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Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): The Home Secretary will be aware that one of the biggest problems in virtually every constituency is that many thousands of people, especially the elderly and women, are afraid to go out at night. Will the Government's actions enable those people to go about their lives in the way that they are entitled to, now and in future?
Mr. Howard: I thought that the words that I used might not be greeted with universal enthusiasm in the Labour party. The words that I have just used were not mine, but those of the Police Federation, in setting out what it thought would be the effect of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. It thinks that by significantly reducing the fear of crime, the Act could improve the quality of life for many people. I hope that it will do so for those to whom the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) referred. It is important to do all that we can to fight the fear of crime, which keeps the elderly as prisoners in their homes.
One of the most important achievements of street watch, which is so derided and mocked by the Opposition, as we saw again a few moments ago, is that members of street watch accept as part of their responsibilities going out at night to escort elderly, vulnerable people who want to visit friends or relatives at the other end of the town but are afraid to do so on their own. They are happy to do so when they are escorted by members of street watch. That is a practical way to reduce the fear of crime among
Column 250vulnerable people and it will improve the quality of their lives. I hope that the hon. Member for Burnley will support my efforts to achieve that objective.
Mr. Rowe: My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned volunteers. Will he reiterate his view that organisations that have worked with young offenders, many of whom could otherwise be described as children, should continue to use volunteers to create worthwhile occupations for such young people and rehabilitate them? Will he work with us to extend opportunities for such work?
Mr. Howard: There is a role for people in such work and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his long association with the voluntary movement. I agree with him, and the thrust of my earlier remarks, that there is great scope for voluntary effort, confirms that. I know that my hon. Friend shares that view.
The reaction of the Opposition parties to the legislation in the previous Session has shown them up in their true colours. They are soft on crime and they always will be. When they talk endlessly about the causes of crime, they come perilously close to making excuses for it. They will never understand that and that is why they cannot be trusted on law and order. That is why they occupy the Opposition Benches, as they will continue to do for many years.
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn): I thank the Home Secretary for the compliments--which I think were full-hearted--that he paid me at the beginning of his speech. I look forward to many debates with him across the Dispatch Box. My only sorrow is that I shall miss the clashes and occasional insights that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) achieved in debate.
One reason that I am happy to be reacquainted with the right hon. and learned Gentleman is because it reminds me of some of his skills; for example, his skill with the scissors and paste in recycling old speeches and announcements. Not a single thing that he said today was new. Indeed, I could point directly to large chunks of his speech that he made in our debate on the Gracious Speech on 23 November last year, and also in his speech at the Conservative party conference last month.
The Home Secretary has made the announcement on home leave three times during the past two weeks. I note from his smirk that he accepts what I say. When I came fresh to the issue, I was astonished to discover the laxity in the conditions for home leave and temporary release, and the way that the matter had been allowed to drift by his Department.
Until six months ago, no proper records were kept of the numbers taking home leave and being granted temporary release. I had always assumed that it would be an offence not to comply with the conditions of home leave, the most significant one of which should surely be to return at the end of it. It is no wonder that a large number of people are absconding when there is no penalty if they do not return. Therefore, we give the proposed measures to deal with that our full support, but they come rather late.
Column 251to a single occasion on which the Leader of the Opposition, when he was shadow Home Secretary, asked me to tighten the conditions?
Mr. Straw: I shall do my best to provide the Home Secretary with an answer. I am aware that he is preparing himself for opposition, so I understand that he forgets that it is a Conservative Government who have been in charge for the past 15 years. He also forgets that some of the failures of the system remain buried within it for a long time, and it is difficult to discover negatives. I note that he did not demur for a moment from what I said about the lack of monitoring by his Department and the extraordinary fact that it has not been an offence--and still is not--to break the conditions of home leave. I hope that there will be some serious debates in the Chamber about important criminal justice matters. The right to silence is one of them. My party supports the majority view of the royal commission. I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman takes a different view. Sometimes, Conservative Members speak with forked tongues on the issue. They want to abandon the right to silence for common criminals, but when serious accusations are made against senior members of the Conservative party, the first thing we hear them cry is that those people are innocent until others have proven them guilty, and that they are entitled to their right to silence. Has the Home Secretary once complained about the fact that Lady Porter has exercised her right to silence throughout the hearings at Westminster city hall? Has he once complained to the Secretary of State for Employment about standing up and claiming that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) had the right to silence in the face of the accusations made against him? Has he written to the Employment Secretary about that?
Mr. Howard: The hon. Gentleman completely misrepresents the position. Of course it is true that someone is innocent until proven guilty. That has always been the position under our law and it remains so. That is not affected in the slightest degree by the changes that we are making to the right to silence. People will, quite rightly, continue to assert that someone is innocent until he is proven guilty, but that has nothing to do with the point that the hon. Gentleman tries to make, or the changes that we are making to the law.
Mr. Straw: My hon. Friends will have noted a significant omission in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention. He did not say a word about whether he approved or disapproved of Lady Porter exercising a right to silence. We shall continue to ask him questions about that.
Mr. Straw: I have followed the investigation at Westminster with great care, and I have attended the proceedings twice during the past month. I would not describe that as muck. Very serious allegations have been made, and the Conservative party, at national level, has exercised double standards.
Column 252have exercised their right to silence. He then commented on that and drew inferences from it. Does he agree that all the legislation has done is to allow a court to comment on the exercising of the right to silence and to draw inferences from it? He appears to be agreeing with the legislation. Perhaps he should adjust his comments accordingly.
Mr. Straw: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his dexterity. As he knows, the issue is rather more complicated than he suggests. If it were not, the majority of the royal commission recommendations would have to be dismissed, because the Conservative party did not agree with them. There is a serious issue of whether and at what point the right to silence should be abrogated. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) dealt with that point at the time. When I discussed the matter with the Crown Prosecution Service, I was told that it felt that pre-trial disclosure by the defence was much more important. I support that, but I understand that it is not in the legislation.
I want now to deal with the question of a criminal cases review authority. As the House knows, the Gracious Speech contained no specific reference to any criminal justice measure for England and Wales. There was simply a delphic reference to "further measures" relating to law and order. A large number of reports from the Law Commission have not been acted on by the Government. I would have liked to hear the Home Secretary say that some of them would be the subject of legislation during the current Session. One important one concerns the absurd bar on prosecutions for murder when the victim dies more than a year and a day after the attack. That matter has much exercised my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn).
If the Home Secretary is prepared to consult us in advance about the contents of measures that would implement Law Commission reports, we stand ready to co-operate in ensuring their passage through the House. We now know that the words in the Gracious Speech--
"further measures of law reform"--
embrace a Bill to create a criminal cases review authority, as recommended by the royal commission.
By all accounts, the Bill's inclusion in the programme was a close-run thing. Just 10 days ago, the Home Secretary's representative on earth, the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), briefed the press that the Bill might be left out in this Session of Parliament. With that possibility in mind, I wrote last week to the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that we stood ready to agree a timetable for the Bill, provided that there was prior discussion and agreement on its contents. That offer still stands, and I hope that something positive comes from it. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield told the House on Wednesday, we have long urged legislation on a review authority. We backed the Home Affairs Select Committee's 1982 report, and we produced our own detailed report to that effect in 1990.
It is probably accepted across the Chamber that public confidence in the criminal justice system in England and Wales has rarely been lower than today, because the public do not sense that it deals effectively with those who are guilty, or has adequate safeguards for ensuring that those innocent of crimes are not wrongly convicted and spend years behind bars, unable to clear their names.
Column 253Notorious miscarriages of justice, such as those involving the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, and less celebrated cases, prompted the establishment of the Runciman royal commission. The common characteristic of almost all miscarriages of justice that were later put right is that the pursuit and investigation of evidence to establish innocence was by journalists or supporters of the prisoners--often in the face of great resistance by those running the system. Without the extraordinary tenacity of, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)--who was outrageously and ignorantly abused for years as some pro-IRA crank--the Birmingham Six might still be in gaol.
There has been almost an inbuilt, institutional reluctance to recognise that our criminal justice system, so often held up as the best in the world, and unquestionably containing many admirable features, could have failed so comprehensively in some cases. The result of those failures was not only the incarceration of people for crimes that they did not commit, but the fact that those guilty of them have continued to walk free.
The establishment of an independent review authority in place of the work of Home Office officials and ministerial discretion is a major step in the right direction. Of itself, it will not be a magic wand. How it operates, whether it will be seen as independent and what powers it exercises will be of critical importance. I am glad that the Home Secretary acknowledged some of those points. We shall need to examine in detail some aspects of the authority's operation--not least, the system for the supervision and execution of investigations into miscarriages of justice. In our judgment, there will be cases in which it will be essential for public confidence that such investigations be independent of the police.
Of course there are resource issues, and we do not resile from those. The authority is likely to be overrun in its initial stages by a large number of applications--many of which may be without merit. If the system established can command public and professional support from the outset, so that, when the authority says no to an application, everyone understands that that is a fair judgment and means no, that should save resources in the short run and not expend them.
On Wednesday, following the extremely effective speech of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the House witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of the Prime Minister threatening his own colleagues with political extinction if they dared to vote against a Bill to increase Britain's contributions to the European Union. In doing so, the Prime Minister implicitly accepted that his party would suffer ignominious defeat in the event that he called a general election. After all, if the Prime Minister were confident of victory, it would hardly be a threat. He knows that the British public have lost all trust in his Administration and that he cannot regain it. The public were lied to about tax, deceived over crime and cruelly double-crossed over the Government's attitude to the victims of crime.
I am a devil for punishment, so I spent the weekend before last reading every speech made by Conservative Home Secretaries to each Conservative party conference since 1979. It was a numbing experience, but worth it. Virtually every year, there was stomach-churning rhetoric about how the Tory party claimed to be on the side of the victim and of the police, and how Britain's streets would be safer once Conservative policy had worked.
Column 254As the years rolled on, there was an increasing sense of desperation, as successive holders of that great office realised that their party had blown it. Overall, crime has doubled since 1979. Crimes of violence, which engender the greatest fear, have risen even faster--in the case of robbery, they have increased by 340 per cent. over 15 years, rising last year as well. Although the rhetoric has remained largely the same, the policies pursued have shown no similar consistency. They lurch from one wheeze to another.
One year, the public are told that prison does not work; the next, that prison does work. When the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) was Home Secretary, he said:
"Prisons are an expensive way of making bad people worse." The present Home Secretary launched a specific attack on that view on 22 November, and did so again today. When the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) was Home Secretary, his Department issued a press release celebrating a reduction in the number of young people given custodial sentences. The current holder of the office implies that his policies are not to be judged by whether the prison population decreases. That is in total contrast with the views taken by his predecessors.
Is it any wonder that the public are confused, and no longer believe a word that they are told by Conservative Ministers? Why should the public have any confidence, when even the Home Secretary's own colleagues do not? Writing in The Guardian last September, the right hon. Member for Mole Valley said of the current Home Secretary:
"I do not know what he is doing. He is going to make a lot of bad decisions if he is not careful."
Never was the right hon. Member for Mole Valley more prescient. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's one and a half years as Home Secretary have been littered with bad decisions--none more so than in respect of the criminal injuries compensation scheme, on which the right hon. and learned Gentleman was humiliatingly overruled by the Court of Appeal last week.
The Home Secretary's approach to that scheme speaks volumes about the way that the Conservative party has broken the electorate's trust. The House will be aware that the central issue in the court judgment, which found that the Home Secretary behaved unlawfully, was whether he was entitled to use the powers of the royal prerogative to amend the scheme when legislation had been passed in 1988 but not activated meanwhile.
The Master of the Rolls held that the Home Secretary had "acted unlawfully and abused his prerogative or common law powers".
Revealingly, the legalities of the compensation scheme were not an issue for the Tory party in the 1992 general election. Before any election, the Conservatives publish a campaign guide, such as that which I hold--which was published before the 1994 European elections. In view of the position adopted by the Home Secretary in the Court of Appeal, I wonder whether he has read the guide published for the last general election. It stated that the compensation scheme was one of the most generous in the world and
"has been placed on a statutory basis, giving victims who suffer significant injuries an automatic right to compensation for the first time".
Column 255Note the use of the present tense, with no suggestion that the statutory provisions had yet to be activated. If that text is to be believed, those provisions were already giving automatic rights to victims at the time of the guide's publication. But that was wholly untrue.
The Secretary of State has some explaining to do. Why were palpably untrue statements about the scheme, which would have been vetted by Ministers and their advisers, included in that election guide and made by Tory party members then? Why was the scheme's cost simply a matter for self- congratulation in that campaign guide, when criticisms made now about its cost applied then with equal force? The Home Secretary told the House a few minutes ago that, if the scheme continued unreformed, its cost was likely to rise to £500 million by the year 2000. That is not what the 1994 guide told us. It said that the cost of the scheme would rise from £164 million in 1993-94, not to £500 million, but to £570 million by 2000. I want to know who is telling the truth. Is it the Secretary of State or the Conservative campaign guide, which Conservative leaders keep telling us is an authoritative document?
Mr. Straw: I suspect that my hon. Friend is probably right. I have had work carried out on the costings contained in the Conservative campaign guide, by the statisticians in the House of Commons Library. They tell me that the Home Office's calculations were based on a straight-line extrapolation of previous trends, and assume that the number of cases resolved in each year rose by 9 per cent. and that the value of each settlement rose by 5 per cent. plus inflation.
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman understands how compound interest works, he will know that those assumptions, which amount to about a 17 per cent. compound increase each year, do not remotely produce a three and a half times increase in the cost of the scheme over six years. I can see that he is looking perplexed, and I am not surprised, because the calculations in the guide, and the ones that he has used, do not fit with the assumptions of his own statisticians.
Let us assume for a moment that the figures quoted in the guide are correct --an increase from £164 million to £570 million over six years. Even if we make allowance for a 5 per cent. plus inflation increase in the value of awards, it means that, as a matter of policy, the Secretary of State now expects serious crimes of violence and the applications arising therefrom to continue to rise year in and year out at not less than 15 per cent. each year, because to achieve a rate of increase of three and a half times over six years requires a 23 per cent. compound interest rate.
Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that he must accept as a matter of policy, for the figures to have any meaning, that violent crime will continue to accelerate at a double-digit rate for the next six years, each year?
Mr. Howard: The answer is no, and I am astonished that, given the amount of work that the hon. Gentleman has clearly put into the matter, he is not aware of this simple point. The remarkable fact is that there is no
Column 256statistical relationship between the number of applications under the scheme, or the amount paid out under the scheme, and the increase in violent crime.
If we look at what has happened over the 30 years during which the scheme has operated, we find that violent crime has increased by 500 per cent., that the number of applications under the scheme has increased by 3,000 per cent. and that the amount paid out under the scheme has increased by 40,000 per cent. So there is no relationship, as it happens, and as can be clearly and demonstrably established, between the number of violent crimes and the amount paid out under the scheme, which demolishes the assumption on which the whole of the hon. Gentleman's rather rickety edifice was based.
Mr. Straw: But it depends--if the Home Secretary knows anything about extrapolation--on which period he uses. He is assuming that it is an upward-rising trend. How does he take account of the fact--he claims that awards are going up year by year--that, in fact, awards between 1991-92 and 1992-93 went down by 3,000, not up?
The Home Secretary does not understand the figures. He has no idea how they were arrived at. He failed to explain the difference between the fact that the Conservative party campaign guide quotes £570 million, while he quotes £500 million. Does he wish to intervene on that point? Or are we to say, "Well, it could be £500 million or it could be £570 million. Take your pick." What is the answer? Which one is accurate?
Which one of those two figures is an accurate estimate? The answer is that the Secretary of State does not know. If he wants to restore any credibility to his already tattered reputation when it comes to helping the victims of crime, he must provide details of the assumptions behind his calculations, and at long last own up to the fact that they include an assumption that violent crime will continue to rise by a double-digit element each year for the next six years. Over the past year, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has achieved the remarkable feat of offending just about everyone involved in the criminal justice system: from the police, prison officers, justices' clerks, probation officers and lawyers, to the victims in whose name he claims to act. A period of quiet reflection would surely have been in order. Instead--we were not laughing at the issue of the victims, but at him and at the way in which he tried to pretend that he was concerned about them--he has cut the most important scheme to help victims by half.
Column 257Even some of the Home Secretary's former friends on the right of the Tory party are deserting him. This is what the noble Lord Tebbit said in "Panorama" in discussing the causes of crime, in May this year:
"I think you have to approach from a direction which some might say is almost a Labour party direction, of saying: What are the causes of crime? Why are there so many people engaged in crime? As well as, What do you do with people when they commit crime?" The right hon. and learned Gentleman's big idea of "Partners against Crime" fails to grasp the real meaning of partnership, which should not just place the onus on the individual to prevent crime, but should also involve all the main agencies of the community and the criminal justice system in a common fight against crime. He is happy to steal Labour's language on crime prevention, but not our prescription. He has failed comprehensively to implement the key recommendations of his own Department's report--the Morgan report--which would have placed a statutory duty on local authorities, in conjunction with the police, to develop community safety and crime prevention measures. What is missing from the Gracious Speech and from his speech today is the promise of legislation to create that new statutory duty and partnership.
During the passage of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, Labour highlighted a series of gaps in the law, which have become increasingly problematic as the fear of crime has escalated. In many high-crime areas, new, private security companies have knocked on doors, offering night-time surveillance for the cost of a couple of pounds a week. In some cases, they may be legitimate businesses staffed by highly trained security guards, but one investigation after another has exposed another side to that business.
One senior police officer told us of a firm owned by two partners, one of whom had a long record of fraud, while his partner had a record of violence. In another case, the person knocking on doors hinted that his company could take no responsibility for what happened to a home that was not under his protection. The public have no way of knowing whether what they are being offered is genuine security or whether they are being drawn into a protection racket. The police, who are very worried about that, have no power to act. I am very sorry that, so far, the Government have rejected our proposals to give interim powers to chief constables to provide some regulation of that area. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, I understand, has rejected the idea of statutory regulation, yet responsible and established companies in the private security industry join us in demanding such regulation to protect the public. On the issue of walking with a purpose--of vigilantes--I want every member of the community who is able-bodied to recognise his or her responsibilities to other members of the community. I do not want to see anybody walking by on the other side, leaving matters to the police, because the police can work effectively only if they have the full support of the community and of politicians.
Some of the schemes that have been suggested must be examined in careful detail. The Secretary of State should be as aware as we in the Labour party are of the fine line between people who are organised as members of the community and who become vigilantes and of the very serious problems that can be caused by people, who sometimes have no training and may have criminal
Column 258records, who can go and buy a uniform from a theatrical costumier and set themselves up as security men and offer themselves as parish constables. The Secretary of State is apparently willing to allow that to continue without any regulation at all. It is wholly unsatisfactory. That is why people are very worried indeed about the current situation.
Mr. Howard: The hon. Gentleman really must not confuse what are completely separate issues. He should know that we have agreed with the Association of Chief Police Officers a set of guidelines under which every street watch scheme should operate. If the schemes do not operate in conformity with those guidelines and if they do not operate with the co- operation and under the direction of the police in their area, I would not approve what they are doing, and they would not come within the scope of street watch.
Mr. Straw: I notice that, despite my generosity in allowing the Secretary of State to intervene, he never answers the key question. The key question is why is he letting the security industry carry on in a totally unregulated way. He seems content to allow that to happen and to allow cowboys and all sorts of people with criminal records to set themselves up as security firms. There is no regulation at all. It is part of, I gather, rolling back the frontiers of the state. Even the regulation of law and order is ineffective under this Government.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition stated so clearly that we will make a lasting impact on crime in this country only if we are both tough on crime and tough on its causes. We have to move away from the false choice between punishment and prevention. We need a criminal justice system which works and inspires confidence in the public; one which deals with offenders more effectively and ensures that the penalty is appropriate to the crime.
But, at the same time, we need a national strategy to stop crimes being committed in the first place, and such a strategy needs both to tackle the underlying causes of crime and to ensure that action is taken now to reduce offending. There is no excuse for offending, and individuals must be responsible for their own behaviour; but it is a foolish Government who do not see that, if children grow up in a society which offers a poor education, little hope for the future and no prospect of a steady job, they are more likely to drift into offending.
Indeed, after a long period of education, even the Secretary of State has now accepted our analysis of the nature of crime. We congratulate him on this small beginning, for he told the Institute of Directors in April 1994:
"Failures in the home, at school and in society at large do not cause crime in the sense that sunshine melts snow . . . but clearly these failures do create conditions in which crime and law breaking can thrive."
Mr. Straw: The Secretary of State says, of course they do. I am very glad to have that on the record. That is exactly what we have been saying for 15 years, and what he has been denying for 14 and a half years.
It is Opposition Members who have the vision and the policies to tackle crime. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has today delivered the tired speech of an
Column 259already discredited Home Secretary. There can be no grounds for complacency about the appalling levels of crime in our society. Last year, in the debate on the Gracious Speech, the Prime Minister said that all western countries had experienced a similar rise in crime to England and Wales. This month, the Home Office produced figures which conclusively gave the lie to that claim.
The Secretary of State's own Department's figures show that, in the five years between 1987 and 1992, recorded crime in England and Wales rose by 44 per cent.--the highest increase of any of the countries mentioned in that survey. The only record on crime which the Government can claim is that crime in Britain under the Conservatives has risen further and faster than in any other industrialised country surveyed by the Secretary of State's Department.
We have heard nothing--
Mr. Howard rose --
Mr. Howard: The hon. Gentleman has twice in his speech, at different points, referred approvingly to the recorded crime figures. He did so just a moment ago and he did so much earlier in his speech when he referred to the increase in violent crime. May we then take it that the hon. Gentleman accepts the validity of the recorded crime figures, and will he therefore join me in paying tribute to the police for the fact that the recorded crime figures up to the 12 months at the end of June 1994 show the biggest fall in 40 years?
Mr. Straw: There is a huge debate to be had, as the Secretary of State would know if he had any intelligence, about the underlying validity of the crime figures. [ Laughter .] Of course there is, and he knows there is. "The British Crime Survey", which was published on the same day as the figures he has mentioned for the previous two years, told a rather different story about what has happened to crime.
Mr. Howard: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. "The British Crime Survey" indeed gives a different picture. One respect is that it shows a much lower increase in violent crime over the period referred to by the hon. Gentleman than the figures he used earlier. He cannot have it both ways. Either he accepts the recorded crime figures for violent crime, which is why I put the question to him, or he accepts "The British Crime Survey", which shows a very much smaller increase in violent crime over that period. On which does the hon. Gentleman rely?
Mr. Straw: The survey also shows a much larger increase in overall crime. If crime is going down, our party is the first to welcome it. That was made clear by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. If it has gone down by five percentage points in the past year,
Column 260it will take another 15 years before it approaches anything like the level it was when the Conservatives came to power. I do not believe--
Mr. Straw: It was going down. If the hon. Gentleman had the sense to read his previous leaders' speeches, he will notice that, at the 1979 general election, a charge was not made with any force that crime was rising--because it was not. That is the truth of it. It will take 15 years of this progress to get back to the level of crime as it was when Labour left office. The Secretary of State must be living in a world inhabited by no one else from this country if he does not believe that there is the deepest anxiety about crime, the fear of crime and the Government's failure to tackle it in each of the past 15 years.
We have heard nothing in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech today to convince us that he has any serious understanding of the nature of crime in society, or any real policies to tackle one of the most serious problems facing this country today. The Government have little strategy for dealing with crime, and few policies to reassure a public who are deeply concerned about a breakdown in law and order. This Government have failed the country, and they have failed the victims of crime. The nation and the victims of crime deserve better, and they will get better from Labour.
Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North): I welcome the Gracious Speech, for a number of reasons. Politics in this country at the present time is in a very strange state. Since we do not have masses of legislation going through the House this year, perhaps both main parties and the minority party of the Liberal Democrats may be able to think about their policies and get them right long before the next general election. With the current changes of policy in all the major parties, the debate within those parties over the next year must ensure that we get the policies right and in line with the wishes of the public, which will be good for everybody. I also welcome the fact that, because there is not too much hyperactivity this Session, we may debate the major issues which affect people, of which law and order is obviously one.
I want to make a number of comments on the environment and on other parts of the Gracious Speech. I wish that the Government would produce an edict stating that no playing fields should be wiped out and sold without Government approval, because at the rate playing fields are disappearing in my constituency and around this country, it will take five or 10 years to buy them back, even if the necessary money from the national lottery is available. It is no good talking about competitive sports when local authorities, schools, institutes of higher education and ex-polytechnics in particular are still selling off playing fields.
I have always felt and still feel that planning law in the country is a developers charter. If a developer is turned down by a local authority, in most cases he has the right of appeal to the Department of the Environment, but if the development is approved, people in the region, whose environment will be affected, have no right of appeal to it. I still think that that is wrong and that something should be done about it.
Column 261I am glad that the Gracious Speech does not mention local government reorganisation. My experience is that all local government reorganisations that have been undertaken by Governments of all colours have been disastrous. I will vote for no form of local government reorganisation anywhere unless people in the region have an opportunity to agree to it in a referendum; I would mention that to the Whips or anyone else who wishes to hear my views.
I am concerned that there is still the movement of so much policy towards centralisation. That matter overlaps with law and order. In the past five years, 25 per cent. of local magistrates courts have been shut. They are being centralised. I do not want the Government to be a centralising Government. I want local magistrates in place who know the region and have a feel for what is happening. I do not want people from a long way away who have no idea of what is happening.
I should like to compliment Brent local authority, my own borough, which is Conservative controlled. Last year, no one would have believed that it would be one of only five Conservative-controlled boroughs in London-- miracles still happen in our society. People there are wise. It is rumoured that recently undertaken research shows that people in Brent, North have the highest IQs in the country. An amateur may have undertaken the survey, but I was impressed when its results were mentioned to me. The high IQ of Brent residents was shown in the results last year. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) is a fair man and would accept that.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer): Is my right hon. Friend willing to note that the London borough of Brent, when run by the Labour party, was known to be the worst local authority in the country? Last year, under the control of the Conservatives, the borough won among the largest number of charter marks for the quality of its services, but it was condemned universally, including by Opposition Members, for the fact that its services were the worst known to man.