeed is it in those of the other parties; my noble friend says that that does not really matter and that, after all, the dock labour scheme changes were not in the manifesto. Well, I consider that the dock labour scheme, which was wonderful and achieved a lot, is nothing like as important as the fundamental rocking of the state of social cohesion in this country.
The proposal to redefine marriage is unpopular and wholly unnecessary. I was very struck by my noble friend’s argument that the only power in this country lies with the elected representatives. It is a cogent case which I accept, but if there are elected representatives, what are they elected for? They are elected to listen to their constituents and to represent those thoughts—if they do not show them the error of their ways—in the national Parliament. It seems to me that in this case the representatives have all the power because, as my noble friend says, the only people with power in the country are the MPs. However, they do not have any responsibility, because they do not seem to be taking any responsibility to listen to their constituents—certainly not on this matter.
Does not my noble friend agree that the argument of my noble friend Lord Fowler about the sovereignty of the House of Commons would be much more powerful if the Government were not imposing a timetable Motion on the consideration of these matters by the elected House?
I could never have said it as well as that, but I thank my noble friend.
What is likely to be the reaction of those who have been made summarily redundant and have to rely on food banks to tide them over until they can access benefits, of those thousands of young people whom I have already described, who are living in a state of deep concern, and of pensioners holding steadfastly to values who are suffering from receiving no interest on their savings and the rising costs of energy, when they witness the Government pushing ahead on a Bill that does not address any of those areas? I will tell you what they are probably thinking: have the Government lost their reason? They must have done so to justify the emphasis on redefining marriage while all else is in an unstable and worrying state.
I believe that it is a deeply flawed Bill and a deeply concerning attack on the values of great swathes of the population. Where is the pressure coming from? Are the Government taking any notice of the widespread antipathy to the redefinition of marriage? It is a wrong Bill, and it beggars belief that the Government have wantonly decided to push it through at any time, let alone when we are in such a parlous state.
Marriage must be supported and valued, not dismantled. For the sake of the future of marriage in this country, I urge the Government to admit graciously that this has been a great mistake and drop the Bill.
My Lords, I first spoke in a debate on the then gracious Speech in March 1974. I recall being mystified by that vital penultimate sentence heard again today: “other measures will be laid before you”. I could not then imagine that such innocent, innocuous words could be so important, but on many occasions since, they have proved to be the most significant warning of political earthquakes to be anticipated—in Harold Macmillan’s words, “Events, dear boy, events”. Those words today give me—and, it would seem, many other Members who have spoken in the debate—hope that there will be other vital measures excluded at present from the text of the gracious Speech.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Lang, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred yesterday to the absence from the gracious Speech of any reference to reform of your Lordships’ House. For once, I and my party shed no tears for that omission. We could hardly have expected the resurrection of the Government’s 2012 Bill.
However, it is salutary to remind Members that, far from being defeated in the House of Commons, as some members of this House have recently started to claim, the Bill received a record majority last July of 338 votes at Second Reading in the other place. Indeed, a majority of MPs in all three major parties supported it: 193 votes to 89 in the Conservative Party, 202 votes to 26 in the Labour Party and 53 votes to nil in the Liberal Democrats.
I agree with everything that my noble friend Lord Fowler said earlier. He made an extraordinarily powerful case for the primacy of the House of Commons in this debate, as also in the others to which he referred. Had the Labour Party agreed to a programme Motion—any programme Motion—to ensure that the time on the Bill was well managed, we would now, in May 2013, be faced with legislation which had received Royal Assent, or which had been carried over, or a Bill which was to be subjected to the provisions of the Parliament Act. I suggest that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, was being rather disingenuous yesterday in failing to acknowledge the role that her party played in postponing serious reform. The truth is that her party sacrificed political reform at the altar of political opportunism. When its time came to make a difference, it funked it.
I am certain that the matter of reforming this House will come back to us in due course. Unless the result of the 2015 general election is a very long way from the current state of the parties, there will certainly be a majority in favour of reform. I hope that then, rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel, the incoming Cabinet—whatever its political composition—will simply reintroduce the 2012 Bill, which was backed by such a huge majority in this Parliament, and get on with the job in a workmanlike manner.
Meanwhile, to avoid any possible perception or accusation of personal interest, I suggest that party leaders would be wise to make it clear that any MP who voted to retain the fully appointed House should not expect to be nominated to join us here. It would do nothing for the reputation of either House of Parliament, or of politics generally, for them to be seen to be rewarded for putting self-interest ahead of their manifesto promises to the electorate.
I know that one “other measure” that many in this House would like laid before us is progress on modest changes to the membership of the House, along the lines of the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood. Through all the muttering about this, I am never quite sure which Bill colleagues are referring to: Steel mark 1, which would have converted hereditary Peers into life Peers by abolishing the barmy by-elections, or Steel mark 2, which was filleted for easy digestion by hereditary Peers even before it completed its Committee stage in your Lordships’ House? The latter would hardly change the current situation. After all, there is already a retirement scheme—two Members have taken advantage of it—and the only other provisions related to disqualification. Anyone inside or outside this House who pinned their hopes on that latter Bill relieving overcrowding or easing the entry of new Peers was doomed to disappointment. Had the original Bill survived, I for one might have been bemoaning its absence from the gracious Speech, but the absence of Steel Mark 2 is no loss.
There are two other commitments in the party manifestos and the coalition agreement that seem to have been lost along the way, and which I still hope will be seen in this Session as “other measures”. First, the coalition agreement boldly stated:
“We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency”.
I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues in both Houses had high hopes of progress on that issue. It was indeed the Prime Minister who, as Leader of the Opposition, in the run-up to the 2010 election, rightly said that unregulated lobbying was,
“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
However, we also know that solid and sensible proposals have been considered in government, and cannot understand why they have been delayed.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, said, lobbying by and for powerful interests—she may have been thinking of the Murdoch empire—under both the previous and the present Government has brought to the fore the urgent need to deal with lobbying. I understand that Mr Lynton Crosby, who previously helped the Conservative Party when it was “the nasty party”, is reputed to consider such issues as mere barnacles on the ship of state to be completely ignored in deciding electoral principles. As an Antipodean, he should know that too many barnacles can dangerously impede the smooth travel of any vessel on a long-distance voyage. I prefer the view of Cameron to Crosby, of the captain to the cabin boy, of the organ-grinder to the monkey.
Then we come to the vexed issue of money and politics. Following firm commitments in party manifestos in 2010, the coalition agreement promised:
“We will also pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics”.
Those interparty discussions have indeed been taking place, but apparently without any outcome. We can hope only that they, too, will still result in “other measures” in this Session. The current situation is far from satisfactory. As a member of the informal all-party group which advises the Electoral Commission, I have been only too well aware of the yawning gaps in the present monitoring, reporting and control regime when it comes to the funding of political campaigning activity which falls outside the normal definitions of party and candidate support. An enterprising Russian oligarch, bored with football clubs, or some other maverick multi-millionaire could completely distort the campaigns in 2014 and 2015. Buying political influence through third-party campaigning organisations with vast sums of money, from outside the well established rules for the parties, could take us along the discredited road that they have experienced in the USA.
To draw attention to this unsatisfactory situation, and to emphasise that this is certainly unfinished business after the excellent November 2011 report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on this issue, I and a number of parliamentarians from across parties have been contributing to the preparation of a draft Bill. This will be published for consultation next week at a seminar to be chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly, newly retired as chairman of that committee. In the absence of proposals from the Government or from those official discussions, we can but hope that this draft Bill could still stimulate yet another “other” measure for this Session. Certainly, without appropriate legislation, there is a real danger that the campaigns for the 2014 European parliamentary elections and for the general election a year later—and their outcomes—could be mired in controversy. Where then would be the promise of this Government to take the big money out of politics?
I welcome what the gracious Speech does to maintain the Government’s course towards a stronger, more sustainable economy while building a fairer society. There are many measures in the gracious Speech that will assist in these endeavours, and it is these that are central to the Liberal Democrat contribution to the coalition. But on these Benches we still strongly believe that a fairer society is also contingent on open, plural politics in which all views are represented and all voices heard. We will continue to press for those “other measures” that would help to make that happen.
My Lords, yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Lang of Monkton, in his witty and elegant speech, moved the Motion for an humble Address to Her Majesty. His tone was, for the most part, light and genial. He did, however, refer to one passage in the gracious Speech. He noted the words:
“My Ministers will … work in co-operation with the devolved Administrations”,
and added, rather dryly, that,
“co-operation is a two-way street”.—[Official Report, 8/5/13; col. 7.]
I take this observation as my starting point.
In March this year, the McKay commission report, or more properly the report of the Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons, was published. The Government had asked the McKay commission in effect to deal with or attempt to solve the vexed West Lothian question posed famously by Tam Dalyell, the MP for West Lothian, in the devolution debates of the 1970s. Tam Dalyell pointed out that, post-devolution, MPs from outside England could help to determine laws that apply in England, while MPs from England would have no reciprocal influence on laws outside England in the policy fields for which the devolved Administrations would now be responsible. Sir William McKay was a distinguished Clerk of the House of Commons from 1998 to 2002, and his commissioners are a most distinguished group. Their answer is an interesting one.
The thrust of the McKay commission report is a suggestion that whenever measures separately affect England, or England and Wales, the voice of England is heard before the final word is spoken by the House as a whole. As Professor Yvonne Galligan, one of the commission’s members, expressed it on “The Thoughtful Scholar” blog, the essence is that,
“we want all MPs to retain the right of final say, while allowing for the voice of England to be heard”.
I am not sure that the West Lothian question is not fundamentally insoluble. As the McKay commission report quite rightly points out, the question predates Scottish issues. It was in fact initially an Irish issue: these questions were discussed between Parnell and Gladstone in the 1880s. They could not resolve the difficulty, the reason lying fundamentally in the fact that they could not define what a purely English question was. I am not sure whether this problem does not still lurk behind what is, in so many respects, a very impressive and interesting report.
However, the report at least signals quite clearly the existence of something: the growing element of an English question in our polity. It is quite disturbing, as your Lordships will see if they look at the commission’s tables of English public opinion, that there is a growing impatience with, for example, the level of public expenditure in the devolved Administrations. This is a matter which those of us who live in areas governed by those devolved Administrations, as I do, have to take into consideration. Those Administrations also have to consider a sentiment of growing edginess in English public opinion—perhaps not an explosive edginess, but an edginess that is certainly growing—about what appears to be a double weighting of the political class of Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales: the sense that, in principle, that political class has its own bailiwick, which cannot be interfered with, but that it can also play a decisive role in the affairs of England. In such a context, it is important not to add any new cause for exacerbation between the devolved Assemblies and the Westminster Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Lang, said yesterday, co-operation is a two-way street.
It is precisely for that reason that I have been disturbed by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s decision, as it seems, not to apply but to reject the recent Defamation Bill, which was passed by Parliament. There are very important reasons to be disturbed by this development. Perhaps selfishly, as an academic, I would stress that one of the core elements of that Bill is the attempt to expand the academic freedom of discussion and to protect those who write for peer-reviewed journals. It is very important for university culture throughout the United Kingdom generally that such a protection should be there, for both scientists and those who work in the humanities. It is important for those who work in universities in Northern Ireland, as I in fact do, that such a protection is there for them as well. In the struggle to have good universities, which is fundamental to the economic success of a region such as Northern Ireland, it sends out a bad signal if the local Assembly displays itself as fundamentally indifferent to the tone or substance of academic freedom as an issue.
More profound than that, of course, is the issue on which there has been much recent comment in the press: that Belfast would now become the new libel capital of the United Kingdom, London having lost its previously perceived role as libel capital of the world as a result of the changes in the law. If this were to happen and Belfast became, as the dark joke now has it, a town called Sue, it will place enormous, and I suspect in some way unfair, burdens on the local judiciary. It would send out a signal that again would be disturbing. One of our media lawyers in Belfast, Mr Paul McDonnell, unselfishly made the point that while it would increase his income enormously if this gap and the status quo remained, as envisaged by the Assembly, he would simply regard it none the less as morally unacceptable. He went on to say that,
“investigations in the public interest which concern well-funded entities will effectively be subject to censorship by the back door”.
Censorship by the back door is something which I do not think a devolved Assembly wants to get into or to sanction in any way.
I understand from newspaper reports that the Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland are uneasy about the McKay commission report. I can understand why they might feel that way. MPs from the devolved regions will be very nervous about anything that hints at all at creating a second-class status of MP. It is a very sensitive question within the United Kingdom, even though the report itself has tried to deal with it as subtly as it conceives to be possible. However, I quite understand why the Northern Irish MPs are, according to newspaper reports, uneasy and unsympathetic. As the Troubles have receded as a kind of natural focus of obsession for our MPs, the range of interventions made by Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland across the board on different policy aspects in Westminster life has been one of the most refreshing aspects of the work of this Parliament. I understand their unease but, as the noble Lord, Lord Lang, said, co-operation is a two-way street.
It might well be in the interests, at certain points, of the Scottish National Party or Alex Salmond to do things that exacerbate or irritate opinion in the rest of the United Kingdom, but it cannot be in the interests of those who represent Northern Ireland, or the great majority of them at the Westminster Parliament or the majority parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, similarly to exacerbate opinion in Westminster.
My Lords, last night I had to return to my diocese for an event involving community leaders. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the Queen’s Speech and the implications for Devon. As I listened to what was being said, the issue was one not only of implication but of translation. Increasingly there is a sense of a loss of not only a common agenda across the country but also a common language.
In contrast with a decade ago, the nature of the issues which we as a nation are grappling with now are more disturbing and existential. At the turn of the millennium, a number of benign developments were working themselves through—the recent enactment of the Human Rights Act, devolution to Wales and Scotland and a political deal in Northern Ireland. The agenda now is of an altogether different character. Is Scotland to remain part of the UK? Is the UK to remain part of the EU? Is there to be a common understanding of marriage not just between church and state but across the different jurisdictions of this relatively small group of islands? These issues, in turn, raise deep questions about national identity, questions which have enormous consequences and ought not to be settled solely by reference to the moods and passions of the moment, nor especially the moods and passions of a metropolitical mindset that feels increasingly disconnected from the realities of life elsewhere, including the south-west.
In parenthesis, perhaps I might mention an interesting article by Neil O’Brien on the growing problem of “Londonitis”, in which he says:
“London has always been different from the rest of the country. But in recent decades the differences have widened to the point that, economically and socially, the capital now has little in common with the rest of Britain … The politicians, civil servants and journalists who make up Britain’s governing class have had their world view shaped by living in the capital and its wealthy satellites. They run one country, but effectively live in another … The priorities of the people they know are often different”.
In terms of the policies that we are at times offered and the rhetoric used to support them, many miles from London it often feels just like this.
In this context it is interesting to reflect on the book that the former US ambassador to the UK, Ray Seitz, produced in the 1990s. As the first professional diplomat to be US ambassador at the Court of St James, he contrasted the British and American approach to handling difference. He said that in his country when people disagreed, they tended to go their separate ways and do their own thing. The frontier spirit meant that there was always new territory where you could set up on your own. By contrast, the experience of living on a relatively small island had bred the habits of accommodation, compromise and trying to rub along together.
The Church of England could be seen, historically, as an embodiment of that approach, trying, so far as possible, to hold people in, working for the good of the whole community, not drawing tight lines around its membership. However, increasingly it is not something that the church finds as easy as it used to. Witness, for example, the temporary failure last November to reach a way forward on women bishops. But what we are experiencing in the church we see writ large in wider society. The holding together of diversity in unity, with a common language and shared frame of reference for public policy and community values, seems to be something that wider society is finding even more difficult. Various attempts to engage with this issue through the language of the big society or one nation—fill in the blank yourself—do not seem to have had much real effect. A growing tendency to grapple with the challenge through defining ever more issues in terms of enforceable, justiciable rights has not been entirely helpful because it has tended to foster the notion that solutions are best found through forensic arguments, when what is most often needed are negotiation, mediation, accommodation, and reasonable give and take.
I was not going to say anything about the so-called equal marriage Bill, but I have been moved by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, to say that that is one of the things that I find so disturbing. The steamrollering through of a Bill that will fundamentally challenge long-standing and shared values—and, indeed, a fundamental building block of society—without ever being tested at the ballot box is troubling. Cohesion and community are built on consultation and consent. In short, I am suggesting that what is required in church and state is a fresh engagement with that tradition of Christian social teaching embodied in the concept of the common good.
Times of social hardship and economic stringency, such as those we are facing at present, can lead to the increasing fragmentation of society, the polarisation of communities and an increase in the pressures which can appear to be forcing us apart. Sometimes this is so quite literally, when legislation and public policy have the effect, intended or unintended, of forcing people from their home and disconnecting them from existing networks of support and care at precisely the point of vulnerability where there is the greatest need. This is because communities that care for the young and the old and that have sufficient energy to shape local public life, including public services, exist where people are able to settle in one place long enough to create trusting relationships. Relationships with neighbours, teachers, doctors, shopkeepers, those who deliver the post or see children safely across the road to school—they are the community. They enable us to invest in making the place we live in together better. This means, of course, that communities are also central to how we care for our environment. It is communities with an investment in place that will battle to get cars off their streets so that children can play safely, band together to clean up their local park and get to know, protect and love their local woodland and the wildlife it supports. This trinity of community, place and identity has a vital contribution to make to the common good, but it is easily undermined through carelessness in legislation and regulation as much as anything else.
I have referred to the economically stringent times in which we live. Pain may so easily be responded to with short-term populism but with long-term divisive effects. By contrast, history shows us that such times may frequently bring out the best in us, as we seek to ensure that the most vulnerable are not neglected and that an atomised society does not allow its members to disappear beyond the reach of loving relationships. The present period of austerity is no exception, and it is not difficult to think of examples of this being precisely the case with regard to the church. I cite the church’s response to the urban riots of 2011, with the remarkable ability to mobilise its members being a splendid example of spontaneous yet effective action for the good of the community.
Compared to the 1980s, the church’s response to such circumstances now seems to be less focused on structures and more on rapid responsiveness, quicker to learn from each other, less inclined to reinvent a wheel in every local setting and—fascinatingly, in terms of my earlier comments about signs of a loss of generous cohesion—taken up across the spectrum of different strands that make up the complexity of the church. The fruits of such responses I see right across my diocese in, for example, the work of street pastors, the growing number of food banks and initiatives such as the Seaton FREEdom Café, which provides free food and free friendship for all. Each is an example of community supported by churches serving community. There are perhaps lessons here for our wider society and for the Government as they seek to implement some of the aspirations laid out in the Queen’s Speech.
In drawing attention to the church in this way, I am merely drawing on that element of the nation’s life which is my prime focus. Others could speak similarly of the responsiveness and contribution of other faith communities and of a whole range of organisations and movements within the voluntary sector.
However, with the mention of these, I want to offer a warning. All the various components of civil society undoubtedly have a contribution to make to the fostering of the common good. Nevertheless, none should be expected to bear, or be asked to accept, a weight for which it is not equipped. Part of the problem that we face in trying to achieve a sense of cohesion and mutual belonging in our society today is that the strong, informal, local community and voluntary structures that existed even in past decades have become more and more attenuated so that the balance between local neighbourliness and state provision has been skewed unsustainably. Her Majesty’s Government are right to recognise that this balance has to be redressed, but the churches and the voluntary sector are not in the business of replacing comprehensive provision with patchy charity. What is necessary is that they are fully engaged in shaping a language and a policy framework that respects and balances solidarity and subsidiarity in the interests of the whole of the United Kingdom’s common good.
My Lords, I begin with the hope, but not much expectation, that the House of Lords will not be inundated this coming Session, as it was during the previous Session, with too many Bills of a similar nature, often containing interacting content, and with large sections of Bills coming from the other place not examined at all.
That said, the coalition Government are to be congratulated on much of the content of the gracious Speech, in that it certainly contains and confronts some issues that have been ignored by previous Governments. Not least among them is the existing situation in the UK, which has an increasingly ageing and costly population and totally inadequate resources to provide them with a dignified end to life. The state certainly has not budgeted the necessary resources for them for far too long, and nor, in the majority of cases, has the individual. If, to meet the existing situation, the Government can genuinely provide a neighbourly way in which we all share the responsibility of caring for this ageing generation, preferably in their home environment, and if, in addition, the Government can devise, for the long term, a scheme by which people pay for such care during their working life and are therefore not obliged to sell their homes to meet the cost, considerable progress can be claimed. However—forgive the cynicism—I shall await more detailed examination during the Committee stage of any such Bill before I am sure of exactly how much progress can be genuinely claimed.
There clearly will be interest in and concern about the Government’s plans to provide an alternative method of dealing with offenders who would currently be given a year’s imprisonment. The concern, which I share, is over the effect this will have on the probation service. As I have mentioned in other debates, immediately the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, began his reform plans for that service a few years ago, I would have looked for another job if I had been a probation officer. So how many probation officers will lose their jobs as a result of Chris Grayling’s plans? Almost certainly the answer will not be good news for those officers or for our quite invaluable probation service.
Having said that, the interest of the scheme is in the realisation that a short, costly period in prison serves no useful purpose at all. The proposed scheme recognises that nearly 60% of these 50,000 offenders reoffend. The Government propose to give their payment-by-results plan to organisations that will mentor and supervise each offender. Presumably the aim is to get them into a job or training and a place to live as a basic beginning. Will this idea lead to a much earlier look at the family history of offenders? If that were a result, I suspect that some useful evidence would be uncovered in many cases of the offending background from which today’s offenders come, which might help—I certainly hope it would—to press the case for the early intervention policy of Frank Field and Graham Allen.
Turning to our more immediate tasks in the Lords, I join other noble Lords in welcoming many aspects of the Children and Families Bill, which your Lordships’ House will be receiving shortly from the other place. The earlier placement of a child with the right potential adopters—the fostering for adoption policy—is clearly sensible, as is loosening the requirement to find perfect ethnic matches. The urgent need is for each child in that situation to have a family. The expansion of the right of parents of both sexes to request flexible working during the statutory maternity leave period is another welcome step, but one must still hope for a more sensible long-term policy which allows flexible working for parents throughout their children’s childhood to become the norm. Equally important, in light of the Government’s desire and incentives to encourage more business start-ups, would be to make flexible working available for everyone.
Part 5 deals with the role of the Children’s Commissioner. It is also crucial, particularly the commissioner’s greater independence from government and the requirement to produce an annual report to Parliament. Anyone who has read Always Someone Else’s Problem, the report from Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England, on illegal school exclusions, will realise how important that independence is. The picture painted in her report of the use of exclusion in some schools for SEN pupils—no doubt in an effort to meet the necessary school attainment levels—is very worrying.
The concerns of Dr Atkinson in that report reminded me all too vividly of a very similar situation which existed many years ago when I was, for some 20 years, chairman of a London juvenile court. Whenever a youngster appeared for committing a criminal offence, we would immediately adjourn proceedings for a school report. In almost every such case the child’s school attendance record was either appalling or non-existent. For, alas, in those days too, the incentive for teachers to turn a blind eye to disruptive or difficult children not turning up for school was equally self-evident. I am glad to say that we always started with at least one adjournment of the case to see if school attendance could be resumed before passing sentence for the actual offence committed.
Equally worrying are other concerns of families with SEN children. Scope’s recent report Keep Us Close points out that 62% of the families it surveyed say that the services they require are not available in their local area. Unsurprisingly, this causes 80% of these families anxiety and stress. Scope is also concerned that the Bill’s local offer does little more than require local authorities to set out the support available—that is, a directory of services—with no requirement on them to improve either the quality or availability of such services. This will clearly require more detailed examination of the Bill during its later stages. Again, unsurprisingly, Scope is concerned that the accountability measures around the local offer are not strong enough for parents to be able to hold local authorities to account to access the support they are entitled to.
I fear that, as in the previous Session, we shall, again, spend more time in trying to ensure that maximum support is made available for SEN families, who have an even harder time in ensuring that their basic needs are met, not least when so little legal aid is now available.
My Lords, I will not follow the example of the noble Baroness who has just spoken by referring to the contents of the Queen’s Speech. My attention has been drawn to something that was published a few weeks before the ending of the last Session. I refer to a report that has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bew: the McKay report, entitled the “Report of the Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons”. As the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said, that report was sparked largely as a response to the clear sense of grievance among many people in England about how devolution has worked out.
That sense of grievance is very real, and there is substance behind it in that they have seen over the last few years a number of cases of different policies and decisions being taken in some of the devolved areas that have left people in England feeling that things are in some respect unfair. That is a real feeling, and it should be addressed, but I would hope that the McKay commission, in addressing this issue, looked a bit more broadly at the issue in question.
One point to make is that while there have been cases of significant variations in social policy in a devolved area from social policy here, if you look at the broad scope of policy you will find that those differences occur in quite a minority of cases. In all the devolved regions, the same broad scope of social policy that is brought in with regard to England and Wales also occurs in the devolved regions. There are a number of reasons why what is decided on in Whitehall still rolls out into the regions as a whole. One of them is that, as noble Lords will remember, people in some areas complain about policies made on a postcode basis. That concern to avoid the postcode lottery applies just as much to people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their expectations of social policy are set largely by the media. Of course, in the United Kingdom we have a highly concentrated media, so people’s expectations are largely set by the largely Anglocentric, London-based media, and they expect to see the same things happening in their area.
Another factor that one should bear in mind is that the policies brought up by Her Majesty’s Government are policies that evolve within the Whitehall departments, which actually have a greater policy-making capacity than their equivalents in the regions. This is particularly true for the region that I am most familiar with, which is the smallest of them all. Our policy-making capacity was limited. We knew that the folk in London would have a broader range of persons to draw on to draw up the policy. Therefore, the regions, and the public services in the regional areas, tend to look to what is happening in the centre. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, for example, is separate from the Government, but when in the 1990s the Arts Council of England started to focus very much on outreach, community arts and all the rest of it—bingo, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland followed exactly the same patterns and borrowed a lot of its paperwork, such as application forms, from the Arts Council of England. There is, therefore, a tendency in the regions to look to Whitehall for guidance on policy.
That tendency is then reinforced by quite a significant mechanism that is not terribly widely known about, and is not mentioned at all in the McKay report: the joint ministerial councils. JMCs are brought into existence by the Government here in London in order to involve the devolved regions in the formulation of policy—in other words, to get them to buy into the policy that will come from the Whitehall departments. There is no statutory basis for the JMCs; it is simply a practice. However, as so often happens in our case, the way in which things are done matters as much as what is said in the print of legislation.
The third thing, which cuts both ways because as one will see it helps to explain why there are such differences as well as uniformity, is the way in which the Barnett formula operates. Because Barnett relates to increases in public expenditure in England, in effect it finances the regions to carry out the policy determined in England. Increases in funding in England will happen because of the policies that the Government here adopt. Therefore, the money that goes to the regions is the money that is needed to carry out those policies regionally. What went wrong with Barnett, which the Select Committee of this House went into a couple of Sessions ago—I was a member of that Committee, which perhaps helps me in dealing with this—is that it became clear that in a number of cases there was what we called a Barnett bypass: the Barnett formula was not strictly followed, and some regional Administrations were quite adept in persuading London to give them extra money. The most successful at that was Scotland, because the Secretaries of State for Scotland regarded their primary job as making sure that Scotland did better than anywhere else, and they were most effective at it.
The McKay report, interestingly, comments on how it notices that the Members of Parliament for the devolved regions still do not seem to be terribly interested in arguing for more funds for their region. Of course they do not: it was their Secretaries of State who did that. The ordinary Member of Parliament did not need to do it for Wales and Scotland because they were dependent on their Secretary of State. I suppose that to a certain extent we did the same in Northern Ireland. However, leaving aside for a moment the circumstances in which successive Ministers managed to do particularly well for their department, in the broad run of Barnett it is to reinforce the policies that are adopted elsewhere. There is a slight reference to the Barnett formula in the McKay report—I will come back to that in a moment—but had McKay looked more closely at the factors that led to the evolution of policy, it may have given a better result.
At the core of the McKay report is a policy or principle which they put forward as something that should underlie the constitutional relationship between London and the devolved regions. Paragraph 109 of the report says:
“Decisions at the United Kingdom level having a separate and distinct”—
I note that that is italicised—
“effect for a component part of the United Kingdom should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of the elected representatives for that part of the United Kingdom”.
The key issue is the question of having a separate or distinct effect. The question then depends on how you define that.
Noble Lords will also notice that the principle also refers to decisions at UK level. In fact, McKay’s terms of reference do not focus on decisions. McKay was asked to produce a report on legislation. The bulk of the McKay report deals with procedures in the House of Commons with regard to legislation. There is a problem with the way McKay understandably focuses on decisions, because decisions and policy give rise to the sense of grievance. This morphs into the question of legislation. The problem with the notion of separate and distinct is how you define it. In paragraph 136, McKay says that separate and distinct is easier to define in practice than in the abstract. No effort is then made to define it in the abstract. Perhaps one can understand why.
However, the issue has been looked at for decades within our government system. It is a key part of the Barnett formula. Every time a policy evolves from Whitehall departments, or a decision is taken, the Treasury has to take a decision. Paragraph 44 of our report on the Barnett formula states:
“When making spending decisions for a project or event in England the Treasury has to decide whether that expenditure is ‘UK-wide’ or ‘England only’. The decision to categorise spending in England as ‘England only’ requires an exercise of judgment by the Treasury triggering a ‘consequential’ payment through the Barnett Formula to the devolved administrations. By contrast categorising expenditure as ‘UK-wide’ does not trigger a ‘consequential’ payment”.
The report goes on to give examples. The example that it gives of UK-wide expenditure is the Olympic Games. They did not trigger consequentials. The example given by the report of expenditure in England on a national policy was Crossrail. The money is spent in London. It is part of a national policy of providing an effective rail network, so the England-only decision triggers a Barnett consequential.
I am afraid that this gets a little complicated, because while McKay talks about the separate and distinct effect in England that requires special procedures in the other place, under Barnett terminology “England only” triggers a consequential and so is not separate and distinct from England. That is hugely important. Unfortunately there is no discussion of this in McKay. The report makes a couple of references to consequential payments as side-effects of decisions. If it reflected more fully on Barnett and the fact that Barnett consequentials are attracted by decisions that are “England only”, in Treasury speak, it would see that the number of occasions on which procedures to do with things that were separate and distinct in England would be comparatively few and limited.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said, there is an interesting history to this. It is mentioned in only one sentence in McKay, which refers to the home rule Bills. The noble Lord told us that the problem was just that Parnell and Gladstone could not agree. With respect to him, I should say that the problem was a little wider than that. There were three home rule Bills, and the persons who framed the Bills had to put a provision into them relating to this. They may have had difficulty working out the basis on which they would take a decision, but they had to take a decision. Therefore, in each of the three home rule Bills, a different decision was adopted as to what to do with this sort of problem. I will not go through all of them in detail.
In summary, in the first home rule Bill they decided to solve the problem by not having any Irish MPs in the House of Commons. In the second they decided that that was not a good idea and that they would ignore the problem so that all the Irish MPs would be in the House of Commons. The third home rule Bill was not titled a home rule Bill because the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was intended to apply to all Ireland but was operational only with regard to Northern Ireland. Their basis was, “We’ll have a sort of compromise, but we can’t think of a principle on which to make a compromise so we’ll roughly divide representation of the Irish area in the House of Commons by half. We’ll just give them half the MPs that strictly speaking they’re entitled to”.
None of those decisions involved a clear principle. I am not surprised, because I do not think that there are any issues of principle in dealing with this. The West Lothian issue, created by the flamboyant Member for that area, was a marvellous bit of rhetoric in terms of its argument, but the reality of the situation was that the House of Commons decided that devolution was going to apply not universally but to only three comparatively small areas, for particular reasons that I will come to in a moment.
It is entirely up to our sovereign Parliament to decide that it is going to change the way in which business is done. If it is done in an unbalanced way but Parliament wishes to do it like that, that is entirely within its capacity. When people worry about the relationships between the devolved Assemblies and Parliament, they should bear in mind that they are not talking about the same things. There is only one sovereign Parliament. The devolved Administrations are not sovereign. They have a limited capacity that in no way changes the capacity of the sovereign Parliament, which could, if it wished, legislate for the devolved areas or decide to abolish devolution at any time, in which case we would not need to look at things further. That is the underlying situation.
Before I leave the question of home rule, I will mention one little side-effect. It is another issue that people might like to look at. Between the various home rule Bills, another area that was deeply discussed was the fiscal powers of the devolved Administration. The view of what fiscal powers could be devolved to the Administration changed with each of the three Bills. It got narrower as it went on. I hope that the people who in some Scotland-related areas talk about devo-max will look at what was thought about this when those Bills were considered. They will find that the view taken then was that the scope in fiscal matters for what is now called devo-max was very limited. I hope that people will look at that.
My final point is that one of the ironies of the situation is that, at the end of the day, devolution was considered necessary in those areas because of the way in which England, by having 85% of the population of the United Kingdom, had become so dominant that the London-based Administration repeatedly failed to take local circumstances fully into account. Devolution was intended to balance that. It would be hugely ironic and very damaging if, as a result and consequence of devolution, special measures were taken in the House of Commons to see that the representatives of the 15% were further marginalised.
My Lords, I will speak on an issue that I very much hope we will see included in the coming Session’s legislative programme. In doing so, I declare my interests as recorded in the Register of Lords’ Interests, my chairmanship of the Security Industry Authority until January of this year, and my membership of the Independent Police Commission.
The measure I wish to raise relates to the way in which the private security sector, which is increasingly important in policing and safeguarding considerable amounts of public and private space, is regulated in the future. Regulation of the private security industry over the past eight years has been very successful. Do not take my word for it; ask those who work in the industry. That is why there was such an uproar in 2010 when, as part of the now infamous bonfire of the quangos, the coalition Government proposed to deregulate the sector and abolish the regulator. This was fiercely opposed, not just by most of the industry through its major professional bodies but by the Scottish Government and by the Northern Ireland Office. In the end, the Government agreed that although they would abolish the Security Industry Authority in its current form, this would be as part of a transition to a new regulatory regime in which businesses would play a more active role. This was something I had been advocating for some time.
We were told that this would be a speedy transition. Indeed, I was told in no uncertain terms by the Home Secretary herself in early 2011 that this change was regarded by the Government as urgent and had to be completed by the end of 2013 at the latest. When I protested that this was a very demanding and possibly unrealistic time scale, I was firmly told that completion by the end of 2013 had to be the target. Now here we are in May 2013, and how far have we got in the transition process? We have seen no legislation thus far, and nothing definite has been promised in the Queen’s Speech. Not surprisingly, private security companies are clamouring for progress, particularly in regard to what they and the Security Industry Authority wanted in 2010—namely, a move to licensing businesses rather than individuals. It has repeatedly been promised by the Home Office, and may indeed be brought about through secondary legislation in the autumn, but the problem is that secondary legislation would not enable a new regulatory body to be established or allow for a full and effective range of sanctions and penalties to enforce the move to business licensing.
I fear that the Government have impaled themselves on a hook of their own making. There is an obsession with deregulation, and we are promised a Bill to reduce what is perceived to be the excessive regulation on businesses. This is no doubt making it extremely difficult for the Home Office to sell the move from individual to business licensing to the Cabinet Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, since this could be seen as increasing the regulatory burden on industry rather than reducing it. But to move to business licensing in the private security industry through secondary legislation without the capacity for enforcement of the new regime through appropriate penalties and sanctions will not be effective, which is why private security businesses are so anxious to see primary legislation deliver the transition to the regime that was promised in 2010. Recent research reveals why they see this as so important. A group of businesses that were surveyed about regulation, including small private security companies, said that they wanted not less but better regulation, to ensure that higher quality, compliant firms were not undercut by cheaper, unscrupulous operators. Business licensing without proper sanctions to enforce the regime will not avoid this danger, so instead of obsessing about deregulation, the Government should commit themselves to introduce the necessary primary legislation to underpin the licensing of private security businesses. In addition to an appropriate and effective range of penalties and sanctions, the new regulatory body that is established will also need to be equipped with effective gateways to national bodies, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency and the Home Office with regard to the right to work, to enable it to work effectively with major partners in the fight against fraud and crime. I hope that the Minister will be able to give an indication at the end of the debate as to how soon such primary legislation can be introduced.
Another casualty of the new coalition Government in 2010 was the regulation of private investigators. This was ready to be brought in in the spring of 2010, but the incoming coalition Government immediately halted the work. Before too long, of course, the Leveson inquiry showed the folly of the delay. Private security industry regulation was introduced in 2001 to protect the public, and it must be extended to include private investigators as a matter of urgency. The relevant professional bodies want it, the regulator is ready to work on it, and I would be most grateful if the Minister could tell me when this urgent measure will be introduced.
The private security industry clearly recognises the need to raise standards across the industry and has worked hard in recent years to introduce more professionalisation and chartered status for industry bodies and individuals. There are now over 750 approved contractor companies, covering around two-thirds of the workforce in the private security industry. What have the Government done to encourage this trend? In Scotland, to win a contract funded by the public sector, a company has to have approved contractor status. The Scottish Government have insisted on it, but no such provision exists in England. Yet it is absolutely essential that the Government work with the industry to raise standards, because the public increasingly rely for their safety in public places on private security. Whether in shopping precincts, on industrial estates or university campuses, at sports grounds or large outdoor festivals and concerts, or around night clubs and bars, private security companies police and secure the space. What is often an ill informed debate about outsourcing police activities misses the point that significant partnerships between the police and the private security sector already exist, and they already operate effectively in protecting the public. One outstanding example of such collaboration is Project Griffin, pioneered in the City of London but now rolled out nationwide, in which security guards working in urban centres and around sensitive sites are specially trained and briefed by the police on a regular basis to alert them to ongoing security and other threats. This partnership worked extremely effectively during the Olympic Games, and it continues to underpin public safety across the country.
It is because the private security industry already plays such a major role in protecting the public that the Government must play their part by ensuring that the industry is effectively regulated and that public contracts are awarded to high-quality providers and not to those companies that put in the cheapest tenders by making their employees work excessively long hours at minimum rates. We also need an effective complaints mechanism where private security companies are operating in the public arena alongside the police. I was very pleased to hear the Minister, in opening the debate, outline that one provision in the forthcoming crime and anti-social behaviour legislation will extend the remit of the IPCC to deal with complaints relating to private security personnel operating in the public arena alongside the police. It is very important that the public know how they can register a complaint if they feel the need, and I shall certainly be supportive of that change.
In conclusion, I would be most grateful to hear from the Minister at the end of the debate when and how the transition to a new regulatory regime for the private security industry, considered so urgent in 2010, will be completed; when regulation of private investigators will be introduced; and in what ways the Government will work with the private security industry to continue to raise standards and further enhance public safety.
My Lords, I welcome proposals in gracious Speech for legislation to reform the way in which offenders are rehabilitated and the introduction this morning by my noble friend the Minister of a Bill to that effect. Liberal Democrats have always believed that increased concentration on the rehabilitation of offenders can be a major contributor to cutting crime. A wider use of well run and well resourced community sentences can be far more effective than putting ever more offenders in prison and keeping them there for terms that are longer than necessary. Considerable publicity has been given to the appalling reoffending rates for people leaving prison, but the figures bear repeating. More than 57% of prisoners released in 2010 from sentences of less than 12 months reoffended within a year; the figure for prisoners released from longer sentences over the same period was just under 36%. In particular, as my noble friend Lord Dholakia pointed out, we imprison far more women than we need, and there is evidence that many of those we imprison would be less likely to reoffend if given community sentences.
The coalition Government propose to provide greater diversity of probation services in the belief that a wider range of well targeted services, involving the voluntary and not-for-profit sectors, as well as those currently in the probation service, will produce more imaginative and more effective delivery of community sentences and a better service for offenders leaving prison. However, for these new arrangements to work well, they must be properly resourced. Payment by results can be successful, but wider savings to the public purse from cutting reoffending rates, not so easily recognised by traditional Treasury accounting principles, may justify a more flexible approach to expenditure in this field. The points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, lead me to stress the importance of retaining the service of experienced probation officers within the field, even if they are to work within new structures.
We welcome the Government’s proposals to give support for the first time to prisoners leaving prison after serving sentences of 12 months or less. However, to achieve the best chance of rehabilitation on leaving prison, prisoners need somewhere to live, something to do and preferably family to go to. Many also need medium and long-term help with mental health problems and drug and alcohol dependency. It follows that if we are to help prisoners settle back into the world outside prison, we must ensure that at least the last few months of their sentences are served at locations close to the communities into which they are to be released. Only then can through-the-gate services be effective. The gate in question must be in the right place to enable the care given to prisoners to be continuous through their preparation for release and following their release.
However, for the Government’s plans for rehabilitation to work, we must continue to provide a fair and humane criminal justice system in which offenders are properly represented by high-quality specialist advocates. I declare an interest as a practising barrister, although not now undertaking criminal work, but with many colleagues who do. Just as the quality of justice in criminal trials depends on the quality of the advocates involved, so the success of sentences imposed on offenders depends heavily on the contribution of defence barristers and solicitors in securing sentencing decisions for their clients that can be made to work. It is therefore important on both counts that we do not undermine the system by reducing the availability of high-quality lawyers prepared to undertake criminal work, particularly defence work, at modest but viable cost. I fear that some of the Government’s proposals for criminal legal aid, on which they are consulting, threaten that availability. The proposals for price competitive tendering and generalised fee cutting present such a threat. I expect that my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford will go into greater detail later.
Lawyers, particularly barristers, have in the past been attracted to criminal practice by the opportunities for advocacy, the challenges and the excitement of working in the criminal courts and a strong sense that they are performing an important societal function. Traditionally, they have been prepared to accept far lower rewards than they might have earned in other fields of practice. However, there is a limit, and the brightest and best new entrants to the profession will not opt for criminal work if it is so underrecognised and underrewarded that it does not offer them a reasonable living. They will simply opt for other fields, perhaps less glamorous but financially more rewarding. After all, they have a choice. Already most criminal judges complain that there has been a significant decline in standards of advocacy in the criminal courts over the past few decades because of the continual rounds of real terms cuts in criminal legal aid rates. Creating a demoralised corps of underfunded criminal lawyers will not only undermine our criminal justice system, it will also prevent us making the most of the other changes the Government propose.
I suggest that there needs to be a new settlement between the legal profession and the Government on legal aid. The Government must recognise the importance of retaining the services of legal aid lawyers and paying them appropriately while the legal profession must accept the need to provide services efficiently and cost-effectively and to look for savings where they can be made. I give one example of where innovative thinking might save money. The Government have rightly pointed out the disproportionate amount of public money spent on high-cost criminal cases. These are a small number of long-running and complex cases, mostly fraud cases, which consume a very high proportion of the legal aid budget. They require detailed and careful work by senior and specialist lawyers. They are the interesting and challenging cases which many ambitious younger criminal lawyers aspire to undertake. Yet the consultation paper’s response has been to suggest cutting the rates paid by 30%. The effect of such cuts would be that these cases would be less well handled, aspirant lawyers would be further deterred from criminal practice and the quality of the criminal justice system would suffer accordingly.
Many of these cases involve company directors and officers, many of large and medium-size companies. We could consider funding the defence costs in an entirely different way. Were we to introduce compulsory legal expenses insurance to cover the defence costs of company directors and officers prosecuted for fraud, a great deal of cost could be removed from the system altogether. We do not object to compulsory insurance for motorists; why not here? There are other areas where innovative thinking can save money and government and the profession should be willing to explore them. However, the endless drive to reduce spending by indiscriminate salami slicing of legal aid rates will ultimately destroy the system we are trying to improve.
My Lords, for the second Queen’s Speech running, same-sex marriage legislation is the Bill that dares not speak its name. I want to comment briefly on its absence from the Queen’s Speech because this is another example of a process which to date has been wholly unedifying. Debate and discussion have been curtailed and foreshortened at every turn, as I will illustrate.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for his powerful and impassioned speech, a great deal of which I agree with. I, too, want a fair, equal society. I, too, want to oppose discrimination in any form. I, too, believe that the other place is the senior Chamber and we must listen to it with respect. However, I am sure that the noble Lord did not wish to suggest that we have no role in scrutinising, challenging and opposing Bills that come before us if we feel it is right to do so. It is not my wish to put forward arguments against the Bill at this stage; I simply want to reflect on the process.
When the Prime Minister took office, he interested many of us when he outlined his plans for a big society. There is, of course, a great need for social cohesion built upon a strong economy and nourished by agreed common values and, in the case of our society, the Judaeo-Christian ethic, but, somehow, along the way the big society vision has been forgotten and in its place we find division and great distress, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter mentioned earlier—indeed, a “broken society”, to quote the Prime Minister once more. Of particular concern to many is the bewilderment caused by a law concerning same-sex marriages which will change the face of society and family with no mandate or even a proper debate.
Of particular concern at this point in the Bill’s passage is, for the first time, the way in which the proposals effectively institutionalise competing views of marriage in our society. Rather than promoting social cohesion, this will lead to greater social fragmentation. Far from ending the so-called battle over marriage, these proposals will formalise and exacerbate that battle. The Bill will lead to a scenario that is destructive for community, thereby necessitating further change in the future.
How did we get to this point? A commitment to legalising same-sex marriage was not in the manifesto of any major political party at the 2010 general election. The Government have not demonstrated at any point evidence that there was a great demand for such a change. The Government produced a so-called public consultation on the introduction of same-sex marriage but declared a timetable for the draft Bill and its implementation before publishing the results of the consultation. Their mind was made up. The consultation was never about whether same-sex marriage should be introduced but how. The Government had promised in the consultation that same-sex marriage would not take place in religious premises. In the draft Bill they did the opposite. The consultation cannot be described as a serious exercise in eliciting the views of the public.
Had the Government listened more and not engaged in a desperate bid to paint all the opponents of this Bill as elderly Christians, a strange breed of non-relevant dinosaurs, perhaps they would have started to address these issues and picked up the chorus of disapproval from those, for example, from our black and minority ethnic communities who have, for no apparent reason, been excluded from the legislative process. The Secretary of State was sent a letter by the leaders of Britain's so-called black churches, but I understand that she refused to see them. The committee in the other place failed to invite a single black person, Muslim, Sikh or Hindu to give evidence in person.
This Bill represents major constitutional change but was rushed through Second Reading in the House of Commons. The debate was time-limited and contributors to the debate were strictly time-limited in their speeches. I regret to say that the Government have pursued this agenda without paying attention to many voices calling for caution, not just from their back-benchers but from thousands of their grass-roots supporters. The local election results tell the story of a substantial section of the public who are extremely worried about the effect of a redefinition of marriage on family life and the well-being of children. It is not therefore surprising that many feel that they have been frogmarched to this point in time. What is happening will not lead to a strengthening of the notion of a big society but the opposite.
I recognise that there are good and sincere people on both sides of this debate and it is not my intention to question other people’s integrity, but I trust that when the Bill reaches this House, we will pause to consider the pace of change and the effect that it will have on the nation. Indeed, it is my hope that this Chamber, which has shown its independence on important issues in the past, will also demonstrate and talk about the dangers that this Bill represents, if it becomes law.
My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord McNally on an impressive attempt to deal with the issue of offenders and the reoffending rates that are far too high in this country. Let me ask him in particular whether he can say something in conclusion about the fact that a large number of the young offenders in this country are illiterate. More than half the young men and women under the age of 20 who are in prison do not have the capacity to be fully literate, and that makes it almost impossible for them to get jobs, however hard they try. I am delighted that my noble friend has said that education is now increasingly seen as a key part of dealing with the whole issue of offenders, but it is also important to recognise that it has been a long time since we required young men and women in prison to undertake adequate education which would give them at least the basic ability to get some sort of job. It is therefore good news to hear these brave and radical proposals, and I was delighted that my noble friend Lord Dholakia, who has a distinguished record in the field, gave them such a warm welcome.
I want primarily to address two other matters, however, rather than the issues of prison and penal reform, which will be well covered in this House and on which there are many experts in the area. Those other matters are, first, the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and, secondly, the even more toxic issue—if I may put it that way—of immigration.
With regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, had to say, many of us richly appreciate the courage he has shown for many years on the issue of press behaviour and the level of press complaints. Although it has served him no particular use in his career, he has had the courage to continue to insist on the crucial importance of addressing the issue of complaints against the media. In the past couple of years he has had immense additional support as a result of the emerging horrors of what some members of the press have seen fit to undertake—and, frankly, what some proprietors have seen fit to accept in the pursuit of larger and larger circulation. In addition to mentioning my great respect for the noble Lord, I also want to say that he was one of the few who made it clear that the original Press Complaints Commission was not doing its job and was at best papering over some of the issues that needed to be looked at. He has now, in a sense, come into his own with the Leveson report.
The debate today is about not only Home Office matters but also constitutional affairs. Perhaps I may therefore say one word on that issue. It is of the greatest possible significance that all parties in the other place were able to agree on a solution to the problem of the independence of the press versus the protection of victims from cruel and sometimes brutal treatment. As we well remember, those victims included some of the most vulnerable and innocent in our society.
It is constitutionally important to give true weight and accord to the relatively small number of issues on which the parties can together agree on a constructive solution. In the past few years the House of Commons has moved from possibly being seen as an ineffective rubber-stamping House to one where—largely because of the remarkable work of the Select Committees, and I have in mind the Select Committees on Public Administration, the Treasury and others—it has shown its real ability and talent in a way that cannot be limited or constrained by the Whips. We have seen what the House of Commons might be if it were given real respect for its decisions. Such respect should be shown now over the Leveson report and the outcome in terms of a committee to look at the press and the media. We owe a great deal to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for that.
We owe even more to reminding the Prime Minister that, in the light of what he has said, the constitutional value of using Parliament—a united Parliament of all parties—to uphold some of the best standards in public life, is absolutely critical. The consequences of rejecting that proposal now not only would be serious but would, in effect, say that powerful forces which are not prepared to worry about the criticisms made of them could have their own way in future Parliaments. I can think of few worse legacies to pass on.
The other matter to which I want briefly to refer is the toxic issue of immigration. I was in one or two areas during the recent local council elections, and friends of mine were in other areas such as Somerset, where the whole place was plastered with strong suggestions that the entire population of Romania and Bulgaria, adding up to 29 million people, would universally and collectively take some sort of Noah’s ark and immediately arrive in Britain to settle down in one constituency after another. Luckily for us, despite it having some considerable flaws, we have the BBC. Through “Newsnight”, the BBC undertook a serious and detailed study, as some of your Lordships may have seen, of the likelihood of many Romanians and Bulgarians deciding to hurry over to the United Kingdom to join the unemployment queues. One point that the “Newsnight” study made was that less than 1% of Romanians and 3% of Bulgarians showed any great desire to emigrate to this country. Of those who did, 0.4% in the case of Romanians had made any inquiries at all with recruitment agencies or other bodies about where they might live or what jobs they might get.
Of course, some Romanians and Bulgarians will find their way to Britain and many more will find their way to Germany and Scandinavia but, frankly, the representation that our electors receive from UKIP bears no relationship to any serious study that has been made in any part of this country. What was UKIP’s reason for doing that? As we all know, it was a very good way of stampeding the forces so that there was no need to bother about the more serious issues of policy.
Having said that about the Romanians and Bulgarians, I shall turn for a moment to what I believe to be one or two of the serious problems that have arisen in this country due to the nature of our immigration policy, driven as it is to such an extraordinary extent by what one can only describe as political opportunism.
The first issue that I want to mention is the huge dependence of our universities on overseas students for obtaining excellence. Whether we like it or not, the 300,000 or so students—about one-third of the total—who come from overseas to study in British universities and colleges, which, quite properly, are inspected to ensure that they offer not a bogus but a genuine and honourable education, are of huge economic value to this country. Higher education earns something like £8 billion a year from the rest of the world through overseas students. However, equally importantly, as I think many of us understand, those overseas students give us access to an understanding of other cultures and other countries, and that, in turn, encourages not only exports but, more importantly, a high respect and a high liking for this country. It is very hard to overestimate the value of overseas students in a country such as ours but, if we are to adopt something like a national curriculum, it is all the more important that we also remember that we are part of the globe and that that globe is understood, through us, above all by human relationships.
Therefore, I argue that the Government should think very carefully about attitudes by the Home Office, the visa offices and, in particular, the UKBA towards overseas students. Sadly, they have begun to show real signs of discouraging people from choosing to come to this country—there has already been a substantial decline in the number of, for example, Indian and Chinese students. I advert not only to members of my own party or members of the Opposition but to the ringing warning given by the Mayor of London, Mr Boris Johnson, about the evident effect of these restrictions on the level and standing of overseas students wishing to come to this country to receive their education. I draw attention, in particular, to the abandonment of the so-called tier 1, which allowed people who studied here to continue for two years only—but two years none the less—after they had completed their degree studies in order to practise what they had learnt. That is crucial, for example, in professions ancillary to medicine and to medicine itself. Tier 1 has been withdrawn and replaced by an extremely complicated system, which depends upon the rules that apply to residents in this country.
One of the few phrases in the gracious Speech that I really dislike refers to the need to have people who can contribute to this country and not the kind of people who simply live off the country. It is perhaps worth mentioning that it is not only Russian oligarchs who contribute to this country but health assistants and nurses. They are part of the crucial fabric of the National Health Service and they enable it to deal with the large number of people who go to A&E. Heaven knows what we would do without their contribution. Contributions can be small and great—no doubt the right reverend Prelate will inform me, quite rightly, about the widow’s mite—but that contribution has been of extraordinary value to this country in many ways. It would be a great mistake to narrow it all down to whether somebody is a businessman or entrepreneur coming to this country often in order to live in a mansion house.
In conclusion, one thing that we have to be very cautious about in this country is our attitude towards other people who want to come here. Over the years we have benefited immensely from such immigration. I remind the House of the huge value of two great streams of migration to the United Kingdom. The first of those in recent years was the great Jewish entry between the wars. That has been immensely valuable to us in field after field—medicine, science and business. The second was the entry of Asian immigrants from east African countries after the rise of Idi Amin and others, who in turn brought to this country great entrepreneurial skills and great innovation. I hope that when we look at the gracious Speech we will bear these things in mind, particularly when we consider immigration and our treatment of those who want to come to this country.
My Lords, it is always a particular honour to come after the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, especially given the force of her plea for rationality and moderation on immigration. It is a particular honour to speak after her in a debate which has already seen some remarkable speeches, especially—if I may be allowed to single out just one—the astonishingly powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, with every word of which I would be very happy to be associated.
Today’s debate is supposed to be about, inter alia, constitutional affairs and equalities. I intend to speak mostly about equalities but I cannot forbear to make a few remarks about constitutional affairs. Apart from a couple of references to working in co-operation with the devolved Administrations and continuing to make the case for Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom, there is not really anything about the constitution in the gracious Speech. To my mind, that is a good thing. I cannot understand this headlong rush for the exit door of the European Union and am therefore glad to see no reference to a Bill, a paving Bill or any other measure to facilitate this.
I am not much of a fan of referenda, which seem to me largely a vehicle for the exercise of uninformed prejudice and for politicians to pass the buck. In an age of globalisation, it would seem essential to work through multinational institutions. It seems paradoxical to pursue an agenda of unification with respect to the United Kingdom but one of separatism with respect to Europe. The institutions of the European Union are far from perfect but, to me, it would seem more sensible to pursue reform as a member of the club, where it is said that other countries are moving towards our point of view, than to take our bat home and sulk in isolation.
Turning to equalities, there is not much about those either. There are just a couple of references to promoting a fairer society. If that means that we will not see further attacks on the equalities agenda, such as we witnessed recently in the specific duties regulations of 2011 and the recent Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, that, too, is welcome. However, I confess to remaining apprehensive when I read:
“A Bill will be introduced to reduce the burden of excessive regulation on businesses”.
I hope that that does not mean that we are going to get a further instalment of the attacks contained in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that when he comes to reply to the debate.
Ministers have said that they are committed to a strong and independent Equality and Human Rights Commission that promotes and protects equality and human rights. I think that the Government’s commitment and credibility are on the line here. First, some positive developments deserve to be acknowledged. These include, at a societal level, the fact that there is now widespread support for Britain being a diverse country. For example, in a recent poll by British Future, substantial majorities said that they were comfortable with someone of a different racial group marrying into their family, being friends with their children and being a boss or colleague. It is not all rosy, of course, as the persistence of hate crime and harsh public attitudes towards benefit claimants show.
Secondly, many employers now see the business case for equality and want to get this right. Companies as diverse as B&Q, Ernst & Young and BAE Systems are joining employer networks to help them to secure the business benefits of good equality and inclusion practices. Thirdly, there are the Government’s proposals for equal marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, said earlier, there is public support for equal marriage. A June 2012 YouGov survey found that 71% of Britons favour gay and lesbian couples being able to marry. Ministers have shown political courage in taking this forward. Finally, there have been some other useful initiatives from the Government, for example, a more strategic approach to addressing violence against women and girls, the transgender action plan and the well intentioned social justice strategy.
However, as we survey the current scene I am afraid that concerns outweigh the positives. These include the rhetoric from Ministers talking about equality as a burden and a tangle of red tape. This is in contrast to the Government’s published equality strategy, which states that in these difficult times equality is even more important, and the coalition agreement, which recognises that there are many barriers to social mobility and equality of opportunity and pledges to tear them down. This is also in sharp contrast to evidence from the Government’s own research showing that employers are generally positive about equality. A recent survey of small employers found that 90% were positive about equality and that only 6% had experienced complaints or grievances. The good intentions in some policy documents and their recognition of entrenched and persistent inequalities that hold people back are not always matched by targeted action. For example, the social mobility strategy recognises that although participation in higher education by white British teenagers is lower than for many ethnic minorities, ethnic minority graduates are underrepresented in the graduate recruitment of large organisations. It also recognises that there are large differences in employment rates and wages between disabled and non-disabled people and that the gap appears to have grown in the past 25 years. Where are the policies to address those problems?
The recession and slow recovery have exacerbated these problems of entrenched disadvantage. According to the Fawcett Society, almost three times as many women as men have become long-term unemployed in the past two and a half years: 103,000 women as against 37,000 men. The TUC has found that young black men have experienced the sharpest rise in unemployment since 2010, with more than one in four of all black 16 to 24 year-olds—26%—currently out of work. Yet, there has been no targeted action to address the fact that we are not all in this together and that some groups have suffered much more severely than others. Compounding the absence of policies to tackle entrenched and persistent inequalities, a range of policies are making the situation worse and reducing the life chances of disadvantaged groups. The most obvious examples, of course, are the impact of welfare reforms on disabled people and the impact of the social care funding crisis on both disabled and older people.
The dismantling of the infrastructure established to promote equality and human rights remains a major concern. The cuts to the EHRC’s budget are now being followed by the cutting in half of the Government Equalities Office. Although no specific figures are available, there is considerable concern that specialist equality and diversity experts in local councils and other public services are being cut, which will reduce the capacity of public bodies to get it right.
The chipping away at equality law is a further significant concern. The change in the law on third-party harassment, and the loss of the questionnaire procedure and tribunals’ power to make wider recommendations are a real loss. The sector’s top priority at the moment is to make sure that the current and premature review of the effectiveness of the public sector equality duty does not result in the duty being further weakened or even abolished. There are also concerns about the MoJ’s proposals to limit access to judicial review. People are equally concerned about the combined impact of measures to make it harder to access justice, including the cuts to civil legal aid. Here, I must declare my interest as chair of the Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support on social welfare law, cuts to legal aid, higher tribunal fees and longer qualifying periods for unfair dismissal.
I am by no means the most extreme of equalities hot gospellers. I recognise that there can be excesses of political correctness and that some equalities safeguards can seem burdensome, so the Government ought to listen to what I say. Finally, there is all the sabre-rattling about repealing the Human Rights Act and withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. If that ever came to pass, it would surely be a matter of real shame for this country.
My Lords, I wish to speak on a topic that causes considerable interest and fear in Northern Ireland, which unfortunately was not dealt with in the gracious Speech. I refer to the inexplicable actions of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, a body that is answerable to the Northern Ireland Office. Before doing so, I want to acknowledge that my native land of Ulster is considerably different from the one beset by civil unrest of 20 years or more ago. For that I thank Members of this Parliament, past and present, for all their successful work in putting together a peace process that has made a major change to all who live there.
However, a few issues remain, the most serious of which is the activities of the Parades Commission. It was set up to remove from the police the responsibility of regulating parades—a job that it seems to do in an insensitive and ham-fisted way. I refer to one decision in particular as an example of the extremely bad handling of a situation. Last year, in a determination, the commission proposed a position that put the traditional Orange parade, which passes the Ardoyne interface in Belfast, into an impossible place. Let me explain: the Parades Commission received applications for two parades for the afternoon of 12 July 2012. They were from an Orange lodge and the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective, a cover name for dissident republicans condemned by unionists and Sinn Fein alike. The Ardoyne shops, which is an area of contention, is a line of premises fronting the Crumlin Road. The area behind the shops is strongly republican in character. On the other side at this point, Twaddell Avenue meets the Crumlin Road. This is a residential street that is strongly unionist in character. The area is therefore an interface between the two communities with a long history of sectarian trouble.
I should point out that for 150 years Belfast Orange lodges have held a parade in the city on 12 July to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne. A feature of this event is that many lodges parade from their lodge halls to assembly points and then proceed in procession to a major assembly area in a park or large field on the outskirts of Belfast, where an afternoon of culture and family activity is available to everyone.
Lodges had followed the proposed route at the same time of day for many years and had been praised by the Parades Commission in earlier years for their good behaviour and stewarding. Their application asked for permission to parade up the Crumlin Road in the usual time, passing the Ardoyne shops at some time between 6 pm and 7.30 pm. They sought permission to be accompanied by one band. The Greater Ardoyne dissident republican group sought permission to hold a parade in the same area, partly over the same road, from 6 pm until 8 pm. It did not complete any applications to be accompanied by a band.
On 5 July 2012, the Parades Commission determined as follows. The Orange parade must pass the Ardoyne shops by 4 pm at the latest and must be accompanied by a band which must not play music or produce drumbeat in this locality. The republican parade was granted permission to parade along its chosen route from 5.30 pm to 6.30 pm. This ruling brought the time of that parade closer to the traditional Orange one. The commission also specified that the republican parade should not allow excessive loud drumming, an interesting point as it had not applied to bring a band with it.
The hall of LOL 647 lies on the outskirts of Belfast and the only available and practical route to the centre of Belfast is via the Crumlin Road. The parade takes two hours and the first lodges arrive at the assembly point shortly after 12 noon and start to leave the assembly point to go home at 4 pm. The assembly point is at least five miles by road from Ardoyne. In order to comply with the Parades Commission ruling members of the lodge would have to forgo all of the family events in the assembly park and proceed on their way back to the Crumlin Road. They could not walk back in the time available and therefore would have to be transported to Ardoyne by car or bus.
The commission’s decision is seen by most people as very odd indeed. The problem is that it appears to be one-sided. There may be very good reasons for this determination but the reasoning is not available for us to consider. This failure to explain is a major part of the current rise in tension in the province. That is why there is so much confusion and misinformation.
As a result, I would like answers to the following questions. Why did the commission allow two mutually antagonistic parades on the same route within 90 minutes when it is generally agreed that the Ardoyne interface part of the parade was most contentious, bearing in mind that the commission praised the Orange Order in previous years as being well organised and peaceful? Could I be told by the commission why a republican parade should be allowed in a 50/50 interface area at almost the same time on a traditional route used by the Orange Order for over 150 years? The commission not only allowed the lodge to be accompanied by one band, which must remain mute, but did not specify how many bands the republicans, who had not applied for band permission, could bring with them.
I would like the transcripts of the commission’s meetings to be made public. This will allow us to know who attended the meetings and the reasons behind these decisions. I sought this information directly from the commission but was refused. For justice to be done it must be seen to be done and understood. Last year’s determination has set an unfortunate backdrop for this summer unless we can understand the commission’s reasoning and are not forced to view it simply as being anti the unionist section of the population. The solution may be for all determination decision meetings to be open to the public to attend. I call for a total rethink on the way the commission operates and even, if necessary, its replacement by a system which could be respected by both sides. I urge the Government not to discount the bad community feeling against the current commission. Things need to change.
I fully accept that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, with whom I enjoy a good working relationship and who will wind up the debate, is not in a position to answer these questions. While I will, of course, listen to his remarks on the total debate with great interest, I look forward to a detailed response to my questions from the Northern Ireland Office in due course.
My Lords, I do not intend to make a long speech today, but it is important to put on record the widespread concern that there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech yesterday on the drugs issue, probably one of the three most significant issues now facing the world. As we know, because of policies throughout the world, there is a market worth $350 billion a year in the hands of terrorists and criminal gangs.
We have a law in this country, the Misuse of Drugs Act, which goes back 42 years. In the past five months, we have had four well considered reports on drugs policy. Each of the reports has resulted from at least a year of hard work, inquiries, evidence taking, examination of research and so on. The reports come from the BMA, the Home Affairs Select Committee, the UK Drug Policy Commission and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy, which I have the privilege to chair.
The BMA, not surprisingly, makes absolutely clear that of course drug addiction is a health problem. If it is a health problem—and everyone now recognises that it is—surely our drug laws should reflect that. However, we have a law going back to 1971 which does not reflect that at all: it requires that drug use and possession must be regarded as criminal offences. All four reports implicitly or explicitly—all but the BMA explicitly—call for a review of our drug laws. Something needs to be done, for example, about the fact that it is the Home Secretary who leads on drugs policy. If drug addiction is a health problem—as I have said, everyone recognises that it is—what is the Home Secretary doing as the lead Minister? The Home Affairs Select Committee suggests a shared responsibility between the Home Secretary and the Health Secretary. The all-party parliamentary group would be content with that development—it is eminently sensible— although one might one day then go on to placing the whole issue with the Department of Health, as most European countries do. That is another issue but at least a shared role would be a start in the right direction.
Another issue which could be dealt with straightaway—there could have been something in the Queen’s Speech to achieve this—is the decriminalisation of possession and use of drugs. Again, if this is a health issue, what on earth are we doing criminalising our young people? By doing this we are really saying that a third of the young people in this country today are criminals, including, probably, many of our kids, grandchildren and goodness knows who else. Is this really sensible?
The Home Affairs Select Committee suggests that we need to pay more significant attention to the Portuguese laws. Portugal has, of course, decriminalised possession and use of drugs and diverts people straight into treatment. Whereas this policy was quite controversial when it was introduced about 10 to 12 years ago, now it has the support of the entire political elite, all political parties and the police service. The same applies in the Czech Republic where, again, drug use has been decriminalised.
I am delighted that the Minister, Jeremy Browne, is planning to visit a number of different countries to look at their drugs policies. They definitely have better drugs policies than we do. I am particularly delighted that he will visit Portugal. I hope that he will also visit Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Spain and, indeed, the Netherlands, which has a slightly odd policy. However, for all that, matters are not always absolutely perfect—the Spanish policy is not perfect—but we do and can learn from all these countries. As I say, I am very thrilled that the Minister will be going to them.
The all-partly parliamentary group is urging that he also goes to New Zealand because it is passing a law to deal with, as everyone else is trying to deal with, the problem of legal highs. If civil servants say that this is a waste of taxpayers’ money, I hope the ministerial team will say, “No, it is not. It will be a good use of taxpayers’ money if the Minister goes off to New Zealand”. I think it is possible that we need to go down that road.
I speak briefly today in the hope that Ministers will follow up Jeremy Browne’s visits with a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and a change in the law. I want to draw the attention of the House to the fact that President Obama, no less, has changed the US stance on drug policy. Through his drugs tsar, Gil Kerlikowske, he has made it clear that the war on drugs is expensive and ineffective, that drug use needs to be looked at as a health problem, and there is a need to stop criminalising young people. For 50 years, the US has controlled western drug policy, so if it has been going in the wrong direction for all that time, let us follow it now that it has finally begun to move in the right direction.
Drugs policy has indeed been dominated by the US for 50 years through three UN conventions which require the criminalisation of the possession and use of drugs. These conventions and our 1971 Act were drafted when no one had any idea about what would actually work in this very difficult policy area. We know a great deal more today thanks mainly to the European countries that have pioneered far-sighted and, in the end, more effective policies.
I know the Government are considering how best to tackle legal highs and I applaud their efforts to come to terms with this difficult problem and move forward on it. I hope very much that the Minister can today give the House some assurance that, despite the silence on this issue in the Queen’s Speech, the Government are committed to improving the legal framework in this country at least to bring it into line with the best countries in Europe.
My Lords, I shall start by saying how very much I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in everything she has said. It is a lacuna in government thinking. There has been so little in terms of imagination about drug policy. If eventually it is possible to decriminalise almost everything to do with drugs, while that would result in perhaps a few more deaths from their abuse, it would certainly result in far fewer deaths from criminal activities related to them. It is a very important subject.
There are many reasons why one week ago the electorate expressed such dissatisfaction with the coalition Government. I do not intend to speak on the most obvious issue, that of the survival of our national sovereignty within the EU at a time when economic pressures are driving 17 of the 27 member states into a political federation. I must mention another factor, and that is the perceived infirmity of purpose. By this I mean the failure to tackle the issues which the people do mind about, and instead diverting Parliament to support the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in legislating for their passionately and sincerely held personal agendas. They should concentrate on their real responsibilities of defining and delivering national priorities. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s decision to renew the deplorable practice introduced by Mr Blair of cutting short debate by guillotining all legislation in the House of Commons has played a part in devaluing Parliament in the public eye and thus making it less effective. That does not help with good governance.
There is a third factor which is sapping the success of the Government—that of perceived incompetence, especially that of those Ministers who fail to get a grip of their departments and instead allow the Civil Service to drive government at a time when the effectiveness and, sadly, in some cases the integrity of the Civil Service has fallen far below what I remember from my own service in Whitehall during the 1970s. It is a level of incompetence in government which is the more inexcusable since there have been such great advances in the technology of administration and management. To illustrate this, I shall focus on one narrow but crucial issue, that of the guarding of our national borders. This is part of the defence of the realm and there can be few higher priorities, especially for a Conservative-led Administration. On this I have specific proposals to put to the government Front Bench.
Let me first illustrate why it is so urgent. This country is in mortal danger of further terrorist attacks. It is only thanks to the excellent work of the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service, GCHQ and the police anti-terrorist forces that we have not recently suffered attacks. It is clear that the main threat today comes from Islamist jihadists from both overseas and within the UK whose overall mission is to install a worldwide caliphate with Sharia law. We are all aware of the threat presented to us by Pakistan, which is rapidly turning into a failed state. But I would quote another example, which is that of Egypt. The Egyptian elections were won by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now regarded as a moderate Islamic—not Islamist—party ready to preside over a basically secular Government, yet 25% of the vote was won by the extreme Salafi movement, which is headed by Mohammed al-Zawahiri, the brother of the new head of al-Qaeda and successor to Osama bin Laden. He has declared that he will accept no element of secular government in Egypt and is quoted as saying that the next world war will be westerners against Muslims.
There can be few areas where the failure of competence has been greater than in the management of the UK Border Agency. There have been periods of inadequate leadership, normally rewarded with promotion, interrupted by gaps without anyone being appointed to the leadership role. After all, it was in May 2006 that the then Home Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, denounced the Home Office immigration department as “not fit for purpose”. It was over a year ago that the report by John Vine, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, concluded that the UK Border Agency had,
“poor communication, poor management oversight and a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities”.
You cannot get much more damning than that.
I was impressed when I met the chief executive of the UK Border Agency, Mr Rob Whiteman, who was appointed about a year ago. He faced a huge challenge. The problem with the staff of the border agency was not just that it was of low calibre but that it had been shown to be seriously and systemically corrupt. As the Minister knows, because he gave the Written Answers, some 30 members of Home Office staff have received heavy prison sentences—I am talking about five, six, seven and, in one case, a term of nine years—for misconduct in public office; the great majority of them came from the border agency.
Last year, the Government split the UK Border Force from the UKBA. On 25 March this year, the Home Secretary announced that the UKBA was to be abolished and its functions absorbed into the Home Office. That is cold comfort in the light of the Home Office performance to date, but we shall see. I myself suspect that the staff of the UK Border Force are still not of the quality that we should expect. The command of it should not have been the temporary appointment of a retired chief constable. Now we have a new commander of the UK Border Force, Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Montgomery, who until recently was the Second Sea Lord. He has a tough challenge and I wish him well. The border force should be reformed as a highly trained and tightly disciplined uniformed force which is not allowed to take industrial action. It should have a clear command and control hierarchy, as do the military and the police. Members should be closely vetted and should have British nationality and only British nationality. It should be under the close control of Ministers, who represent the elected Government. The link between the commander of the border force and Ministers should have the same characteristics as those that Ministers have with the service chiefs. At this time, when Britain’s Armed Forces are being reduced, it should be possible to recruit some really first-class retired officers.
Who is responsible for the endlessly delayed e-Borders system, which is supposed to monitor and record electronically every person coming into or leaving the UK? It cannot, surely, be the Home Secretary and the Home Office board, who have far too much to do, as was announced by the Home Secretary on 25 March. When will it be complete? I would prefer even to see Ken Livingstone in charge. He at least introduced, without glitch, a highly successful electronic congestion charging system for London.
Finally, I turn to the question of passports. The UK Identity and Passport Service has, I believe, done a decent job in recent years in improving the administration of the routine issue and renewal of British passports in peacetime. However, we do not face peace; we face peril. I was warned by security sources five years ago of the danger of terrorists and, indeed, other criminals concealing their activities with the use of multiple passports. I am not against people having more than one passport or, indeed, dual nationality. However, I have for years urged that the Government should take steps to establish details of what other passports UK passport holders hold. There should be a strict obligation to divulge full details to the British passport authorities, including photocopies et cetera, of any other passports held. One response I have had from the Government is that people would not necessarily disclose that they had a second passport. The answer is quite simple: anyone found to have concealed their non-British passport would be liable to have their British passport cancelled.
If the Government do not include some such provision in the legislation for further reforms of Britain’s immigration system announced in the gracious Speech, I shall seek to introduce amendments to do so. I repeat: we are talking about national security at a time of peril and I, at any rate, am not going to let it go.
My Lords, I intend to speak on two home affairs issues, one of which, immigration, is in the Queen’s Speech. To my surprise, I will be speaking in a not dissimilar fashion to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, because I want to say something about the efficiency and effectiveness of the government machine that we have in place relating to immigration.
My second topic relates to something which, to my great regret, is not in the gracious Speech—the Government’s failure to implement the major plank of their alcohol strategy. I have said previously that, in relation to both health and crime, I endorse the Government’s efforts to try to take action over the problems that come from alcohol and, to a degree, drugs. I have supported what the Government have been trying to do and, in particular, was originally greatly heartened by what our Prime Minister said in his foreword to the strategy. After listing in the document a number of problems that arise from alcohol, he went on to say that there will be,
“a real effort to get to grips with the root cause of the problem. And that means coming down hard on cheap alcohol. When beer is cheaper than water, it’s just too easy for people to get drunk on cheap alcohol at home before they even set foot in the pub. So we are going to introduce a new minimum unit price. For the first time it will be illegal for shops to sell alcohol for less than this set price per unit. We are consulting on the actual price, but if it is 40p that could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths a year by the end of the decade”.
“Of course, I know the proposals in this strategy won’t be universally popular. But the responsibility of being in government”—
as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us this morning—
“isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It’s about doing the right thing”.
It is about taking the difficult decisions. The Prime Minister said that,
“Binge drinking is a serious problem”—
an issue which we shall address to a degree, no doubt, when we come to deal with the proposed legislation. He then said:
“And I make no excuses for clamping down on it”.
Since the document was produced the Government have been out to consultation and there has been a substantial accumulation of further evidence, both from the UK and from overseas, that indicates that minimum unit pricing would have a very substantial effect on the culture relating to drinking, to crime and, in particular, to health.
Unfortunately, we have not moved a great deal further. I was not sure whether I should speak today as, a bit like the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, I was not sure whether this topic pops up under the Home Office or the health brief. Alcohol has a significant cost impact within the NHS: it is a major factor in high blood pressure, cardiac problems, liver disease and cancer. Although it has not yet been properly acknowledged, alcohol is also a big factor in obesity and diabetes. If the Government take no action on minimum pricing and are not prepared to tackle the root problem, this failure to move will significantly undermine efforts to take a strategic approach to confronting increasing levels of obesity and type 2 diabetes, two major problems which are facing the country.
When it emerged that the Government were likely to execute an about-turn on the issue the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, kindly answered a Private Notice Question on it. He said that a decision had not yet been taken and that we should not believe everything that we read in the press or hear on the BBC. He said that the Government were reviewing the position and that the results of the consultation were “very finely balanced”—I think that those were the precise words—in deciding whether to move forward with legislation. He was also concerned about the possibility that the legal challenges raised in Scotland about the Scottish Government’s attempts to introduce minimum pricing there could have a knock-on effect here. As I understand it, the Scottish Government have so far been successful in seeing off those challenges. The noble Lord will no doubt correct me if I have got it wrong but I understand that the firm, decisive leadership in Scotland is such that they will stick with the plan and fight all the way through, even if that means going to Europe. I gather that the drinks industry is likely to take challenges to Europe, if needs be, to try to resist this change. They are going for a 50p per pint unit minimum rather than 40p.
One of the problems raised when the noble Lord spoke to us in reply to the PNQ has therefore been answered, to a degree, but we are still left with the Government’s failure to come forward and say where they stand on the consultation. I would be grateful if the Minister would advise the House on where they are at and why it is taking so long when there is so much evidence showing that the change is required. Who has sought to change the course of events when the Prime Minister was, as I have quoted, so firmly in favour of moving in this direction? I even hear stories that if it does not happen, it may appear in the next Tory party manifesto. I do not know what will happen with the Liberal Democrats but I presume that they are similarly committed to it. I urge my own party, as I have done in some of our private meetings, to get a very clear line on where we stand on this so that in the interests of the nation and its people, we might get a uniform approach, even though we may offend a number of people such as those in the drinks industry. So I hope that even though it is not closed down yet the Minister will be able to give me some heartening words this afternoon when he responds. He always smiles when he is at his best, but I want to hear that the firm decision will have been taken and that, if not this time round, when we come to the Queen’s Speech next year we shall have it clearly laid down for legislation; otherwise, it will be a great missed opportunity.
When I watch television these days and see Mr Farage for ever in front of us, my fear is that not only is he influencing the Government and the country on the course of events on Europe but, as he quaffs his pint in the bar and smokes his cigarettes and talks about a party that will be willing to let people smoke in pubs, that he is influencing indirectly where the Government stand on some of these issues. Again, I hope that I have got that wrong and we will not run away from similar commitments that have been given on cigarettes and advertising.
I will now move on to the immigration issue. Again—I feel almost like a Cross-Bencher today—I speak not just to the coalition Government on this but my own party. Having listened to Vince Cable on the radio trying to explain how some of the upcoming proposals to try to tighten up on immigration issues are going to work, it is clear that if we do not watch out we are going to have some very speedy public policies produced which have not been thought through properly.
Interestingly, just to stay on top, this week I read The Coalition: Together in the National Interest, the mid-term review. Coming back to one of my favourite topics where we made a mistake, I believe that as time goes by the coalition will be seen to have made a major error in abandoning ID cards. The review says:
“We have scrapped ID cards and the National Identity Register and scaled back the vetting and barring regime”.
As we heard this week, the Government have done an about-turn and are reversing their views on the vetting and barring regime, which they need in a whole range of areas to try to establish what is happening with immigration. Similarly, if the Government are wise—although I suspect that pride will prevent them from doing so—they ought to go back and reflect on where they stand on ID cards.
A major error has been made there. When we see the number of databases that are being created in different government departments, they are all about the self-same thing: fundamentally, many of the problems with crime and so on relate back to the identity of the individual and where he or she lives. The only way that that would be answered and worked through properly would be by having an ID card with a link to residence. I urge the Government to think again about that, instead of spending all the money that it seems they are going to spend with all this paraphernalia of new checks of one sort or another that will be introduced on the NHS, on GPs and so on. The basic answer to all of this would have been to come together with an identity card, as the previous Labour Government were planning and working through. Indeed, it was a former Conservative Government who first thought of this idea, going back to 1996, I think.
Having abandoned our identity card policy after we had been thrown out of office in 2010, which I believe we did in a hurry and without serious analysis of what is likely to happen with technology in the future and the problems that we face, I urge my own party at least to change its mind on that and go back and tell the public that it supports the introduction of an identity card, which will help us in so many different areas. Not only will it help the party—if it does it—it will be appealing to the vast majority of people in the country, who are in favour of identity cards. They see no problem with them at all. They see them as being useful in many respects, for authentication and ease of transactions. They have nothing in principle against them and it was a minority that was opposing them at the time. My party should change its mind and move in favour of ID cards and see where UKIP stands on that as well, because we are probably the only party that would be in favour of it. We would be bang in line with the wishes of 70% to 80% of the public and we would be moving to a system that was efficient and effective in technological terms, and doing away with some of the problems that previous speakers have identified with the border agency.
This issue runs across many parts of the Civil Service. When we think that we are now going to chip 6 million dogs, we are going to have a database to run that; it beggars belief that we are going to do that because the people causing the problem in the main will not chip their dogs and even if they have chips in their dogs we will not be able to trace them to prosecute them. These are all crazy things that we start off without thinking them through. So I urge the Minister and the Government to think again on this. More importantly, I urge my side, too, to change its policy.
My Lords, I am not a dog but I do not think that introducing identity cards is going to solve the problems that the noble Lord has just outlined. I am sorry to hear voices raised in favour of identity cards—we thought the Labour Party had lost its desire to control which it exhibited during 13 years in government.
Turning to something quite different, I very much regret that there is nothing in the gracious Speech that would permit parliamentary scrutiny of proposals which seem to be designed to destroy access to justice in criminal cases. The Ministry of Justice’s current consultation is for a scheme of “competitive tendering” for criminal legal aid, which will not require primary legislation.
The consultation is a sham, as Ministers have already decided that they are in favour of such a scheme in principle and, regardless of the consultation, competitive tendering will be introduced within months. The only question posed in the consultation is the precise model. The model proposed by the Government could have been brought forward only by Ministers and their advisers, who have not the slightest experience of the way criminal courts operate or of the professional values, ethics and practices of the legal profession.
The key parts of the consultation document are chapter 4, on introducing competition in the criminal legal aid market, and chapter 5, on reforming fees in criminal legal aid. Chapter 4 is about introducing price-competitive tendering. Those proposals will be the death of the high street solicitor. The intention is to remove competition on quality and replace it with competition on price alone. In each of the contract areas, which will match the 41 police areas, there will be a set number of contracts. In my own immediate vicinity, there will be four in north Wales, four in Cheshire and some 37 in Manchester. Contracts will be awarded on a three-year basis. Successful bidders will receive a guaranteed equal share of the criminal work in that area. To achieve equality, work will be allocated by a central agency on neutral criteria; for example, by surname alone. The explicit intention is therefore to abolish client choice. A solicitor will be appointed by a central agency to act for a defendant. The reputation and good will which solicitors have built up within their area disappear. The skills of firms which have built up particular specialisms—for example, in fraud, terrorism or mentally disordered offenders—will count for nothing. In cities such as Manchester, the skills of firms which have a client base within particular ethnic communities or with particular language skills—for example, Urdu or Polish—are of no value because work is to be allocated on random criteria. As for my home territory, Welsh language provision is seriously compromised.
The contracts will be one size fits all. There is a Goldilocks problem about this: most firms are too small to bid at all and, ironically, many others are too big to bid. In Manchester there are a couple of firms which have 10% to 15% of the market but which under the new system of equality would be restricted to one-37th of the market, or 2.7%. There may be a handful of firms, or networks of firms, which are just the right size to bid. However, these contracts will go mostly to service companies which have the capital to create a national network with contracts in every area; for example, G4S, Serco, Tesco and the Co-op. Perhaps the most aggressive is the newly arrived Stobart Barristers, an offshoot of Eddie Stobart truckers. Its legal director, Trevor Howarth, confirmed that the firm would bid for the new criminal defence contracts. He said:
“We can deliver the service at a cost that’s palatable for the taxpayer … Our business model was developed with this in mind. We at Stobart are well known for taking out the waste and the waste here is the duplication of solicitors going to the courtroom. At the moment there are 1,600 legal aid firms; in future there will be 400. At Stobart, we wouldn’t use 10 trucks to deliver one product”.
I think that, like the Ministry of Justice, he regards people in trouble with the criminal law as units and justice as a common product to be delivered like a load of bricks. Mr Howarth is, I believe, currently on trial himself for contempt of court for allegedly lying in court. I say no more about it.
From a business perspective, however, the changes do not make sense. The companies which win the contracts will be monolithic, national firms. The government agenda generally is supposed to be to support SMEs—small and medium enterprises—but the effect of these proposals will be to send the existing providers, the high street firms, to the wall. There will be mass bankruptcies and redundancies. The new providers, the big companies, will bid low to start with, but once they have destroyed the competition from existing solicitors, inevitably prices will rise, with the profits going to the big boys.
If the Government’s proposed model is adopted, quality is to be driven down to minimum standards. The single determining factor for success will be price. Practitioners will be valued and rewarded for producing the highest turnover of work at the lowest cost. Literally and intentionally, no value will be attached to quality of representation. If the professions are dumbed down, it will impact ultimately on the judiciary. Someone has already said that, if you have Tesco-grade lawyers, within 10 years you will have to start appointing Tesco-grade judges because they will be the only people to have experience in this field.
The complaint about the chapter 4 proposals is that they represent the intentional dumbing-down of the criminal justice system. Quite explicitly, the intention is to reduce the quality of representation to a set of minimum standards. No value will be attached to quality of representation. The explicit abolition of client choice will erode confidence in the system.
The proposals in chapter 5 are about the reform of fee structures. There is opposition to the reduction in fees, which are cutting to levels which are unsustainable, but that is not the main thrust of opposition. The concern is that the new structures are unworkable, the most obvious being the proposals to cut trial fees. In many cases, the advocate will be paid the same for a guilty plea as he or she would get for a trial. In more complex cases, refreshers would be paid on a reducing scale so that, in some cases, they might fall to £14 a day, without expenses.
The intention is presumably to add to the incentives to defendants to plead guilty. The effect of that is to create conflicts of interest between the advocate and his/her client. The advocate is punished financially if the client pleads not guilty and goes to trial. Not only is that wrong in principle, it is counterproductive: if defendants know that the advocate has a conflicting financial incentive, they will not listen to him when he tells them to plead guilty, because it will be in his financial interest to do precisely that. Hence, there will be more trials, at greater expense.
The proposals will mean fundamental changes, but there is to be no pilot scheme. One of the most dangerous aspects of the price competitive tendering proposal is the compete lack of modelling or trialling. The Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve QC, gave the explicit assurance before the general election that the Tories would not introduce tendering without full trials first. Why has the one person in this Government with practical experience been overruled?
The proposals are to be brought in nationwide, commencing this autumn, without any trial period. They will be irreversible, because once the existing providers have gone, they will never come back. It was made clear in Tuesday’s Law Society Gazette that most of the significant current providers regard the scheme as unworkable and will not tender.
On the subject of minimum quality standards, there is a link to a separate set of proposals to introduce a quality assurance scheme for advocates. I will not go into that at this stage. Suffice it to say that solicitor advocates can presently obtain higher level grades on the basis of attending a course and giving a good performance in role-play exercises. They are not judged on their actual performance in real cases at a lower level.
I am a former solicitor, so I have no axe to grind, but a very experienced Crown Court judge, who was also a solicitor, told me recently that the quality of advocacy in the Crown Court is, unhappily, appalling. He faces the dilemma that if he, as the judge, steps in to the arena too often to correct a solicitor advocate who is making a hash of the case before him, it quickly gives the appearance of bias. He was also concerned that in very serious cases, where two advocates are required to represent an accused, the fees structure is such that solicitor advocates now frequently seize the role of junior to themselves. However, he told me, if the lead counsel has to be elsewhere—for example in the Court of Appeal—far from the junior taking over, as has been the tradition at the Bar for ever, the solicitor advocate immediately applies for an adjournment. He can not carry the weight or responsibility of the hands-on conduct of the case. That judge told me that he was in despair.
I have to say that no one with experience of the criminal courts could ever advise a young person starting his career to take up the role of a criminal advocate. Centuries of experience have created the system in which a team of solicitor and counsel work to high ethical standards to ensure that justice is done. I shall be sad if liberals of any political party or none in this House assist in its destruction.
My Lords, I begin by strongly supporting the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on the need to update the national drugs policy. It is an important omission from the Speech. In other respects, I welcome Her Majesty’s somewhat low-key Speech and agree with most of its policy objectives. For example, the aim to reduce the burden of excessive regulation on business is welcomed as long as the proposed Bill does not add yet another layer of obfuscation.
On the question of immigration, it is vital that any new legislation does not threaten the tourist business, which is of the utmost importance to our economic well-being. Stories of 10-page visa application forms for Chinese tourists to this country cannot be in our best interest.
Although the Government’s commitment to continue to make a case for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom is to be welcomed, it is sad that a similar commitment has not been made for the United Kingdom to remain part of the European Union. The future of our relationship with Europe has just taken two major shocks, namely, UKIP’s success in the recent local elections and the article of the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, in the Times of 7 May.
Our relationship with the European Union will dominate debate in the months to come and, as a supporter of that relationship, I wonder whether it might not be best to hold the promised referendum sooner, rather than as currently planned. It is a difficult decision for the Prime Minister, and I wish him well.
My Lords, I will speak on policing issues in England and Wales and will touch, albeit briefly, on policing in Northern Ireland on an issue which I believe needs to be mentioned.
The latest Home Office statistical bulletin, Crime in England and Wales, and data from the British Crime Survey put my county, North Yorkshire, as one of the safest areas with the least crime in England. The latest Home Office report, which is always behind real time, shows that in the financial year since April 2011 crime fell by 7%, that 62% of the residents of North Yorkshire felt that their local police dealt well with their concerns, and that the North Yorkshire police force regularly rates the highest public satisfaction levels in the huge Yorkshire and Humber region. All of this was achieved before the new regime of police and crime commissioners, so I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister will congratulate North Yorkshire Police and the former North Yorkshire Police Authority and its staff for their dedication and focused commitment to dealing with crime and driving down crime statistics year on year.
Police authorities have been given precious little recognition for their sterling efforts over the years, supporting their police forces and dealing imaginatively with falling budgets but they have been denigrated for their lack of democracy or their invisibility. Frankly, they did an amazing job, quietly getting on with providing first-rate services and shunning media opportunities. It is rather different from what is now emerging across the country. Perhaps, “I would say that, wouldn’t I?”, and I draw your Lordships’ attention to my registered interests. Having been chair of my local police authority some 12 years ago and involved in policing at a national level in a number of areas for many years, all I can say is: if things were so bad with the governance of policing then, how come crime has fallen so dramatically year on year now, for a number of years?
It is not just in this country. It appears that crime is falling just about everywhere. How can this be? Were we not told that because of swingeing cuts to budgets, crime would inevitably rise? It appears not. In a fascinating article in the Observer on 28 April, Andrew Rawnsley wrote:
“Crime is diminishing across the developed world, falling in broadly the same way in conservative countries and in leftish countries. Countries with starkly contrasting social policies and strikingly different penal policies are seeing similar falls in crime. It is dropping in countries that lock up a lot of people and it is also down in countries that put a much smaller proportion … behind bars. This strongly suggests that the policy remedies for crime pursued by politicians have had only a marginal influence, if any at all”.
Where does this leave the police? They are having a very difficult time of it at the moment, as my noble friend Lord McNally recognised—more difficult than I have encountered in the 30-plus years that I have been involved with policing. Change happened periodically during those years, but nothing like as significantly as now. Police officers feel beleaguered and fearful for their futures.
An example of this is how the police are being treated. Here I turn briefly to Northern Ireland, as I said I would, where policing is a devolved matter. I have to say that the recent treatment of Police Service of Northern Ireland officers was very badly handled. A 12-week consultation process was given to the police in England and Wales for their views on changes announced by the Home Secretary to move from a well established Police Negotiating Board—the PNB—to a pay review body system. Again, this was mentioned by the Minister in his opening remarks. Unfortunately, the PSNI was missed off this process and found out only by chance that it would be made to move to a pay review body. There was no consultation or discussion. Officers were told that they should have looked at the Home Office website to see whether they were included in the system. What utter nonsense. You cannot expect police officers to keep an eye on the Home Office website to see whether their long-accepted method of sorting out their pay and conditions of service was being changed, without any hint of it being proposed in the first place. It will affect Northern Ireland officers greatly.
Fortunately, and by the good offices of the Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland, I understand that this is now being remedied. But it begs the question: what did the civil servants think they would achieve by trying to push this through the back door? It was not a good idea, especially in Northern Ireland.
There is a wider lesson here for anyone involved in policing—sitting down and talking can often solve a lot of problems. The police are not frightened of change; they know it must come. But they feel utterly overwhelmed by its pace and bewildered by the demand that they must give up more of their hard-earned and properly negotiated pay and conditions of service. Let us have a look at those: they cannot strike; they are effectively on duty all the time. Their training is now in the hands of the College of Policing, but they do not know how they will manage to move from what was the excellent National Policing Improvement Agency.There is even talk of officers having to pay for themselves if they want to improve their chances of moving up the ranks. How is that going to work? Is this a sort of “pay as you go” police service?
The police are concerned about who will lead them in the future, with talk of direct-entry candidates at inspector and superintendent level. Why is it felt that someone with managerial experience of, say, Marks & Spencer or someone from the Armed Forces would make a better leader than someone from within policing? Why, indeed, is an officer class deemed sensible in a civilian force? Soldiers do an entirely different job in an entirely different environment. At what point can a newly badged entrant, with no background in policing, take control of a civilian firearms incident or, indeed, any critical incident? If you have not experienced it, how can you manage it?
Police officers need key communication skills and abilities, and my contention is that they can obtain those only by having done their time on the beat and gone up through the ranks. Call me old-fashioned, but if I am so wrong, why are we still acknowledged as having the best police service in the world? Why on earth must we mess about with newfangled ideas instead of sensibly improving on what we already know works?
I will say a word about compulsory severance. It is being used to remove expensive officers who have done their 30 years’ service. All that experience is going to waste. Might I suggest that we look at encouraging those officers who would like to remain on active duty, so to speak, to consider joining the Armed Forces police reserve? As mentioned in the gracious Speech, reservists will be a major defence line in the future, and I know that they prefer to take on people with a policing background. It may well help ease the transition to eventual retirement when they are still fit and young enough to have another career. Indeed, I recently met a serving police officer who is also in the RAF Police reserve and doing a first-class job. Perhaps the Minister will speak to his MoD counterpart to see whether this might be an option for retiring or, indeed, still-serving police officers to consider, should they want to.
Finally, the police know they have to change. Their HMIC has left them in no doubt about that, but my hope is that this can happen through sensible, adult discussion on both sides, where concerns are listened to and options are aired. When things go wrong, it is the police, as always, who pick up the pieces, and they deserve our thanks and our loyalty for the extraordinary work that they do on our behalf.
My Lords, the House always listens with interest and respect to my noble friend when she talks on police matters. She has great experience and real passionate feeling for the police, as was evident in her peroration. I am not saying that I agree with everything she said this afternoon, but I was particularly grateful, as a former chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place, for what she said about Northern Ireland. I was appalled to think that, having devolved policing and justice to Northern Ireland, the sort of ghastly mistake to which she referred could have happened, and I am glad to know that it has been put right.
This debate has ranged far and wide on the subjects that we are supposed to be discussing today; indeed, it has ranged further and wider than the subjects we are supposed to be discussing today, to the benefit of us all, I think. I am very concerned and alarmed by what my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford said, and I want to look into that extremely carefully, as I think we all should.
I would like to pick on one or two things, but before I do so I shall make a general point. The Queen’s Speech is the great set piece of the parliamentary year. The problem about the Queen’s Speech and the debate that follows is that it tends, implicitly, to associate parliamentary activity with legislation. That it is a pity because Parliament is about more than legislating, and this House in particular is about more than legislating. I think that by common consent we have had the thinnest Queen’s Speech in recent years, and I hope that will not lead to a repetition of what I considered to be a mistake in recent weeks—the House being sent off on an extra week’s recess when there were grave issues of national and international importance that we could and should have debated in that time. This House is rich in experience, and we could have had some fascinating foreign affairs and other debates. I hope that if this proves to be a thin Queen’s Speech in legislative terms, we will have extra time for the sort of debates in which this House excels.
The speech touches on many things, but the one thing it does not touch on is your Lordships’ House. As I listened yesterday, I could not help but feel a little glow of pleasure in the fact that the flagship of last year’s Queen’s Speech was holed below the waterline very satisfactorily in another place, and I am delighted to be wearing this tie as I address your Lordships because it was produced by the 91 who holed that Bill below the waterline in another place. The fact that the grandiose and, as the Joint Committee’s report on House of Lords reform made plain, frankly ill thought out Bill has gone—and I hope, unlike my noble friend Lord Tyler, gone for good—does not mean that we do not have to address this House and look at some of the things that could improve its effectiveness.
Although there is nothing in the gracious Speech that touches on any measure of Lords reform, and fully accepting that there cannot, and indeed should not, be wide-ranging reform in the penultimate Session of Parliament, I hope there can be a measure, perhaps based on one or other of the Steel Bills or perhaps even a combination of the two, that we can take through this House. If we do, I very much hope that the Government will feel able this time to give it a fair wind. I have enormous faith and confidence in my noble friend the Leader of the House. I believe that he brings a freshness and a sensitivity to his responsibilities that are themselves refreshing, and I hope that if a Bill is presented it will be able, in one way or another, to go forward and on to the statute books, to address some of the housekeeping measures that we have talked about in the past.
As for the future, obviously we have to bear in mind that in the autumn of next year there will be a referendum that could change the composition of the United Kingdom. I hope and pray that it will not, but we cannot assume that it will not. The worst thing one can ever do in political life is to underestimate the strength of the opposition. We have in Mr Salmond perhaps the wiliest of all political operators in the United Kingdom at the moment. We must not underestimate him, nor must we underestimate the fact that the franchise will be significantly extended for that referendum.
I think I made my own views plain on votes for 16 year-olds this morning, but we will debate that later when my noble friend Lord Tyler introduces his Bill. Whether one agrees or disagrees with it, it will extend the franchise significantly and could have an effect. I believe that what I consider to be common sense will prevail, but we must not be patronising to those of our fellow country men and women who live north of the border; we must accept that it is their choice and hope they will recognise that the United Kingdom together is much greater than the sum of its parts.
I mention that because we have to look at parliamentary reform in that context if we are to go forward and look at the composition of the respective Houses and their respective roles. There is no point in doing anything on a wider front until that issue has been settled. I hope we can then look at a proposal, which I hope will be settled in the way I have indicated, that was made in the alternative report produced by members of the Joint Committee last year, and maybe take time over a constitutional convention that looks at the respective roles of the two Houses. At the moment this is the more effective of the two Chambers. As one who sat in the other place, proudly and with great enjoyment, for 40 years, I despair that business is over by 7 pm or 7.30 pm most evenings. I despair that Thursday is almost a non-parliamentary day at the other end of the Corridor. Although I welcome the advent of the Back-Bench committee and believe that it has done a great deal, it has not arrested the Executive’s stranglehold over the legislature at that end, which of course is exercised mainly because of the automatic imposition of a timetable on any Bill that is introduced.
We need a convention that can look at all those things and consider the implications of the timetable on parliamentary democracy and on the balance of power between the Executive and the legislature, which is out of kilter. The spotlight of reform should be focused at that end at least as much, if not more, than at this end. As we consider that the Prime Minister may not get his way with the redrawing of the boundaries because of Mr Clegg’s obdurate opposition to that, we do not want to revisit that debate. However, we could well enter a new Parliament in 2015, with 650 Members rather than 600 at the other end of the Corridor, and with a need, therefore, to look at the whole composition of Parliament, and, as I said earlier, at the respective roles and powers of the two Houses.
I advocate for this Session and the Session beyond a degree of modest, incremental housekeeping reform at this end of the Corridor, and then, in a new Parliament, I hope there will be a proper look at the whole structure of the parliamentary system in this country, because it is overdue. I add that all that could still be accomplished in the timetable of the ill-fated Clegg Bill. He envisaged everything being completed by 2025. That would still be possible, given that we have elections in 2015 and 2020.
I will touch briefly on one further thing that has already reared its head in the debate. When I modestly and gently intervened on my noble friend Lord Fowler, who had made an utterly splendid speech on Leveson and then turned his attention to another issue, and reminded him that the same-sex marriage Bill was not in the manifesto, he rounded on me as if he had been bitten by our noble friend Lord Deben. It was a most extraordinary moment. All I would say is that we should not think that this is an issue of equality. I do not think that anyone in this Chamber—I look at the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, who made a most interesting and important speech—does not believe in genuine equality.
However, the Bill redefines the basic building block of our society. Some of us believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, and believe it without in any way casting aspersions of any sort on different relationships. In the 21st century, we ought to be able to preserve the best of what has sustained the nation through the centuries, and at the same time extend a greater and more generous recognition to those whose ways are different and whose beliefs are diverse. All I would say to my noble friend Lord Fowler and those who feel passionately as he does—the noble Lord, Lord Low, for whom I have great respect, indicated that he took that line—is that we will of course speak in the debate as we believe, but let us have the generosity to recognise that others will speak with equal conviction and belief. I would hate to see the Bill tear this place apart in the coming weeks, and I hope that it will not.
My Lords, I will speak on constitutional matters. Before I do, I will strongly endorse the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on the Leveson report and the current situation. It should deeply disturb the whole country that when people in financial industries such as banking, or indeed MPs and Peers, are caught in dubious situations or in wrongdoing, the full force of the press is turned against them, but when the press itself is caught, it suddenly goes into hiding and starts distorting and twisting the arguments made against it.
I also recall that the press couches so many arguments in terms of press freedom. However, it is important to remember that when the News of the World was closed we lost a successful newspaper, but the chief executive of the company continued in office. That was totally the wrong way round. I will also mention my frustration that some of the leaders of the press, for example Paul Dacre, who are busy pulling strings behind the scenes at the moment, do not put themselves before the public and expose themselves to the sort of accountability that they rightly expect of the rest of us. Perhaps it is time for radio and television to start inviting people like Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre on to programmes to discuss this. I am sure that in very many cases they would refuse to come. But it makes the point that people who have been very good at invading the privacy of others, sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly, surround themselves with a wall of secrecy that is dishonest, devious, hypocritical and frankly, at times, cowardly. They need to face up to that. We all want a free press, but closing newspapers with a failing chief executive is not the way to get it.
I turn to what I wanted to speak about today. It is a constitutional matter, which I was very pleased to see in the Queen’s Speech—and I was not surprised to see it—the confirmation that the Government wish to continue the argument to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom. I have said a number of times before, and I am pleased to see the Government use this phrase, too, that the United Kingdom has by almost any standards been the most successful political and economic union that the world has ever seen. It is important at times like these to recognise that the argument, which is so far taking place largely in Scotland, is about the United Kingdom. It is not just about Scotland. If Scotland chose to leave the United Kingdom, the implications for Scotland would be great, but they would be great also for the rest of the United Kingdom.
At times, those of us speaking in England make the mistake of referring to the United Kingdom or Britain as “England”, a mistake that is picked up at times in the media. We need to be much clearer about that. I understand fully as someone who has spent a great deal of my life in Scotland—in terms of my own heritage, I have very little English blood in me, if any at all—that it is undesirable that England, although it is the largest part of the United Kingdom, talked as though it was Britain. It is not. It is very important that we recognise that.
I want to put this issue in the context of the consequences of devolution. I am a great supporter of devolution; I think that it will continue and will expand in England, as well. I notice today that Boris Johnson is making the case for extended powers for himself in London. My guess is that that will continue and, if it does, as one or two other noble Lords have mentioned today, will change the nature and structure of the United Kingdom. It will have implications for the House of Commons and for this place, and we need to put that in some context. It is time that we stepped back a little and looked at the way in which our constitution functions. I do not want to see another Bill like the House of Lords Reform Bill, which we saw in the last Queen’s Speech. That was a mistake—and I say that as someone who, over the years, has occupied just about every position that it is possible to have on the reform of the House of Lords. I have never gone for abolition, because I think that a large country needs two Chambers, but it is about the only one that I have missed out on.
Any Government who chose to go down the road of electing the second Chamber would end up writing a constitution. To do that would be a very brave action for a Government, because it is very difficult to get it right—and, of course, you would unpick other aspects of the constitution, including the role of the church and the monarch, and so on, so it becomes a major issue. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said a few moments ago, that does not mean that we should not reform this Chamber. I am very much in favour of the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, at other times, on having a more independent method of selecting Peers. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, also touched on the question of trying to get the numbers down, and a number of other attributes. If we did those two things—reduced the numbers in the House and made the appointments system more visible and transparent, as well as less party political at times, although not getting rid of the party-political bit because it is very important—we could make reforms, so this place would not be the same in five or 10 years’ time. But I do not think that it ends there.
I am picking up on the role of the four parts of the United Kingdom and continuing devolution. If you look at what this House does best, it is scrutiny of Bills. However, what is most interesting and, in a way, deeply troubling, is that the Government use this Chamber to alter the Bills that they have brought before the House of Commons. This applies to all recent Governments in my experience. For example, the Localism Bill, which was brought forward in the previous Session, attracted 514 successful government amendments, the Health and Social Care Bill attracted 390 and I could give similar figures for previous government Bills of all parties. This Chamber has increasingly been used to alter legislation.
It is important to remember that we do not legislate in this Chamber in any significant way; that is done by the House of Commons as everything we do here can be overturned by the House of Commons because it is the elected Chamber. We need to give some thought to how this could change because one of the great changes that have taken place in the House of Commons recently, about which I am very pleased, is that Select Committees have become much more effective at criticising government. It may be a mistake to be optimistic after having spent so many years in the House of Commons, but I am optimistic enough to believe that ultimately that will transfer to the Bill committees in the House of Commons. If it does, those committees will become much more effective at scrutinising legislation and that will have a knock-on effect in this Chamber.
Together with the noble Lords, Lord McFall and Lord Foulkes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, I suggested in an article in Progressonline, a revised version of which appeared in The House Magazine, that, taking a much longer-term view, if we continued down the road of devolution, bearing in mind what is happening in the four parts of the United Kingdom, part of the future role of this Chamber could be to bring the United Kingdom back together again by representing those parts here. In other words, we should not go for a simplistic option of saying that we have to write a constitution and elect everyone or go for the other end of that scale and simply say, “Let us keep it as it is and appoint as we are doing”. There are a variety of options in between, many of which, incidentally, are practised in other countries. I am not automatically arguing for a mixed Chamber, but one of the mixes which could be useful would be something that represented the regions and countries of the United Kingdom but retained the scientists, experts, former ambassadors and former senior civil servants who add value to this place. We need to look at that sort of structure.
I do not think there are any quick solutions to this issue. I do not think that we ought to try to look for a quick solution because, if we do, we will get it wrong. Frankly, that was one of the things that led to the failure of the Clegg Bill. It was an attempt to get a quick fix and it was bound to fail. I say to my own party that if it attempts a similar quick fix, it will also fail. We need to give much longer thought to this issue. We need to hold the United Kingdom together. We need to recognise that devolution is developing, and is likely to continue to do so, and give more powers to the regions of Britain as a whole, including England. Therefore, it might be useful to find a way in which the second Chamber can bring the United Kingdom back together again so that its voice can be heard here. There are very real possibilities there and I hope that at some stage we will find a mechanism to enable us to look at this more constructively which does not make the mistake of a Government trying to bring forward a Bill and then desperately trying to amend it on the Floor of the House in a way that, frankly, is likely to fail.
My Lords, I wish to speak to the constitutional aspect of this debate and about the volume and complexity of legislation. I am encouraged to do so because it has preoccupied me since before I came into this House 15 years ago. I suppose that is partly, if not mainly, because I have been a general practitioner solicitor for a great part of my life and was for 24 years what was called the “legal eagle” on “The Jimmy Young Show”, fielding citizens’ concerns about the law from all round the kingdom. The other thing that has encouraged me to talk about this matter briefly is the report—I do not know how many of your Lordships have seen it—When Laws Become Too Complex, put out by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel in March. I am not aware that a similar report on legislation has ever been produced by parliamentary draftsmen themselves. It is an important and readable document, and I urge it upon your Lordships.
The other encouragement for my few brief words is the state of politics in our country. That was manifested clearly by the local elections last week. Surprisingly, one may think, it is impossible to obtain from anywhere the level of turnout at those elections. It is quite bizarre, is it not? It is apparently left to two academics at Portsmouth University—
Plymouth. I thank my noble friend Lord Smith very much for that vital piece of accuracy. I rather get the impression that the turnout throughout the country was hovering at around 30%, on average. If you consider that among voters aged under 30, of whom fewer than one in four turned out at the previous general election, possibly only one in 10 cast their votes last week. I do not think that anyone sitting here believes that we are in our prime as a democracy or a Parliament.
We should never forget that the expenses scandal is not a thing of the past. I did a bit of canvassing this time; and the expenses scandal has marked the mind of the British public much more deeply than we would wish, I fear. We all know well about the Leveson inquiry and what it showed in terms of the press, the police and so on. All in all, we are in a dangerous phase, particularly given the continuing crisis in the financial and banking sectors.
A significant element in this disillusion relates to the astonishing amount of complex law that we churn out from this place, year after year. It may also surprise your Lordships that our Library does not stock a complete set of statutes from this side of 2009. You cannot even obtain loose-leafed copies of statutory instruments from 2010, for example. However, those from 2009 are available. In that year, this place produced in excess of 16,000 pages of new statute law; the split was roughly one-quarter Acts of Parliament and three-quarters statutory instruments.
There are a number of lawyers here; all of us, I suppose, are lawyers of a sort because we legislate this stuff. However, we know very well how extraordinarily complex legislation has become because of the extent to which any new law has to fit into existing law. The situation becomes overwhelming, and I have noticed that in the course of our deliberations on Bills there has been a marked reduction in the number of Peers who sit here trying to grapple with amendments that tax the wisdom of Jove.
For example, since 1984, we have passed more than 100 criminal justice Acts of one sort or another and have brought into existence more than 4,000 criminal offences. I suspect that that represents rather more than were created in the whole of our previous history. EU law finds reference in 10% of our legislation, and on top of that we gold-plate EU legislation to an astonishing extent. These are not my statistics; they come from the fine document by the parliamentary draftsmen to which I referred. They provide an example of directive 2002/42, which consisted of 1,167 words in the English text issued from Brussels. By the time we had ploughed it into our own legislation, it had gone from 1,167 to 27,000 words. What is it about this Chamber, using God’s own language, English, that we manage to produce this—I am tempted to use a very rude word—excess of legislation? So far as the people of this country are concerned, it is oppressive, distancing, expensive, disillusioning, disengaging, centralising and dependency-making—you name it.
Incomprehensible, as my noble friend says—to lawyers, inter alia. There are a number of senior judges sitting here and I am sure that they would be able to relate wonderful tales about the stuff that has come before them. I heard from one justice of the Supreme Court the other day that they were about to give judgment when one of them suddenly thought, “Hey, wasn’t something passed in 1995?”. When they went back to look, sure enough there was, and they rewrote their judgment. I shall not name names.
The truth is that this state of affairs is brought about by a combination of circumstances, one important aspect of which the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, recently referred to—the production-line legislation in the other place and the guillotining Motions that render much of the legislation there not merely inadequately considered but not considered at all. Large chunks of legislation come here never having been debated. Added to that, there is the manifesto theory of government—that if it is in your manifesto, you are entitled to legislate for it. The fact that nobody reads or buys the manifesto is neither here nor there. In the 1945 election, the manifesto for the Attlee Government was, I think, 15 pages long, whereas for the current Government it is 115 pages, but that is apparently of no importance.
Incidentally, the Queen’s Speech talks about bringing in 15 new statutes, and I believe that we have five carry-over Bills. I hope that under the health and safety legislation, which we are going to simplify, we will be allowed to have back the brushes in our gentlemen’s toilets. Noble Lords may not have noticed but they have been withdrawn on health and safety grounds. Therefore, one major improvement will be coming our way, God willing.
As I said, all this creates confusion in the minds of the public because we are endlessly changing things. We are not content to leave a law in place for 10 or 20 years. A new Minister in a new Administration says, “I’d like a new Education Act”, or whatever it might be. The poor old public are punch drunk. I repeat that there is a degree of resentment at what, too often, are seen as impositions by us. What is more, they are careless and unnecessary impositions. One sometimes has the feeling that some of this legislation is trophy stuff that Ministers can paste to their lavatory walls back home.
Indeed, or use it. There is a serious issue of demoralisation in a literal sense—de-moralisation. The more law you have, the more you take from the citizens of the state, in whatever situation, the need to reach their own decisions or to think through the consequences of acting in this way or that. In effect, you provide a rule that all must abide by, and too often the statutory rule is the rule. As I said, it discourages businesses, societies and organisations from taking responsibility for their own affairs, and all that has had an indirect impact on the public service ethos. I do not think it is at all contentious to remark that in this age community life is under severe attack. There is a real dilution of the strength of communities throughout our land, and those communities are the building blocks of a good society—I do not think that anybody disputes that. Consider today how few of what one might call the natural elite are engaged in their communities. My own profession which used to be the classic pillar of local communities is today far less engaged in community life than it has ever been—to the great loss of community life and lawyers as a group because there is huge fulfilment and respect to be gained. It is not just lawyers, but everyone. This is a deep matter.
I shall finalise by quoting from When Laws Become Too Complex. Its conclusion is headed:
“Conclusions and a Vision for Good Law … Mitigating causes of complex legislation”.
It states that,
“there needs to be a shared ownership of, and pride in, our legislation”.
How I agree. Consultation today is too often superficial, if not insincere. Too often Governments of all persuasions make their minds up and at the last toss of the dice say, “We’ll consult”. They do and vast numbers of people reply, but nothing changes and the legislation goes on. We have consulted ha, ha. The conclusion continues:
“There also needs to be a stronger incentive on all involved in the process to avoid generating excessively complex law, or to act positively to promote accessibility, ease of navigation, and simplification”.
That is from the parliamentary draftsmen who too often are blamed in this House and the other place for the state of our Bills when more often than not it is our fault, not theirs. Despite those unanswerable recommendations by the draftsmen, we need to look much more at implementation and enforcement of the laws that we have. It seems to me that we legislate because we have not implemented what is already there, or implemented it fairly, effectively or comprehensively.
Education in citizenship is not a voluntary or optional extra in our schools. If we have created a society of such barbaric complexity that very often we ourselves cannot understand quite where things are, how can we expect ordinary, decent young kids to feel part of this enterprise, to feel ownership of it or to feel responsible for it, if we do not equip them with the basic amount of information, knowledge and understanding to grapple with it and develop a will to be citizens? It is not just a name. I hope that in our deliberations over the next few years we will try always to think how Bills will impact on the good, ordinary citizens of this country and how we can improve.
Lastly, I must say a word about enforcement on legal aid. I shall not labour the point as my noble friend Lord McNally has had enough of it. He and the Government have said that they are committed to looking carefully at the impact of the legal aid changes that we have made. I think that after a year there is a commitment to look at sensitive aspects, and I hope that we will do that. To have all this law, which is not voluntary or optional, and then not provide citizens in most need with legal help, and without which the rights we legislate for them are cynical, is the worst of all worlds.
My Lords, we heard an interesting legislative programme from Her Majesty the Queen, with particular implications for our constitution and legal system. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, emphasised the Government’s focus on the criminal law, but all legislation of the past and the laws to come depend on enforceability and the rule of law. They in turn depend on fair access to the courts and to legal advice from independent lawyers. The fascinating speech by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has shown just how necessary that is. For decades, British citizens have had the advantage of assistance through legal aid and the pro bono services of lawyers, volunteers and citizens advice bureaux. The new proposals, however, will damage our system, the best justice system in the world and one that attracts billions from foreign clients.
I declare an interest as chairman of the Bar Standards Board, which regulates barristers, but I must clarify that I am not speaking for the professional interests or the income of barristers but in support of a legal objective that the previous Government set up for the legal profession and its regulation in the Legal Services Act 2007, to which I will revert. The regulation that my board does is carried out entirely in the public interest.
Nevertheless, I support what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said not long ago, although I come to it from a different perspective. It is self-evident that there cannot be a bottomless fund for legal aid but the wrong impression has been given in the media in relation to the sums and how they are allocated. The large sums said to be spent on legal representation do not take into account the overheads of the self-employed or that the fees may represent several years work. Only a very small number of cases dealing with the most serious crimes—terrorism and the like—command large resources. Many young barristers practising publicly funded criminal law are earning around £25,000 a year or less. Not only will they abandon it, depriving the courts of good judges in future years, but the way in which the legal system is now being treated is putting an end to the goal of social mobility and diversity in the profession that the Government alleged was so important.
I would feel hypocritical going to visit schools, or encouraging other lawyers to go to schools, to encourage children from underprivileged backgrounds, where no one in the family has ever qualified as a lawyer, to take up criminal law or family law, which is also largely publicly funded. It is misleading to draw a picture of possibilities when not only will they incur debt at university but will find after qualification that there are no jobs open to them at the starting line of the criminal Bar, in the magistrates’ courts and so on, where formerly a newly qualified young barrister could expect to earn a modest amount.
In addition to the cuts in legal aid already brought in under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Ministry of Justice is now consulting, as we have heard, on making savings of £220 million a year by 2018 by cutting prices. This it can do without the opportunity to debate the impact in this House. The ministry is proposing competition in the provision of criminal representation. Where no competition is proposed for now—that is, in Crown Court advocacy and very high-cost cases—a new fee framework is proposed that will encourage early pleas of guilty, for the longer a case lasts the less the daily fee will be. There must be a case to fear undue pressure to plead guilty caused by the new fee structure proposed. Solicitor representation fees in family cases will be reduced by 10%.
Price-competitive tendering may sound reasonable in criminal representation but it will not be genuine under the proposals, as the market is not to be left to itself: a new price cap will be set at 17.5% below current fees. The new system seems to favour tendering only by new commercial outfits and large firms, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said, leaving high street solicitors to go to the wall. The client will not be able to choose who represents them and the relationship built up by advocates and their clients over the years will count for naught. There will be a two-tier system: a choice of good advocates for those who pay themselves and take what comes for those who need to be funded.
What will be the effect? One must put to one side the picture drawn by the media of money being wasted on representing undeserving criminals. This is about everyone who is ever in court, rightly or wrongly, and all are innocent until proven guilty. Legal aid is about ensuring that right is done. If anyone is familiar with “The Winslow Boy”, they will know graphically the emotional stigma of the wrongly made accusation and how one must strive to do justice, even for the most unappealing—a very topical issue. Parents need legal advice for their children. All of us need to be able to challenge the state when officials may have overstepped the mark. The person accused of wrongdoing ought to be able to take advice from a lawyer he knows and trusts, and who can act expeditiously to prove his innocence. Cuts in family law will bear especially hard on women, who are more likely to be carers of children and have less knowledge of the law and details of ownership of the family assets. Mediation is not the answer. If it were, we would not need a legal system at all.
Already, litigants excluded from legal aid have to resort to self-representation. While the Bar Council has, one might say contrary to its own interests, put out a booklet to help self-representing litigants, judges will have their time wasted, the court system will slow down, and more money will be lost in the long run. Very recently, the damage being caused was commented on by Lord Justice Ward, who said in a judgment that,
“the case highlights the difficulties increasingly encountered by the judiciary at all levels when dealing with litigants in person ... Judges should not have to micro-manage cases, coaxing and cajoling the parties to focus on the issues that need to be resolved … saving expenditure in one public department in this instance simply increases it in the courts … justice will be ill served by this emasculation of legal aid”.
Cutting legal aid to save costs carries the risk of becoming a classic example of false economy, and there will be no parity of justice when one party is represented and the other is not. The Government must be close to finding themselves in breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which says that everyone facing a criminal charge is entitled to a fair and public hearing and has the minimum rights of,
“adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence; to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing”.
The cuts in aid and in fees are such as to endanger the future of the profession. They also offend against each and every one of the objectives of Section 1 of the Legal Services Act 2007, which include,
“improving access to justice … protecting the interests of consumers … encouraging an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession”,
and supporting “the rule of law”.
Given that there will be no assistance for most divorcees, it is urgent that the law on financial provision on divorce be reformed to make it user-friendly. The sums involved amount to £220 million a year. One could make savings by reforming the law of financial provision on divorce. It is now so complicated, uncertain and unfair that it is almost impossible to predict the outcome of litigation about dividing family assets on divorce. There are cases where almost as much is spent on fighting as the assets themselves are worth. There have even been cases where the entire assets are spent on costs. That is because the law is unjust and based on old-fashioned principles without regard to today’s high breakdown rates, women’s equality and independent earning power. The Law Commission has recently put forward for consideration proposals to replace the current unsatisfactory statutory provisions on financial provision in divorce with new ones that might rely on a formulaic calculation. While this is a blunt instrument, there is much to be said for having a law that enables separating parties to calculate for themselves how their assets should be divided. An alternative, which I am minded to put forward for your Lordships’ consideration in a Private Member’s Bill, is to replace the English law on financial provision on divorce with the Scots law. That law by and large provides for the equal sharing of family property and limited ongoing financial support. It works well in Scotland, there are few reported cases and there is no reason why it should not be imported here.
Of course, agreements between spouses and cohabitants about sharing property on separation should be respected and not subjected to dissection by the courts. In other words, we should recognise pre-nups and do away with expensive litigation over their validity and the substance of the issues. Our justice system need not be as costly as it is if, in family law at least, the parties are treated as adults and given clear guidelines about the division of their assets.
Finally, one should get the extent of legal aid savings into perspective. Great damage is about to be done to the court system, litigants, the legal profession, diversity and the rule of law to effect a saving of £220 million a year. We have just spent £10 billion on the Olympics, with so far not much legacy. The Government have recently committed to spending £60 million on converting the Olympic stadium into a football ground for West Ham. We have lost our moral compass if we think that it is preferable to spend on the Olympic stadium rather than on legal aid, to give tax relief on wind turbines rather than spend sums on access to justice, and when we send overseas aid to Argentina rather than supporting the rule of law at home. The requisite savings could be made if alleged criminals’ assets were unfrozen and used to fund their legal representation as the litigation unfolds. I am sure that everyone in this House has a taxpayer-funded project in mind that is unnecessary and less significant than cutting access to justice. If the legal system and the citizen’s ability to use it are damaged, then the fine words of a new legislative programme will never be any more than that.
My Lords, I wish to make a few remarks on some of the constitutional reform issues, with which I have mostly been associated in this House over the past 14 years, that I would like to have seen in the gracious Speech. I will then discuss the issue of fairness, which was a central theme in the gracious Speech, in particular in relation to the equality issues with which I have also been strongly associated in this House. I believe that my Liberal principles are linked in these issues, because my passion for democracy is about giving everyone a fair and equal opportunity to have a say in the democratic process—my passion for equality issues is also a lifelong commitment to opposing unfair discrimination in all its forms.
In the debate on the gracious Speech a year ago, I welcomed changes to the Government’s original plans for registering voters. I had a very major hand in bringing about fundamental changes to the draft legislation. I noted earlier the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and I hope that she will pay some attention to the detail of those changes, because they reduced considerably the risk that individual voter registration would mean that many millions of voters were to be effectively deprived of their chance to vote. I am pleased that I helped to achieve them.
I also spoke on that occasion of the need to have a proper debate about on which days elections should be held. In my view, the UK discriminates against people in employment by holding elections on a working day. I regret, therefore, that there was no indication in the gracious Speech that the Government either recognise the problem or will seek to address it. In the aftermath of the most recent elections, to which my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury referred a few moments ago, it is time to consider this issue of when elections should be held. Holding elections on a Thursday, it seems to me, makes elections much easier for the retired and the unemployed than it does for people in employment. People who are in work find it very much harder to vote, especially if they have school-age children. I believe that we should have had a measure announced to hold next year’s European elections over a weekend, with the counts to be conducted on a Sunday evening. However, as an alternative, I suggest that, as in many other countries, polling day should be declared a bank holiday. That would give everyone a more equal chance to vote.
I also think that a measure should have been announced to change the closed-list system for the European elections next year. This system, introduced by a very controlling Labour Government, was very strongly criticised by both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives when it was introduced. It should now be changed to allow voters rather than parties to rank the order of the candidates who are elected. Such a change would, for example, make it easier for voters wanting to support a woman candidate to do so, even if the party machine put forward only men at the top of its list.
I am proud of the way in which I helped my party to achieve gender balance when we began electing our MEPs by proportional representation. When I oversaw my party’s European election campaign in 1999, I had to rank all the constituencies in order of winnability to ensure that half of our top candidates were women. We elected 12 MEPs in those elections, six women and six men, but this relied on the party using a system known as “zipping”. Open lists would allow voters themselves to prevent parties from failing to ensure fair representation of women and men. This has been shown to work in other countries, such as Finland.
On the general issue of equality, I consider that the principle of fairness referred to in the gracious Speech requires support for the same-sex marriage Bill. Eleven years ago, I was pleased to speak very strongly in support of the original Civil Partnerships Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill. I explained then that as a Liberal Democrat I saw the principle of equality as a simple one and I quoted my party constitution, which says that we see ourselves as upholders of the,
“values of individual and social justice”,
“we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation”.
I also explained then that you do not need to be a Liberal Democrat to believe in equal treatment for people of different sexual orientation; you just need to subscribe to the principles of human rights and equality before the law.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.
When we consider some of the terrible events of the 20th century, we see why we need human rights legislation. In the 21st century, I hope that we will uphold the principles of that legislation in the face of some prejudice against it. I believe that the principle of human rights includes the right of same-sex couples to marry. It is a matter of equality before the law. The right to marry is in Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is in Article 9. The prohibition of discrimination is in Article 14.
There was a long struggle in this country for religious freedom, but those who benefit from this freedom should not now deny it to others. In January, I had a letter published in the Daily Telegraph stating:
“Every religion must be able to decide for itself on issues such as forms of worship and who they can marry, subject to laws that protect minors etc. It cannot be right for one denomination or religion to prevent other faiths, such as the Quakers and the Liberal and Reformed Jews, from choosing to marry people of the same sex”.
In other countries where gay marriage has been introduced, society—I believe it exists—has not collapsed, despite some people’s fears. The terrible position at the moment in which transsexual people cannot change their legal gender without also having to end their existing marriage will be ended with this Bill.
The issue of the future of this House is settled for a couple of years at least, in spite of my hopes for reform. I hope that in the debates on the same-sex marriage Bill we will uphold the principles of fairness referred to in the gracious Speech and, by supporting the principle of equal marriage, show that we in this place can be a force for good, for progress and for a tolerant society based on mutual respect. I look forward to continuing the debate on issues of democracy and equality over the next year.
My Lords, perhaps I may continue with one of the themes of the speech of my noble friend Lord Rennard and pay specific regard to gender equality in corporate life. I make no apology for again raising this issue because the problem is not improving quickly enough and in some respects is getting worse. Three examples illustrate that.
First, women have suffered much greater job losses than men in the current recession, as the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, emphasised earlier. Secondly, women are still paid substantially less, job for job, than their male counterparts. Only last week it was reported that women earn 20% less than men in financial services. Moreover, the European Commission ranked the UK 21st out of 28 countries on equal pay. PricewaterhouseCoopers has found that Britain’s progress on other measures such as female unemployment and part-time working has been slower than in other countries so that its relative position has deteriorated. Thirdly, and more widely researched, is discrimination against and consequent gross underrepresentation of women in business at board level. This had been the subject of the government-appointed Davies commission, which reported in 2011. That report showed how dire the situation was and called for a 25% ratio of women directors among FTSE 100 companies by 2015. This was to be achieved by evangelistic encouragement or “nudging”, as it is called. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, and his colleagues explicitly refrained from recommending the imposition of quotas despite the outstanding success of the quota scheme in Norway, which has been extensively emulated in many other countries.
“Nudging” has palpably failed. Recent research has revealed that FTSE 100 firms will fall far short of the Davies target, while the situation among FTSE 250 firms is quite abysmal. In a debate on 13 November last, both the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and I predicted that the position would deteriorate—as it has—and said that only a quota scheme would bring success. The latest Cranfield University survey shows that the number of female executive directors has fallen in the past year among FTSE 100 companies, as has the number of female CEOs—which is always miniscule in any event. It also showed that the number of women on sub-board executive committees had fallen since 2009 from 18% to 15%, which is a bad omen as it indicates a real drop in the number of women in the pipeline for promotion to full directorships. On his recent trip to India, the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to gender equality and we await some further action, although in his most recent reshuffle he reduced the number of women Cabinet Ministers.
Quotas are opposed often by the very women who, commendably and against the odds, have successfully scaled the heights of corporate life, saying that promotion should only be by merit. That clearly does not apply to men. What appropriate skill sets did the directors of HBOS, RBS, Northern Rock and other failed institutions bring to their boards which led to the crisis of 2008, not just in the UK but across the western world? I recall in a newspaper a montage of photographs of leading bankers together with one of Sir Terry Wogan. The caption asked: “Which one has a professional banking qualification?”. Of course, it turned out to be Sir Terry. Would women have done a worse job than those responsible for causing the 2008 bank failures?
Overemphasis on skill sets is used by the “male, stale and pale” occupants of high places to slow down or avoid increases in the number of women directors. It is a restrictive practice the like of which we have not seen since the demise of the print unions. We know that the banking failures were caused by men whose skill sets were overridden by their addiction to greed, recklessness and megalomania. As Dame Barbara Socking put it in an interview in last Sunday’s Independent on Sunday:
“Equality means having as many mediocre women as there are mediocre men in top jobs”.
She also strongly endorsed the use of quotas.
Strict adherence to the principle of proportionality would make the target for women directors 51%, not 25%. As Dame Barbara implies, women should have the same opportunities to fail in business as men. Why is the hurdle placed so much higher for women than for men?
Even so, there is some evidence that they are less likely to fail. Better gender-balanced boards are more likely to succeed. On 28 April, the Financial Times reported that three women were among the 10 most consistent fund managers over 10 years. Similarly, Credit Suisse has shown that the share price of companies with one or more women board members was higher than those with none, which is a pretty minimal criterion.
Two other recent studies, the first by Alison Wolf, the XX Factor, and The Athena Doctrine by Dr John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio, both based on extensive empirical data, provide further evidence of the still untapped economic potential of women in senior positions. Closing this gender gap must be a priority.
I have drawn the attention of your Lordships’ House not just to the Norwegian example but to a very successful example of quotas working in the UK. On four occasions, I have cited the success of the quota scheme suggested by the Patten report. That called for such a scheme in the recruitment of new staff to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. As in Norway, the target was reached well before the allotted date. In four previous debates, no Minister, in winding, responded to my specific question to confirm that the scheme had led to great success. After some badgering, a Minister—a woman—belatedly conceded that,
“the quotas applied by the PSNI over a ten-year period had led to a marked increase in the recruitment of women in both communities (Catholic and protestant) ... with figures rising from 12.45% in 2001 to 26.58% in 2011”.
I was much obliged to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for her letter of 22 January.
The main purpose of Patten was to improve the recruitment of Roman Catholics to the PSNI, and that was both highly desirable and, indeed, essential. My point, however, in the context of gender equality, was that an unintended consequence of the blind tests involved in quotas was a dramatic increase in female recruitment.
However, in trying to downplay the significance of quotas with regard to women, the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, commented in her letter:
“What I cannot confirm, is the extent of the impact of quotas on this rise in the number of women police officers. Apart from the implementation of Lord Patten’s recommendations there were other initiatives that were undertaken which also had a positive effect on female representation such as the Gender Action Plan 2004 and the Gender Action Plan 2008”.
Exactly. Those action plans may well have assisted in achieving Patten, but the quotas were the main driver, and that cannot be gainsaid. In an interesting article, in the Sunday Telegraph, of all unlikely places, Octavius Black argued:
“To change behaviour, the carrot will only get you so far. You may also need the stick … As a first step, the Government should make companies publish a breakdown by gender for different salary bands and make gender balance a condition of all public-sector contracts. In effect, quotas through the back door”.
He rightly added:
“Gender equality at work isn’t a feminist issue. It is an economic one. We all need to lean in”.
Following the publication of the latest Cranfield survey, my right honourable friend the Business Secretary, Dr Vince Cable, warned that the Government will introduce quotas for boards of directors to remedy the gross gender imbalance. Will the Minister in winding confirm that what Dr Cable said is now official coalition government policy and, furthermore, when the 25% commitment will apply to Cabinet membership? Simple questions requiring simple answers.
My Lords, follow that. I am acutely aware that I am speaking at number 32 in what has been a very long day in a warm Chamber. I have no chance of holding your Lordships’ interest unless I am brief, and brief I shall attempt to be. There are three points in the Queen’s Speech that I will allude to very quickly, but with all sincerity.
First, there is the subject of police reform which, as some Members of this House will know, is very close to my heart and something which I support vigorously. I shall watch with some interest its progress in subsequent legislation, particularly as to whether it involves legislation or comment upon the subject of leadership in the police—something which needs to be resolved and enhanced against the hitherto remorseless trend towards management rather than leadership. That will embrace things such as direct entry and accelerated promotion to middle rank.
The question of persistent anti-social behaviour has blighted societies for a long time. I would certainly support any reasonable measures that will do something to enhance any thrust to reduce anti-social behaviour. In terms of the rehabilitation of offenders, what can I say? I am frequently asked how one can improve the police service. My answer to that is, “Do something about the probation service and something to stop the remorseless churn of offenders going through the system”. It is sometimes called the revolving door; recidivism is another term that is often used. They mean the same thing. Anything we can do to rehabilitate offenders and prevent them reoffending, and going into that constant cycle we know so well, is to be applauded. I shall throw my weight right behind that.
I turn in all seriousness to a zoological phenomenon that has been mentioned already. I say zoological because there is a popular expression these days of “the elephant in the room”, which describes an issue of considerable significance or a significant problem, or something that is known to all and sundry but never mentioned, never referred to or simply ignored. Today, as your Lordships have concluded, we have an elephant of significant proportions in this Chamber, as the Government appear unable to speak its name. It is, of course, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which is now in its last stages in the House of Commons and which, we must conclude, will pass to your Lordships’ House in the next few weeks.
I pose the question: why are the Government so secretive about it? What is the problem? Why was it not included in Her Majesty’s Speech yesterday? Carryover Bills have been included in the Queen’s Speech before. One obvious example, going back a few years, is the Equality Bill that was carried over from the 2008-09 Session with no fewer than four lines of reference in the Queen’s Speech. Moving up to the present week, the Energy Bill—another carryover measure—was included in the Queen’s Speech yesterday, so why was the marriage Bill not mentioned? Is it that the Government are losing heart or do they not intend to do other than smuggle it in through the back door?
This is a Bill in which all the usual procedures have either been evaded or ignored. It seeks to effect change to a principal institution in society: the institution of marriage, which has existed for at least 2,000 years in civilised society. Some people would say that it has been going for double that length of time. It will affect every single member of society, one way or another. Yet it has not so much been introduced by the back door; rather, it has slipped in through a crack under the back door. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, has already gone into some detail on that. Given the time, I will not repeat what he said, which I support.
Personally, I believe that the way in which the Bill’s introduction has been handled is shameful. There has been no royal commission; no committee of inquiry; no mention in any party’s manifesto prior to the last general election. Indeed, the possibility of its introduction was flatly denied by the leader of the Conservative Party in an interview on national television only three days before his successful election. There has been no proper public consultation, no matter how much the Government try to massage the results of what was, it has to be said, their limited consultation process. They were more concerned with the process of the matter than with content. If one goes into that procedure, the figures indicate that only one member of the public in every 10 supports the Bill. Nine out of 10 against is a substantial majority.
The Bill is vigorously opposed by all the leading religions. After the catastrophic losses in the local elections last week—your Lordships will not need reminding that around 450 seats were lost by the coalition parties—all the analysis shows that opposition to the Bill was a significant factor in the swing of voters away from the main parties.
The ComRes poll, published this week, provides overwhelming evidence of the depth of feeling in the general population against the Bill. Underlying much of that opposition is a fear of the damage that will be caused to the dynamics of the traditional family and to the welfare of children, to say nothing of the difficulties that will be experienced in education and in employment law. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter spoke eloquently when he highlighted the error of not listening to public opinion.
One thing that has not been touched on—I will allude to it only in headline form now, but it is worth going into at another time—is the evidence of what has happened in other countries where similar change has been attempted. That evidence is discouraging, to say the very least.
I will not prolong this catalogue of criticism; there will be time later to mount a more detailed and focused attack if the Bill comes before your Lordships’ House. At this stage, I simply emphasise that there has not been any proper consultation, any proper research, any proper mature reflection and any account of public opinion.
My opposition to the Bill is most definitely not anti-gay. I dedicated much of my life in the public service to the protection and enhancement of minority rights and securing equality under the law, including the protection of homosexual rights and equalities. But I sincerely believe that the passage of this Bill into law will, in turn, create such opposition to homosexuals in general that the climate of tolerance and acceptance in this country that we have all championed and supported and seen flourish over recent years could well be set back by decades. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who is not in his place, spoke eloquently and, indeed, spread his wings on the subject of what is going on in Uganda. None of us would want to see anything like that in this country; the last time that sort of behaviour occurred was several centuries ago. I ask the noble Lord and others to reflect on the fact that this Bill is not so much about equality as sameness. I leave those two words with your Lordships.
My opposition to the Bill is quite unambiguously pro-marriage, supporting an institution that has been a fundamental part of society and families for centuries. In the hands of a mature Government, a Government who listen to the electorate, any change to that established order should properly take place only after the most profound thought and consideration. It should not, as has happened this year, be introduced as, some would say, a mere search for cheap political gain.
The Bill as it stands in the Commons is, I believe, ill conceived, ill considered, badly presented and heedless of consequences—the immediately obvious consequences and the laws of unintended consequences. I shall stoutly resist it should the opportunity present itself.
My Lords, violent crime is down and the UK is a much more peaceful place. It is not often that one wakes up to such a good-news story as the lead item on the “Today” programme. So despite a recession and a decline in police numbers, the UK has seen a substantial and sustained reduction in direct violence over the past 10 years.
These were the findings of the first UK Peace Index, launched in Parliament on 24 April. I, too, remained sceptical of such good news until I saw the quality of the research and the statistical analysis. Between 2003 and 2012, the homicide rate halved in the UK. Violent crime is down from 1,255 to 933 offences per 100,000 people. Broadland in Norfolk is the most peaceful place to live, while unfortunately Lewisham is the least. The UKPI also shows that public perception of the threat of violence is inflated and is apparently linked to mass media coverage of high-profile crimes. One only has to think of the recent wall-to-wall coverage of Boston, but perhaps our diet of “NCIS”, “Miss Marple”, “Law and Order: UK”, “Midsomer Murders” and “Homeland”, to name but a few, does not help matters.
What did not get much coverage was the UKPI’s finding that over the past five years there has been a reduction in the number of first-time offenders. With recidivism rates of around 66% and it costing £40,800 for a year’s imprisonment, preventing the first offence and the beginning of the cycle is vital. It seems that one of the causes is many small voluntary groups doing imaginative youth work, which makes gangs and crime less attractive and helps young people cope with often complex family situations. So while some serious offenders will always need the state as the probation service, many others do not, especially young people. I speak as a trustee of a prison rehabilitative charity, Kainos Community, that works in four prisons in the UK. While we depend on the governor, Kainos staff and prison officers to deliver our rehabilitative community, the prisoners repeatedly say that what they value most are the volunteers who come in to spend time with them. It is this volunteer aspect that a probation service delivered by a charity can give to young people that often the best probation officer cannot. A relationship given from choice not contract can do wonders for a prisoner’s self-worth.
Many of these charities, including the Message Trust in Manchester, have seen that such stable relationships need to be supplemented by training and employment. In January 2013, the chief constable of Greater Manchester Police opened the Message Enterprise Centre, which is creating businesses to train and employ young offenders who, in this economic climate, are, unfortunately, virtually unemployable. A probation provider that might also give you a job is way beyond what the state can give you. The challenge will be whether the huge Ministry of Justice contracts can include the often small, local providers, as without them the rehabilitation revolution in the gracious Speech will not be delivered.
Also in the gracious Speech was the reform of the police, which included the introduction of a police remuneration review body. Before going out for six shifts on the streets of Peckham recently, I was warned that police would complain to me a lot about pay and pensions, but I was very encouraged as their complaints were mainly about poor kit. They were uniform in their view that British and German makes of car for their patrol cars were great kit and that the replacement Japanese cars were poor kit.
I also saw first-hand the need for more sophisticated statistics on the stop-and-search situation on our streets to see what is really happening. However, as I mentioned recently in your Lordships’ House, I was even more convinced that police who exercise the coercive power of the state on our streets must reflect the communities they serve. The statistics I obtained from the House of Lords Library are sobering. More than 40% of Londoners now are not white, but only 11.6% of police constables are from a BME background, and once you go up just one rank the figures on average halve to 5.5% of chief inspectors and 3.8% of chief superintendants. In bald figures, at senior ranks of superintendant and above, the Met has 315 officers, and just 17 of them are from a BME background. I was encouraged that the figures for Greater Manchester Police and West Midlands Police are much better, so it is not an impossible task. It is true that the ratio for PCSOs in the Met is much better at 34.5%, but that post was introduced in 2002 so for how much longer can we listen to the clarion call that this will be the solution to the situation?
I fear that direct entry is now viewed as the solution, but when that other recent innovation, the national College of Policing and its board, has no ordinary person from the communities it polices on it, let alone anyone from a BME background, I find it hard to be optimistic. This issue is often viewed as historical. I am told that what I am saying is very much last-Government, as if this is some kind of fashion, but the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, which looked into the 2011 riots, showed that this is still very much a live issue.
Finally, being a trustee of the think tank British Future, which speaks on identity, migration and integration, leads me, of course, to mention the immigration Bill. Whatever might be the practicalities for the NHS and landlords, I am pleased that we can now speak about immigration without fear of being called a racist. Perhaps this change was inevitable because the latest wave of mass migration, in 2004, was from Poland, and therefore the race and immigration issues were helpfully separated. However, that enforced silence, while people had very real issues to be addressed, sent people to extremes and is one of the reasons why the tone and language of debate can still be acerbic and polemical. Had we been able to talk about this more freely, the debate would now be held in a more constructive manner. As politicians, it is vital that we keep our categories clear. There are legal migrants, illegal migrants and asylum seekers, and we must remember that many British citizens are very recent legal migrants and asylum seekers, which demands that we understand the sensitivities around this issue.
The correct tone in this debate will also help the UK to retain our long tradition of being a refuge for those who need it. In a recent YouGov survey, conducted for British Future on the asylum claims from Afghan interpreters who helped the British Army, 60% of those who expressed an opinion believed that Britain should allow those workers to settle here. We should be justifiably proud that Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai is being treated and educated here in Britain. Before its disbandment, the UKBA was open to working with the Asylum Advocacy Group, which was convened by Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church and various diaspora groups, to aid UKBA officers in dealing with claims arising from Egypt.
I was saddened recently to learn that religious minorities who fled Iraq, including more than 85% of Iraq’s Christian population, went overwhelmingly to the USA, Canada and Australia, rather than here. They did not come to the UK. Unfortunately, global events may require us to be a refuge once again, and I hope—I trust not in vain—that there would in that case be cross-party support for the UK being a sanctuary for those genuinely fleeing persecution.
My Lords, when my noble friend opened this debate, he said from the Front Bench that he looked forward to working with candid friends throughout the House. I can assure him that we will be friendly and candid.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, in his homily at a service on Monday, said that,
“the right policy will always be guided by courage and generosity and not by appealing to fear or pessimism”.
I added to that list, as guides, sound information, logic and a clear head. I have also just added “not acerbic or polemic language”. That could be applied to any subject, but in fact the subject was migration, and he was speaking at the mass for migrants. Time and debate both in and outside Parliament will tell how the Bill is guided, and whether it appeals to fear and pessimism.
The components of the Bill are not wholly clear. In March, announcing the splitting up of the UKBA, the Home Secretary said that a Bill in this Session would address its “complicated legal framework”. That matter does not seem to have been discussed publicly but presumably will occupy us. If it is to be part of the Bill, what of the Immigration Services between now and the commencement of legislation—or is that an administrative matter?
There has been much discussion of restrictions on services and benefits for immigrants, where fear—as many noble Lords said—is too easily whipped up. The big question is whether it is the right thing to do. Another question is whether it is workable. I hope that, before the Government bring forward a Bill, they will undertake very full consultation with landlords who may be required to check the immigration status of tenants, with employers who are already required to check for possible irregular migrants—how realistic is it to give them further immigration responsibility, and how are confusion and discrimination to be avoided?—and with health professionals, who I am sure do not want to go down the road of, “We need to see your papers”, which would be comparable to, “We need to see your insurance” in the US. A framework Bill against a background of an arms race of rhetoric would not be the reminder that we need of the benefits that our country has gained and continues to gain from immigration.
We understand that the Bill will also deal with the deportation of those who have no legal basis to remain. We must be concerned about the impact of that on refugee and migrant children and families, including unaccompanied children and those trafficked into the UK. I echo the reference of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield to the wide impacts of the administration of the immigration system. This in part takes us back to the quality of decision-making. If legislation is to include what is currently within the immigration rules, in what position does that leave the thousands of other rules? I do not understand the need to upgrade.
I mentioned trafficking. I was delighted to hear the Prime Minister say bluntly the other day that trafficking is slavery, and announce his intention to involve himself closely with the issue. On that occasion he met a woman who had escaped domestic servitude—eventually. She was helped by the wonderful little charity Kalayaan, which reports the markedly worse treatment of those it encounters on the relatively new tied migrant domestic worker visa—tied, that is, to the employer. This must be an unintended consequence that we could address in the legislation.
Much of the impact of other rules introduced last year on family migration must have been unintended and unforeseen. I am at the moment involved in an all-party group looking at these rules, and we are working on our report. I will share two stories with your Lordships. The rules make new provision for bringing to the UK adult and elderly dependants. We heard from the BMA of a woman consultant in the NHS who was unsuccessful in her application to bring to the UK her elderly parents, for whom she wanted to care. She decided to move back to Singapore. Her sister, feeling that it was wrong that only one child should take on this responsibility, moved back with her, as did her brother-in-law. They, too, were consultant psychiatrists. This country lost three consultants in that one episode. One was a psychiatrist specialising in children with learning difficulties—a very specialised specialty, if I may put it that way. If all we are looking at is numbers, I suppose that was a double win.
We have also raised considerably the minimum income threshold and other financial requirements for applications to bring in a spouse or partner—with any children—who is a non-EEA national. We heard from a gentleman living in Swansea, an area of very low wages, who is earning an adequate wage for his area but well below the threshold. He has an autistic daughter, and he would like to bring his new wife to this country from Canada, but he is not able to do so because of the financial limits. That woman would help to care for the daughter, which would be a saving to the state, not a drain on it. We heard, too, of British children separated from a parent because of the tightness of the rules. I was particularly struck by hearing more and more of the understanding of the impact of separation on a child’s development, and the attachment disorders that may result.
We will address questions of attachment and identity when this House comes to the Children and Families Bill, to which my noble friend has referred, and the work of the Adoption Legislation Committee. There turned out to be both post and pre-legislative scrutiny. I was a member of that committee, and we will be debating that for the first time next week. I hope, too, that the Bill gives us an opportunity to consider modernising the birth registration system to reflect the diverse forms of family that we now have, and the right of children and adults to know their genetic origins as well as their legal parentage.
I had hoped that we would have some opportunity somewhere to address some aspects of drugs policy, if not wholesale reform—I am with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on that.
In the last Session, the Government acknowledged the role of the victim in rehabilitation of offenders—and therefore, of course, as we all know, the prevention of further offending in future—in legislating for restorative justice. That was very delicate, but welcome. The community trigger for communities on the receiving end of persistent anti-social behaviour will also be delicate. These things need sensitive handling, and there is a difficult line between early intervention and prevention and assumptions of guilt. The fairly new Chief Inspector of Constabulary at the HMIC recently spoke about the police needing to focus on crime prevention, which is something that we would all support. I hope that he did not mean crossing that delicate line when he said that resources would be needed to,
“know where the offenders are—those who are wearing tags and those who are just known”—
I emphasise those words—
“to be the most prolific and persistent and dangerous offenders in the community—and take them off the streets”.
I hope, for my part, that the Bill will extend the restorative justice approach, working with a young person, and with those affected by anti-social behaviour, addressing root causes and perhaps building on acceptable behaviour contracts developed by some local authorities.
Another difficult line is to know what a result is, when an organisation is paid by results. I congratulate the Government on their determination to cut reoffending by recent ex-prisoners, especially those on short sentences—or, to put it another way, to help them back into mainstream society. The Government know that this needs facilitating different, new, imaginative, risk-taking ways of doing things. When I was making notes for today, I decided that I was really too weary of the terms “innovation” and “radical”, which I think are becoming a bit devalued. To find a way to succeed, an organisation must be allowed to fail. The St Giles Trust is rightly held up as a model of this way of working. It is admirable and engages ex-offenders to work with its clients to very great effect.
Conversations between all who come within the very extensive umbrella of stakeholders—another overworked term—must be the right way to go about things. In the interests of time, I will not develop that thought in relation to terrorism and counterterrorism except to say that we would not have got where we did in Northern Ireland if we had not been prepared to talk directly to terrorists. I wonder whether we need the same leap of imagination and faith to take creative steps not just with the moderates in various communities where there is a danger of breeding home-grown terrorism but also with the bad guys.
Terrorism was mentioned in the gracious Speech in the context of foreign affairs and so, too, was my final topic—preventing sexual violence in conflicts worldwide. This matter is more than prevention; it is a case of responding to people’s needs and giving aid. I congratulate the Government, particularly the Foreign Secretary, on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. I very much hope that the Government will be able to use feedback on local capacity in conflict and post-conflict situations provided by those working on the initiative. We must not be yet another entourage of experts who come and go. We must build up lasting relationships as the way to achieve lasting change through working with local experts and local NGOs. After all, it is what we are trying to do at home with payment by results. NGOs in these situations often need very little payment to achieve very significant results.
At the migrants’ mass, Archbishop Nichols talked of very real pressures made sharper in hard economic times. That will be the focus of the Government, but I come back to his wise warning against appealing to fear and pessimism and his advocacy of the guides of generosity and courage.
My Lords, mine is the last in a long and varied set of Back-Bench contributions. I return to an issue raised in his customarily elegant opening contribution to the debate yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Lang of Monkton: the absence from this year’s legislative programme of measures on reform of your Lordships’ House that were,
“more modest but more practical”,—[Official Report, 8/5/13; col. 7.]
than those unsuccessfully put forward by Her Majesty’s Government in last year’s legislative programme. Before I deal with that issue, I wish to deal briefly with three other sins of omission from the gracious Speech. My language must be influenced by the fact that I am sitting next to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey. I very much regret the absence of the expected legislation on the plain packaging of tobacco and minimum alcohol pricing. Both measures were mentioned earlier and both could have played an important part in public health policy and the prevention of illness. Not including them in the gracious Speech is a lost opportunity for improving health in this country, which is of great significance.
I also regret the omission of enshrining in legislation the Government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas development. I have enormous respect and admiration for what this Government have done in overseas development in both quality and quantity. Their achievement is more impressive having taken place at a time of such strict economic circumstances. It is therefore a sadness that they have not carried through into legislation their commitment in practice to the 0.7% target. To have done so would have ensured the sustainability of spending, but not just that; it would have encouraged other countries to follow the UK’s example. It would also have added to the huge respect that other countries have for us and our influence if we had shown in legislation that we intended this to be not a one-off but a continuing commitment to the developing world—an issue which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, talked about. We have gained tremendous international respect for what this Government have done, and I hope that they will reconsider that decision.
The final legislative proposal to which I wish to refer is a Private Member’s Bill on assisted dying for the terminally ill, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, will seek leave to introduce in the House next week. I am one of the 80% of the British public who support a measure that would enhance the choice and control available at the very end of life for terminally ill adults. I have to say that as a parliamentarian I understand very well the need to avoid unintended consequences and to safeguard against abuse. However, my experience as a member of the Select Committee of your Lordships’ House on the previous Bill, including our visits overseas and the very detailed work that has been put into the safeguards in the proposed Bill, reassure me that those safeguards are robust. I will be supporting the passage of that Bill.
I return to my main theme, which I am afraid is a matter on which I spoke in last year’s debate on the gracious Speech. I said then that in my criticism of the Government’s proposals I was in no way trying to support the status quo in your Lordships’ House. I hope I made it clear then, and have done so since, that there is a substantial agenda of reform—some of it legislative, some within the control of the House itself, and some which the party leaders could support and enhance. That would make us a better, more effective and more defensible Chamber as part of our bicameral Parliament. If we are to be that, we have to make some progress. I hope the Government will now accept that for the extent of this Parliament we are not going to see major reform along the lines of the previous Bill.
Indeed, the point has been made by several speakers in today’s debate, including the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Soley, that there are good reasons not to attempt the stand-alone reform of your Lordships’ House on that scale at a time of great constitutional uncertainty and possible change, and given the importance of looking in that context not only at both Houses but at all the nations of the United Kingdom. However, to my mind, that is not a reason for doing nothing.
Some of the proposals for reform—the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, always likes to call it housekeeping, and something in my feminist genes somehow responds to that; I call it incremental, evolutionary reform—have been discussed at great length in your Lordships’ House during debates on the Private Member’s Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who did the House a great service by his thorough and absolutely steadfast commitment in his attempts to gain support for that Bill. He did gain support for the Bill in this House, and I believe that he could have gained support for it in another place but for the attitude of the Government.
I would have said that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, was tireless, but I feel that perhaps he is just a little tired of taking this legislation forward. Therefore, with the leave of the House, I intend to bring forward a Private Member’s Bill next week to try to promote the agenda of incremental change. I shall not weary the House tonight with a Second Reading speech—there will be time for that. All I will do is make a heartfelt plea to the government Front Bench to accept that, with the failure of last year’s Bill, there will be no major changes to the composition of this House in this Parliament, and that it would not be responsible or grown-up politics to set their faces totally against progress in areas where there is if not nemine dissentiente then widespread consensus. I hope that that will be the atmosphere in which the Private Member’s Bill is discussed.
My Lords, debates on the Queen’s Speech inevitably feature ministerial double acts. Today, the event stars the noble Lords, Lord Taylor and Lord McNally. The genre is, of course, a familiar one. We think perhaps of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” or the Geordie comedy “The Likely Lads”, though perhaps “The Likely Lords” would be a more appropriate description. The latest example is the new comedy series “Vicious”, although I would not for a moment suggest that that is an appropriate adjective to describe two highly congenial and respected Ministers, and in any case I cannot quite decide which would be Ian McKellen and which would be Derek Jacobi.
My responsibilities as a shadow Minister are limited to justice matters, but in a debate ranging across crime, justice, equalities and constitutional issues I will inevitably touch on some matters beyond my normal brief.
I start with constitutional issues and especially those that concern Parliament as a whole and your Lordships’ House in particular. In so doing, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for her intention to bring forward the Bill to which she has just referred. Last Wednesday, the Select Committee on the Constitution published a report entitled The Pre-emption of Parliament. The report deals with the tendency of the Government to pre-empt legislation or, in a phrase that I coined with regard to the Public Bodies Bill, to engage in pre-legislative implementation, as opposed to the established concept of pre-legislative scrutiny and post-legislative review. The report asserts that,
“the principle of restraint in the name of good constitutional practice should apply to all pre-emptive actions, not just those involving expenditure under the new service rules. This recommendation particularly applies to re-organisations of public bodies”.
The report concluded with an emphatic injunction:
“Where the pre-emption involved is such that it threatens effective parliamentary scrutiny, it should not be undertaken. It is for Parliament, not the Government, to decide whether to change the law”.
I ask the Minister when the Government will respond to this report and the recommendations that it contains, and, if it is at all possible, to give an indication of their thinking today.
However, there are other aspects of the way that the Government deal with legislation which arouse concerns across the House. The committee of the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, reported recently on the Government’s approach to consultation and was critical of the shortened timescales that they too often impose. Frequently, moreover, we receive details of the response to consultation and, in turn, the Government’s response to the outcome of consultation at a very late stage in the legislative process. Proposed statutory guidance or draft regulations are all too often simply not available at all in time to be taken into account as we scrutinise the legislation. In these circumstances, neither House is able to discharge its responsibility to scrutinise and improve legislation properly.
We are already seeing the sour fruits of this approach in a number of areas—not least, relevant to today’s debate, in relation to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act and the Crime and Courts Act. The president of the Family Division has proclaimed that the courts are “wholly unprepared” for the changes now being implemented. The Government are pressing ahead, as we learnt today, with the privatisation of much of the work of the probation service and the introduction of a payment-by-results system. Not only have they cancelled the two pilot schemes they were running, in Staffordshire in the West Midlands and in Wales, they have even refused a Freedom of Information Act request made by colleagues in the House of Commons that sought information on the evaluation of the schemes. Can the Minister explain those curious decisions?
While welcoming the Government’s intention to reduce reoffending rates and to offer supervision to ex-offenders released after short sentences, we will wish to examine carefully—as will your Lordships’ House as a whole—the details of the proposals, their practicality and their impact on the probation service. I echo the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Marks, on these matters. Time and again, after all, the Government have charged ahead with ill-thought-out measures that have caused huge problems and cost large sums of money. The fiasco of the new court interpreter system, the process of issuing all civil monetary claims from a single court and the outsourcing of court security—that paragon of efficiency, G4S, apparently pays its staff £6.45 an hour but is itself paid £11.49 an hour for the hours worked by its staff, and makes a gross profit of £42 million a year—all testify to that ideological obsession with outsourcing to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield referred this morning.
I will, however, commend the Lord Chancellor on at least one recent decision, which is to set up a review of the Court of Protection, about which I have voiced doubts on a number of occasions. It needs a root-and-branch examination, and I look forward to the outcome of that. Equally, I welcome what I take to be the Government’s intention to proceed with the equal marriage Bill, and I support the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who made a remarkable speech this morning, on what he said about the Bill. Too often, it seems to me, the Lord Chancellor indulges in the politics of the dog whistle—a tendency that will no doubt become more evident as the UKIP pack snaps at the Tories’ electoral heels. It is interesting that his recent announcement on prisoner privileges, uniforms and the like, affect privately run prisons more than publicly run ones.
However, it is in the fields of legal aid and litigation that the most profound damage is threatened to our system of justice and of access to it. It is extraordinary that one of the main justifications advanced for the changes which will deprive 650,000 claimants a year of legal advice or legal aid is that the scheme has changed over the past 65 years to cover more areas of law, although, as it happens, a smaller proportion of the population. Would the same argument be advanced to justify cutting the National Health Service where more treatments become available, or any of the other areas of public policy where needs change as society, the economy, technology or the environment change? We will continue to scrutinise and challenge the regulations still to be made to implement the LASPO changes, and we look forward to the Low commission’s report on the effect of the changes and the cost to the court system. Both in this context and in relation to criminal legal aid, to which I now turn, we will look for alternative savings across the whole system which will not imperil access to justice.
The Government’s proposals on criminal legal aid rely yet again on the discredited tendering system which has given us Atos, Group 4, the interpreter fiasco, and more besides. But these proposals are even worse because, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, pointed out, those who qualify for legal aid will have no choice of representative. A mere 400 firms will be given contracts and clients will be allocated to them apparently on a crude rotation basis. Fees for both barristers and solicitors will be cut by at least 30% and 17.5% respectively from in most cases a low base which, of course, includes substantial overheads. The criminal Bar in particular will be very hard hit, but the real damage will be done to the client and the courts as well as to the practitioners. Nor do the Government’s sums add up. They claim a saving of £220 million a year but their estimate shows only £118 million a year by 2016-17. As that is the product of the cut in fees the tendering exercise appears to make no difference. The proposed savings on prison law will save all of £4 million allegedly, and Answers to Parliamentary Questions tabled by colleagues in the House of Commons have established that there is no estimate of the savings to flow from the proposed 12-month residency test, or even how much is now spent on legal aid for foreigners. It is all just another blast on the dog whistle.
Astonishingly, the Government have just produced a series of amendments to their own consultation document, several of which modify the original claimed savings. One of them corrects a figure given at paragraph 5.3 on page 72 of the consultation document for the costs of very high value cases from £592 million to £92 million, a reduction of 84%. If only the Chancellor of the Exchequer could amend the OBR figures in the same way. We await with interest the outcome of this amended consultation and the Government’s response, which on past form will probably largely ignore it.
Even the Daily Telegraph ran a piece by one of its feature writers proclaiming that it is the end of the legal system as we know it. I am pleased that the noble Lords, Lord Marks and Lord Thomas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, have voiced serious concerns about the Government’s proposals. I hope that they will join with us in challenging them if, as I assume, secondary legislation and regulations will be brought to this House for approval.
Change is not limited to the criminal law. At the behest of its generous friends in the insurance industry the Tory party—with, apparently, its Liberal Democrat partners once again colluding with it—is embarking on radical changes to civil justice, extending the scope of small claim courts and imposing a rigorous cost regime which will make it uneconomic for practitioners to undertake the work given the need for relevant expertise to be deployed. Coupled with the LASPO changes, significant roadblocks are being placed on access to civil justice, based in part on the myth sedulously fostered by insurance companies of a compensation culture, a notion recently dismissed out of hand by Lord Dyson, the newly appointed Master of the Rolls.
There are also deep concerns about the future of judicial review, an essential tool in holding government and public bodies to account. The Government claim that only a tiny percentage of claims are successful. In fact, a significant number of cases are settled in the claimant’s favour before the stage of judicial permission to proceed. Of those which do proceed to hearing, again a substantial proportion is successful. Lord Dyson has said:
“There is no principle more basic to our system of law than the maintenance of the rule of law itself and the constitutional protection afforded by judicial review”.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has stated, “Judicial review is critical” and that the Ministry of Justice,
“is showing a remarkable lack of concern for the precision of the facts”.
What answer does the Minister make to those remarks of the eminent judges who have pronounced upon the Government’s policy?
Unfortunately, we now seem constantly to denigrate the human rights legislation which it was once our proud boast as a nation to promote at home and abroad. We appear much keener to sell access to British justice to wealthy foreigners than to secure it for our own citizens.
The grayling, I understand, is a protected species of the salmon family, which apparently provides thrilling sport when the trout season is at an end. If the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, who is apparently a keen angler, was in his place now, as he was this morning, he would no doubt confirm the description of the fish. For our part, we do not regard the Lord Chancellor as a protected species, nor will we treat opposition to his destructive policies as a sport, thrilling or otherwise. Our concern on these Benches—and I think the concern of many across your Lordships’ House—is to protect the enduring values of our legal system and to preserve access to justice for all who need it, while of course striving to do so as efficiently, effectively and economically as possible.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to reply to this, the first substantial day of debate on Her Majesty’s gracious Speech. I think I am the 37th speaker and I thank all Members of the House for their contributions in these important subject areas. They have ranged far and wide, and way beyond the areas I have been briefed on, but that is the nature of having to wind up a debate of this kind. However, we have dealt with topics such as constitutional affairs, equalities, home affairs, justice and the law. My noble friend Lord Cormack complained that this is a thin Queen’s Speech, but I think noble Lords will agree that his definition of thinness perhaps differs from mine. He was a little concerned that this House would not have enough work to do. I think that is an unnecessary anxiety. As one who will be partly responsible for seeing through elements of this programme, I have to say that there will not be a shortage of things for noble Lords to do. It is very much in the tradition of this House that we scrutinise in a proper fashion.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, obviously has plenty of time because he can watch television programmes that I have never even heard of, but fortunately someone else spotted it while I was trying to assemble my notes. He asked me about the Constitution Committee report on the pre-emptive scrutiny of legislation. The report has only just been published and we have 60 days in which to respond. If we take that time, it is because we want to respond to it properly, but we will respond within the time. We take pre-emptive legislative scrutiny seriously, as we do post-legislative scrutiny. These things help to improve the quality of government.
As noble Lords have said, this debate has been a two-man operation. My noble friend Lord McNally and I work together well and quite a lot of this legislation will indeed be joint Ministry of Justice and Home Office legislation. Our two departments work closely together to, I think, very great effect.
Perhaps I can move on to some of the issues that noble Lords have raised. We heard that the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will radically reform the way in which anti-social behaviour is tackled. Generally, it has been warmly welcomed by noble Lords. Through the introduction of the community remedy and the community trigger, it will focus response on the needs of victims and communities, which all too often are let down by the current system. That will give front-line professionals—the police, councils, housing providers and others—more effective and streamlined powers. As noble Lords will have heard, the Bill will also address a number of other important crime and policing matters, including making it easier for landlords to take swift and decisive action against their tenants, thus creating a powerful deterrent against problem behaviour. It will tackle irresponsible dog ownership. Although that has caused some amusement, it is certainly a very serious issue and one which, when I was a Minister in Defra, I was much exercised about. It will extend to any place the offence of owning or being in charge of a dog that is dangerously out of control. It is a measure that I think is long overdue. It will explicitly make an attack on an assistance dog, such as a guide dog for the blind, an aggravated offence. In addition, the Bill will target not only people who use illegal firearms but those who import or supply them. We need to send a clear message that people who are involved in this trade are as responsible as those who actually pull the trigger for the terrible harm that gun crime causes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter both talked about the community trigger and expressed some concern about how effective it will be. There was a suggestion that there needed to be several complaints before the process came into play. It will become evident, when we take the legislation through the House, that this is not the case. The duty already exists on local agencies to deal with every report of an ASB incident, and many agencies already respond quickly. The community trigger will be used in situations where victims’ problems have been ignored and will give victims the right to demand that agencies take action. There is some evidence that some individuals have been ignored in the past in this regard, and this empowers them to demand that their complaints be taken seriously.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of minimum unit pricing, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield, and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, who made a very powerful speech demonstrating his concerns that this issue has been ignored. In March 2012, the Government proposed a range of measures in the alcohol strategy to radically reshape the approach to alcohol and reduce excessive drinking. Public consultation closed on 6 February and we are carefully considering the views expressed. It is right that we consider these matters carefully before we rush to legislate and we will set out our proposals in due course. The noble Lord will know that the court in Scotland had indeed determined the issue, but the drinks industry is appealing against that. We do not want to get ourselves in a duplicate litigious battle on this. We are working on an alcohol strategy which will come to this House when we have it in place.
My noble friend Lady Harris was concerned about the effectiveness of the police force following budget cuts and thought that this might perhaps harm the degree to which police were able to tackle ASB. Again, this is not the case. Every part of the public sector has to play its part in cutting the country’s budget deficit, but police forces across the country are showing that they can meet this challenge. I pay tribute to them because crime is falling and front-line policing has largely been unaffected by these cuts.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, expressed concern about our immigration proposals, and other voices expressed concerns that there would be problems with those policy initiatives indicated in the gracious Speech. It is evident that there is clear support for ensuring that this country has tough immigration laws that prevent abuse of the system. We have been clear that people who do not meet our rules should leave the country and that foreigners who commit serious crimes should be deported from the UK in all but the most exceptional circumstances. I have no doubt that the House will want to support the proposed legislation to ensure that courts take notice. The noble Baroness suggested that our reforms would be ineffective. That is not the case; the reforms are bold and will bring about real change. There will be consultation with those organisations that are affected by these matters.
It is not true to say that landlords are feeling exposed by the suggestion that they, too, will have responsibility for making sure that properties are not let. The National Landlords Association has made it quite clear that it supports these measures to help regularise the legitimate letting of properties. This will be particularly effective in making sure that illegal immigrants cease to find it easy to get housing. Health workers, too, will have a responsibility for ensuring that the system is proportionate. People will not have to present a passport every time they see a GP but it is not unreasonable that health service provision in this country is available only to those who are legitimately allowed access to it.
The Government welcome people with the skills we need who want to come to this country to study, to work hard, to invest and to contribute to our society. However, in order to continue to attract those people, and to protect hard-working people here, the system has to be fair. It is only fair to expect people to contribute to our public services before they benefit from them. It is only fair to prevent those with no right to be here from accessing public services. It is only fair that hard-working taxpayers do not end up funding the “benefits tourism” that has been all too prevalent in recent times.
As noble Lords are clearly aware, Her Majesty’s gracious Speech referred to proposals to enable the protection of the public and the investigation of crime in cyberspace. We will bring forward our proposals as soon as possible, which may involve legislation. Noble Lords will wish to note that the cross-party Joint Committee that scrutinised our draft provisions concluded that,
“there is a case for legislation which will provide the law enforcement authorities with some further access to communications data”.
Turning to the offender rehabilitation Bill, all the contributions recognised that this was an important area and indeed welcomed the Government’s focus on it. Reoffending has been too high for too long. The case for a new approach is clear. We spend more than £3 billion a year on prisons and almost £1 billion annually on delivering sentences in the community. Despite this investment, almost half of all offenders released from prison offend again within 12 months. The very highest reoffending rates are among prisoners sentenced to custodial sentences of less than 12 months: nearly 60% reoffend within a year of release. Our reforms to rehabilitation will ensure that offenders are given targeted support to help them turn away from crime for good.
A number of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollins, Lady Howe and Lady Williams, and the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, Lord Thomas and Lord Phillips of Sudbury, voiced their concern about the professionalism that supports the probation service. Professionalism lies at the heart of so much of public service. I understand that people are concerned that the rate and pace of change might affect the professionalism involved. However, we believe that it will be possible to bring together the best of the public, voluntary and private sectors and give them the freedom to innovate and focus on turning round the lives of offenders. We heard examples of where voluntary and third sector services had been remarkably successful in this area. We can build on that success, and I assure noble Lords that there is no intention that these contracts should be given just to big organisations. They will be given to voluntary and third sector organisations as well.
We expect the majority of staff who are currently in probation roles to transfer to new providers. It will be a managed transition, carried out under statutory provisions set out by Parliament. However, we must not forget our responsibility for public safety. That is why we are creating a new probation service, building on the expertise and professionalism already in place that makes an important contribution to public protection. I support the comments of noble Lords who have spoken on this subject. I think that we will have some good debates in this area and am grateful for the general welcome given to this important and overdue measure, which will provide an opportunity to tackle offenders with some of the highest reoffending rates.
The Government’s plans for criminal legal aid have come in for considerable criticism. As my noble friend Lord McNally, said, we are in consultation. It is a genuine consultation; the Government have not made up their mind. If noble Lords wish to have a meeting with my noble friend, he will be very happy to talk to them about their points of view so that the Government can bear them in mind.
We have an excellent tradition of legal aid—we have the best legal aid and the best legal profession—but we cannot close our eyes to the fact that legal aid costs far too much. We are clear that the system will continue to uphold everyone’s right to a fair trial, but that does not mean that we should not look at the way in which it operates. The consultation does not close until 4 June and the legal profession is actively engaged with my noble friend in discussing this matter, but, as I have said, the opportunity for discussion is extended to Members of this House. Our proposals present the fairest way to reduce the overall bill for advocacy at a time when businesses across the country are having to adapt to a very difficult climate.
Perhaps I may turn to the justice Bill. It is intended that an essentially dual-purpose justice Bill will be brought to Parliament later in this Session. First, it will reform the administration of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to ensure value for money for the taxpayer while maintaining quick and effective access to justice. Secondly, it is our intention that measures in the Bill will help us to disrupt the business models of organised crime groups. It will ensure that law enforcement agencies have the right tools and powers to disrupt their activities, including those of enablers and “kingpins”—if one might call them that—who may never come into contact with illegal commodities but who play a key part in directing crime.
Although the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was not included in the Queen’s Speech, I suppose it was inevitable that it would be a matter for discussion. We heard from my noble friend Lord Fowler a passionate advocacy of the fairness and justice behind this Bill. Similarly, I respect the concerns of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, and the noble Lord, Lord Dear, about the Bill. There is no subterfuge involved in this Bill not being mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.
I can confirm that that will be the case. I for my part will be supporting the Bill, but that is my own position. I have listened to my noble friend Lady Stowell speak on the issue. I am sure that she will convince a vast majority of noble Lords of the rightness of this Bill, which is about giving those who want to get married the opportunity to do so while protecting the rights of those who do not agree with same-sex marriage. No one stands to lose, but we all stand to gain by building on a tradition of tolerance and inclusiveness. I must sum up, because I am going on a bit longer than I should.
I do not want to detain the noble Lord, but he is always generous and courteous in seeking to answer questions raised in the course of the debate. I raised a specific point about individual voter registration and the reserved power that the Government have over the Electoral Commission. I appreciate that he will not have time tonight, but if he could write to me on that specific point, I would be very grateful.
I have a note on that, and I realise that that was an important issue that was raised in discussion. Any proposed royal charter is submitted not to Parliament but to the Privy Council and must be considered against the Privy Council’s set criteria. The draft charter submitted by the newspaper industry has now begun that process. However, I should inform noble Lords that the royal charter published on 18 March and proposed by all party leaders has the support of all three party leaders. I hope that makes the position clear. I have little doubt that it will continue to be debated in this House, but the royal charter as proposed when we introduced it into the Crime and Courts Bill still has the support of party leaders.
Yes, that is a correct analysis of the position.
On devolution, there has been a lot of comment on Sir William McKay’s report. It takes a positive step forward on an important issue. Again, we will provide a suitable response to it in due course.
The noble Baroness, Lady Henig, among others, mentioned the SIA, a body for which I have enormous respect, and I have enormous respect for the work that she did there. The proposals are working their way through and we are looking to try to match the timetable that we have set ourselves. I was with the leaders of the SIA only the other day to agree the fee structure under the new arrangements.
I apologise if there are matters that I have not covered. I will write to noble Lords. This has been an engaging debate. The truth of the matter is that we will have plenty of opportunity of going into these matters in considerable detail when the Bills come to this House. I look forward to engaging with noble Lords on those occasions. Meanwhile, I thank them.
The debate adjourned until Monday 13 May.
House adjourned at 6.09 pm.