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Sir Rhodes Boyson: I agree with my right hon. Friend. Under Labour control, Brent had to have prayer meetings to ensure that we could live through the days. Now we have hymns of triumph from all the churches and people in the borough.
I should like to mention three things about Brent council. First, it has won the "Best Parks in London" award. Secondly, the Local Government Chronicle said:
"Brent has transformed itself into an organisation whose slogan `Simply the best' is now justifiable."
Thirdly, it gives me great pleasure to say that the average local tax bill of Brent households was reduced by 60 per cent. between 1900-- [Interruption.] --Sorry, between 1990 and 1994. It would have been even more obvious if I had gone back to 1900. My message to the Government is that one of the big reasons we won in Brent was that we reduced the council tax. If we are to win the next general election, the Government had better start reducing taxes soon instead of waiting for that general election.
On education, I welcome the new Secretary of State for Education, who was appointed last July. She is doing a good job. We are letting schools settle down. After all the revolutions in school arrangements and the curriculum, the Secretary of State should stroke teachers the right way, cut the heavy curriculum and allow, as we are allowing,
Column 26220 per cent. of time in primary schools and 40 per cent. of time in secondary schools to be taken up with what schools want to do. I welcome that.
I am concerned about another issue in relation to education. I have always supported voluntary schools and the right of parents to send their children to schools of their religious denomination, whether the schools are Methodist, of which there are still a few in the country, Church of England, Catholic, Muslim or Jewish. Something that is happening will threaten the right of parents to have fares for journeys to the nearest denominational school paid. That threat exists in Brent and that is why I am bringing the matter to the attention of the House.
I have also brought the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State. In the middle of last year, Brent local education authority sent a statement to schools. It said:
"Because of the broadly-based and comprehensive nature of Brent's religious syllabus, the LEA takes the view that its schools can provide adequately for children of all denominations and are therefore deemed to meet the criteria of suitable schools. It is recognised, however, that there may be exceptional cases where the circumstances are such that children will not be able to benefit from education given in a non-denominational setting, and in those cases, free transport will be provided."
An alteration followed which said that, if a sibling was at the school, an automatic factor would be attached.
I remember the Education Act 1980 and the battle over the right of parents to be paid the travel costs, over two or three miles, of their children to their nearest denominational school. The Government overruled what I wanted and introduced a proposal that was not satisfactory, which was taken out in the other place.
Sir Rhodes Boyson: Yes, that is rather good. The proposal was taken out in the other place after a great battle. Since then, we in this country have presumed that a parent has a right to have his child's travel costs to the nearest denominational school paid over the two or three-mile limits. The new proposal puts that at risk. The idea that there is a syllabus that will fit Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and Church of England parents drives a horse and cart through the question of parental choice of voluntary school.
Last July, I went to see the previous Secretary of State on this matter. Since last July, I have written a letter to the present Secretary of State. This week, I have been in contact with the religious denominations, particularly the Catholic denomination. The Secretary of State should issue a ruling immediately, before other authorities say the same, that says that Brent's interpretation is wrong. Ordinary parents will not be able to afford to send their children to denominational schools if they have a large family. I have with me figures from one of the schools that I received this week. I shall give them once I find the right piece of paper. I am not used to having so many pieces of paper. I shall give the figures not through the use of mirrors but from memory. More than 40 children lived
Column 263beyond the three-mile limit for one secondary Catholic school. Of those, about half were siblings, so they were allowed travel costs immediately. Two children appealed and they are being paid. The rest are paying their own travel costs, as far as we can find out. In every surgery that I hold, parents come in who cannot afford to pay and may possibly have to withdraw their children from denominational schools. The average cost is about £5 a week. The cost of bus fares is high. That they should have to pay is wrong and something should be done about it.
I have found the figures that I wanted. Forty-four children this year lived more than three miles from the school. Nineteen were siblings, two appealed and, presumably, 23 have to pay their own costs, some of whom come from large families.
The second major issue which I wish to raise is one to which I have referred before and which is mentioned in the Gracious Speech--China and Hong Kong. I declare an interest in that I was in the East Indies fleet when Hong Kong was reoccupied at the end of the second world war-- [Interruption.] I had better stress that it was the second world war. I said at the time that as the nationalists, or whoever was in control at the time, were our allies, we should have given Hong Kong back then. The age of colonialism had passed and we should have given Hong Kong back immediately, but we did not. If China had cut off the water for two days, we would have had to capitulate, and it amazed me that first the nationalists and then "Red" China did not take such action.
For 140 or 150 years we did nothing about democracy in Hong Kong. There were no direct or indirect elections, but in 1984 we signed the joint declaration agreeing to hand over Hong Kong in 13 years. We then immediately started changing Hong Kong's constitution in respect of representation: in 1985 we introduced indirect elections and in 1991 direct elections. If it was not a breach of the letter of the declaration, "Red" China and I interpreted it as a breach of the spirit of that declaration. Since then, there has been aggro between ourselves and China.
China will be a major power. Indeed, the 19th century was the century of Britain's power; the 20th century was that of Europe and America; and the 21st century, into which I intend to survive, will undoubtedly be that of China. We should not endanger our relationship with Red China in any way. I respect the Governor of Hong Kong. We served as Ministers for Northern Ireland--I was the Minister of State when he was an Under-Secretary. I have always had a good relationship with him, but we should reassess our relations with China by saying that we were wrong and that it is up to that country how it proceeds. That would be good for Britain.
Mr. Tony Banks: The right hon. Gentleman has gone from Brent to Hong Kong in one easy move. I am surprised that he should defend the totalitarian regime of Red China which is guilty of appalling abuses of human rights and that he should criticise the Government and the Governor of Hong Kong for introducing a modicum of democracy into that Crown colony, something that has been greatly welcomed by the people there.
Column 264am not a nit-picker; nor would I call the hon. Gentleman a nit-picker, but the debate is wide ranging. There are times when hon. Members can range widely instead of being masters of paperclips. I shall take up what the hon. Gentleman said.
We signed a treaty to hand over Hong Kong on a certain date, and it will happen. China could take us over in two days, but it has not because Deng believed that the British kept their treaties. However, Deng then said that we had broken the treaty by introducing changes. If I sign a treaty to buy a house and then do not buy it, I am in the wrong. I believe that the Chinese are morally right in this instance. Perhaps the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and I will go to China to represent different political views.
I hope that democracy will improve in China. I believe that it will, but it will not be helped by tension between us and China. It is far better for us to influence something that will be permanent. As I understand it, China has said that it will not "ride the through train" in this respect because it believes that the British broke the treaty. I have surveyed the world and brought the hon. Member for Newham, North-West to his feet. It is always a privilege to listen to him.
The future of the Government and of this country depends on economic revival. That revival can be achieved only by putting more money into the pockets of the people. That is the difference--possibly not as wide as it once was--between the Conservative party and the Opposition. I hope that, in the two years before the next general election, we all--inside and outside the House--will reassess our policies to ensure that there is a clear choice between the parties. That must be good for democracy. We should spend the intervening period not in legislative hyperactivity but in debating the main issues affecting society.
"to introduce a Bill to tackle discrimination against disabled people".
The problems of disabled people involve all Departments of State, but the Prime Minister's reference on Wednesday to the Government's promised Bill talked of it as one only about discrimination in employment, access to goods and services and the establishment of a National Disability Council. There was no mention of any urgent action to improve access for disabled people, whether to issue proceedings or attend a hearing or sit on a jury, to the vast majority of our courts, both civil and criminal, that were designed to exclude them.
Nor did he say a word about the appalling record of the Home Office in employing disabled people. The latest figure I have seen gives the percentage of disabled people employed by the Home Office as 0.3 per cent., one tenth of the 3 per cent. quota called for by the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944, and the worst of any Department of State. There has been no word of criticism of that by the Prime Minister, for which no doubt the reason is that 10 Downing street's record is even more deplorable. There is not one disabled employee there.
So far as is known there will be no plans in the Government's Bill for improving their own performance, whether at the Home Office, the Department of the
Column 265Environment, in Downing street or anywhere else in Whitehall, yet even at the Department of Health the percentage of disabled people employed is only 0.7 per cent. Nor will the Bill cover transport or education or establish the Disability Rights Commission for which the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill I drafted in January 1992 provides. Instead, there will merely be an advisory council which disabled people are already calling a "talking shop". That is why the "Rights Now!" campaign, so admirably served by Victoria Scott, dismisses the Government's approach to unfair discrimination against disabled people--many of whom, of course, are the victims of serious crime--as "piecemeal, partial and pathetic."
Much the best guide to the provisions we can expect in the Government's Bill is to be found in the consultative document "Disability--On The Agenda", which they published in July. The proposals in that document were a travesty of those put forward in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.
The Government's determination to preserve the status quo by restricting legal protection against discrimination to the maximum possible extent comes through in every page of the document as their main concern. Its negative attitude reflects a total failure to understand the realities of disabled living and the way in which discrimination piles handicap on handicap in disabled people's lives.
Where the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is comprehensive, enforceable and effective, the Government's proposals are none of these things. Their narrow definition of disability excludes many disabled people now experiencing discrimination at its most intense--for example, people with non-symptomatic HIV or those with histories of mental illness. In addition, by excluding firms with less than 20 employees, they would give legal protection to discriminate to employers of one in three of this country's work force.
To make matters worse, the consultative document seemed to make it plain that the Government want now to scrap the 3 per cent. employment quota, thus removing a form of protection which the law already provides. Can the Government's intentions in regard to the quota scheme be clarified in the reply to this debate? The Minister will, I know, appreciate that the future of the scheme is an issue of huge importance to Britain's 6.5 million disabled people, and their concern to hear a clear statement of the Government's policy ought to be met in this debate.
Can we also be informed before this debate concludes to what extent the Home Office and the Department of the Environment have been involved in the drafting and contents of the Government's Bill? How did their voices compare in influence with that of the Treasury? Can we be told today what the Government's estimate is of the cost of the Bill they will very soon be introducing? They must have made an estimate and this House is entitled to know what it is.
The problems of an inaccessible environment were not created by disabled people, but by the societies in which they live. I readily acknowledge that they are problems which cannot be resolved overnight by the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, so ably promoted in the last Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) after winning a place in the private Members' ballot, but that Bill would at least establish a legal framework for the more expensive requirements to be staged in over time.
Column 266The crucial purpose of the Bill, as it relates to the environment, is to enshrine in law the need for equal access, and to provide a viably phased programme for its achievement. Even the inadequate "rights" now offered by the Government would be outside the reach of most disabled people, since no legal aid will be available and the Government oppose the establishment of a commission, similar to the Equal Opportunities Commission, with strategic enforcement powers, for which the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill provides. Their consultative document offered disabled people second-class "rights" as compared with those given by this House to women under the Equal Opportunities Act, and to victims of racial discrimination by the Race Relations Act 1976.
Why are the Government still resisting comprehensive civil rights for disabled people? Their consultative document gives four principal reasons for opposing the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. First, they say that, when I drafted the Bill and commended it to Parliament, I did so without consultation. That is not true. I consulted very widely about the Bill, not least with employers; indeed, I consulted just as widely as I did before commending to this House the four new cash benefits I introduced for disabled people and their carers, including the mobility allowance and the invalid care allowance, when I was Minister for the Disabled from 1974 to 1979.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood took the consultative process further when he inherited the Bill from me a year ago. He will, I am sure, agree that it is not for Ministers to accuse us of failing to consult. There were over 1,000 responses to their consultative document, but they are not prepared, as the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) told me in a recent parliamentary reply, to publish a single one of them. Where, after drafting it, I found criticism of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, I discussed their concerns openly with its critics and in several instances, amended the Bill to take account of legitimate criticisms.
By contrast, all of the responses to the Government's consultative document have been brushed under the carpet at Richmond house. Is it not disgraceful that the taxpayers, more especially disabled taxpayers, who paid for the Government's glossy consultative document, are not allowed to see any of the responses made to it?
Were any of the responses in favour of the Government's extremely shabby tactics in opposing the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill? In 30 years in the House of Commons, I have witnessed only four personal statements of unreserved apology for misleading the House, three of them concerning that Bill, the first being when Robert Hayward, then the Member for Kingswood, talked it out on 31 January 1992 after explicitly promising not to do so. I doubt very much whether any of the public responses to the Government's consultative document approved of that or whether the Government had much, if any, support for their proposals.
My point today, however, is to ask why the Government cannot publish the responses to their consultative document so that Parliament and the people we represent will know what the respondents have said about them. In particular, why cannot they be straight with disabled people? Everyone knows that they and their organisations, without exception, back the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and it must be very unlikely that any of the other respondents, with the possible exception
Column 267of the Institute of Directors, gave their approval to the Government's alternative. Never was there a clearer case of honesty being the best policy since hiding the truth will not help the Government. They will know from the responses of disabled people and their organisations to the consultative document that they want the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, the whole Bill, and that they will bitterly resent and relentlessly oppose any attempt to offer them any counterfeit version of the Bill.
The Government's second principal reason for opposing the Bill was that it has the defect of vagueness. They put great emphasis on what they call its "vague definition" of disability. But in the view of some eminent lawyers, the Bill deals far more clearly and coherently with unfair discrimination against disabled people than what they describe as the Government's "patchy and half-hearted proposals". The fact is that the definition adopted in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, founded as it is on actual examples of discrimination in disabled people's lives, is at once fairer and more workable than the Government's heavily criticised alternative.
The Government's third main reason for opposing the Bill is that it would be too costly. Their consultative document repeated the bogus claim that the Bill would cost £17 billion to implement. I give the House but two glaring examples of their grossly distorted costing of the Bill. By assuming that all existing buildings would require full access, they added £6 billion to the costs of compliance and by assuming that full access to public transport would have to be arranged within five years, they just as perversely added another £5 billion. Numerous other examples could be given of their utter disregard for easily ascertainable facts in order to inflate th actual cost of the Bill.
Yet the most obvious omission from the Government's calculations is any recognition of the financial benefits that would accrue from giving equal rights to disabled people. For example, they totally ignore the estimate by Touche Ross of a loss to Britain's travel industry, due solely to lack of access for disabled people, of £22 billion. The Government include only one side of the balance sheet--the investment--and ignore the financial returns.
The costs of excluding disabled people from industry and society are very high: in loss of markets to businesses, avoidable state expenditure on expensive, segregated provision and on social security benefits, as well as in lost taxes. The cost to the state in avoidable social security benefits and lost taxes alone is estimated at £5 billion.
In the United States, they have found that giving disabled people full civil rights, not least better access to the built environment, turns tax users into tax payers, giving them more money to spend on goods and services and creating more jobs. They have also found that, far from piling new costs on industry, action to end unfair discrimination against disabled people is in fact pro-business. Who can really doubt that the same would happen here?
The other fundamental error of the Government's approach to costings, as Caroline Gooding of the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation has eloquently pointed out, is that it treats the costs of including disabled people in public provision differently from those associated with able-bodied people. It is
Column 268regarded as quite normal for the providers of services to make efforts to enable their customers to enjoy those services by installing escalators in shops, amplification at meetings and so on. But provision for disabled people--lifts at stations, induction loops at concerts--is treated differently, as a "special" and abnormal expense. Together with many millions of other people in this country, I believe that "normal" provision should now include the needs of disabled people.
Fourth and finally, the Government object to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill on the ground that it is too wide ranging. They prefer, as the Prime Minister told me at an hour-long meeting about the Bill in February 1993, what he called "piecemeal reform". But he is demonstrably wrong. The problems of discrimination against disabled people, not least in the employment field, cannot be solved in isolation. As one big employer with more experience of running a major private enterprise than the Prime Minister put it to me recently:
"To end discrimination in the labour market, you must not only protect disabled people there but also achieve equality of access for them to transport and training, among many other facilities and services."
In his view, "piecemeal change" in this policy area is an attempt to divide the indivisible and a total waste of parliamentary time and tax payers' money.
That is why I must now warn the Government that their approach is doomed to failure. In demanding full citizenship, the disabled people of this country are backed by a clear majority of MPs, including, much to their honour, many Conservative MPs, and by a huge majority of the British people. They know that, without equal rights, disabled people are doubly disabled. The handicapping effects of their disabilities are made even harder to bear by gratuitous social handicaps for which there is no moral justification. And the overwhelming mass of responses to the Government's consultative document will have insisted that what is morally unjustified ought no longer to be legally permissible in Britain.
I am glad that the pensions legislation is to be dealt with at last, together with the whole question of the Maxwell affair. We have all had cases in our constituencies of pension funds where the company concerned has been taken over or gone bust, and the pensions have been left in a bad state. I welcome the Government's move, and shall support it strongly.
I also welcome the move to deal with dangerous mental patients. Although my constituency does not cover Broadmoor, patients from Broadmoor regularly come to Reading. Last Christmas, two such patients came to acclimatise themselves to the outside world in the middle of the Christmas rush. They were given a meal in one of the smarter restaurants, during which they asked to go to the loo, and then disappeared. Much more care must be taken in dealing with dangerous patients who come from places such as Broadmoor. People in Reading feel particularly sensitive about that matter, because such patients are regularly taken to Reading.
Column 269I welcome the channel tunnel link. I had the good fortune to go under the tunnel last week. [Hon. Members:-- "Through the tunnel."] One can go through a tunnel as well as under the sea. Anyway, I went on the train to Brussels, which was a great experience. It is an impressive engineering feat, and I congratulate all those who have been involved. I think that it will be a great success. It will encourage people once again to start thinking about using the railways, which is important. As I represent a railway town, I believe that the more we can do to use the railways, the better.
Mr. Tony Banks: I trust that the hon. Gentleman will declare that boondoggle under the channel in the Register of Members' Interests. Did he notice that, had the train been going as slowly on the other side of the channel, in France, as it was in the United Kingdom getting to the tunnel, the journey might have been some 45 minutes longer? It is only because the French have got their act together that the journey is now so speedy to Paris and Brussels.
Sir Anthony Durant: First, the Register of Members' Interests says that we do not need to register such trips, as all hon. Members have been on them. On the more serious point which the hon. Gentleman raised about the speed of the train, he is right. The train travelled at about 100 miles an hour from Waterloo station to the tunnel, and then at about 180 miles an hour on the other side of the channel. The reason is that, although we have improved the track--it is not that bad--it has too many curves and trains cannot travel at more than 100 miles an hour, so we have a job to do. We may praise the French, but the terminus at which we arrived in Brussels is not yet finished, so there are things to be done on the other side as well. Let us be fair to those who are developing the channel tunnel link. I welcome and strongly support the Bill for disabled people that will be introduced, although I shall not follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) on that issue. I also support the Bill for job seekers.
May I make a general comment about the Gracious speech? The press have greatly criticised the fact that there is not much in it. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson): I do not know what the press expect from this place. If the Queen's Speech contains too many measures, we are criticised on the basis that it is too radical and disturbing, and that people do not want all that change. When we are to have a quieter Session, the press say that it is too quiet. I do not know what they want--perhaps simply to write rubbish. I support all the worthwhile measures in the Queen's Speech.
My main reason for speaking this morning is to deal with the Bill on environmental agencies. I welcome the Bill in general but am worried about two aspects. First, it might create more bureaucracy. I hope that the new agency will not be bureaucratic, but I am worried that it may be another type of quango, which could create more bureaucracy. Secondly, I am worried about the abolition of the National Rivers Authority. I have seen the draft Bill, and concerns have been expressed to me as chairman of the all-party group on inland waterways about the whole issue of navigation. Commercial and private users
Column 270are worried about navigation. It is mentioned in the draft Bill, but it is not clear who will be the navigation authority. When legislation was introduced to privatise the water industry, there was great concern about navigation and the use of waterways. The original Bill was withdrawn. A second Bill introduced the National Rivers Authority, which has done a remarkably good job. Lord Crickhowell has been a very energetic chairman, and has done a most useful job. The NRA has been quite a success. It has developed more waterways. Many have been reopened and improved--water quality has improved.
Now the NRA is preparing, at long last, for salmon to come up the River Thames. It is preparing the necessary sluices so that the salmon can jump into the next reach. There are signs that, if salmon are put back in the river, it may well work, although we are in the early stages and the most difficult problem is pollution at the river entrance. We hope that that will be cleaned up and I hope that in time we shall see salmon fished off the pier here. Perhaps one or two Members will be able to get their supper by putting out a line.
Mr. Rowe: My hon. Friend will know that one of the clauses in the 17th-century statutes of apprentices was that they should not be forced to eat salmon more than a certain number of times each week. The fish was so plentiful in the Thames at that time that it was forced upon people in indentured labour. I am sure that my hon. Friend is looking forward to the day when we might enjoy the same restriction.
Sir Anthony Durant: I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend on the Terrace with his line out, getting his supper. Samuel Pepys was well known for buying salmon from a stall right by the River Thames. I hope that that will come in my lifetime.
The National Rivers Authority set out to develop an overall strategy for navigation and to get through licences, orders, byelaws and statutes to control tightly navigation on rivers under its jurisdiction.
Work on locks has gone ahead remarkably well. Hon. Members may be interested to know that there are 40,000 boats on the NRA section alone-- that is only 800 km of the inland waterways. On the remaining waterways, many of which are controlled by the British Waterways Board, there are another 30,000, so boating is a big leisure industry.
The industry wants the new Bill so that we can establish a national licence. Those involved in the waterways world have pressed strongly for that. They want a national licence, like a car tax, the proceeds of which would go to waterways throughout the country. At the moment, if I wanted to go to Reading down the Kennet and Avon canal, I would have to get a separate licence after I had gone through one lock on the Thames to enable me to get on to the canal. That situation deters people from travelling on a general circuit around the waterways. I hope that we will try to establish that licence.
We must try to improve the standards of boats. There have been some very bad accidents on the River Thames, and the NRA has worked hard to improve the standards.
I hope that the navigation policy will be based on river catchments. That is the basis for our present water policy, and it would be advantageous if we continued on that basis.
Column 271Our waterways are a national heritage. At last, we are developing them and using them for leisure. I hope that the new agency will not deter that development, as it is so important to those in the leisure industry.
Mr. Gummer: I assure my hon. Friend that the new agency will take over all the National Rivers Authority's responsibilities. I intend--I believe that it will also be the intention of the new agencies--to ensure that all that good work is carried on, and that work done on licensing and the like is brought to fruition.
Waste management is another element of the Bill. I have to declare an interest, as I am the political adviser to the National Federation of Demolition Contractors, who face major problems when dealing with waste. We are getting into great difficulties over infill and land reclamation. Infill has been our means of dealing with waste, and is something that the new agency will be able to tackle. It is a major problem for our society.
I know that the Bill will encourage recycling. In Reading, we collect papers, bottles, tins and even clothes for recycling. Usually the clothes go to Oxfam or some similar charity. I welcome that policy, and hope it will be increased.
The demolition industry prefers to deal with waste on site by using a crusher, but it has been running into problems with local authorities which have to license each crusher. The net result is that many demolition contractors abandon the use of a crusher, although it is the best way to proceed, and use heavy lorries. Lorry movements cause the main environmental problem.
We need a policy on waste. I know that that is included in the Bill, and I welcome that fact. I am sorry that the London waste regulation authority is to be abolished by the Bill, and I hope that that will not deter us from establishing a policy on waste, which would be welcome.
I welcome the Gracious Speech, which contains some good Bills. There is much in it for us to tackle, and the public want most of it. I hope that it will go through smoothly and happily.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I shall mention the environmental issues that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) mentioned in the latter half of my speech. I shall start with the Home Secretary, not least because I am always puzzled by his claim to be crusading against the leftist political correctness that suffuses--he believes--the penal and justice system over which he presides.
The Government have been in office for 15 years. If there is an excess of left-leaning political correctness that is soft on crime, no one else can be blamed but the people who have been in charge for the past 15 years and have introduced a succession of criminal justice Bills each of which altered the mistakes made in the previous one. That is not a convincing role.
When I listened to the part of the Gracious Speech in which Her Majesty prayed that
"the blessing of Almighty God"
Column 272might attend our counsels, I thought that the Home Secretary had been left out completely. I thought that he must be so distrusted in his handling of Bills, after what happened to previous legislation, that the Government did not dare to let him have any in this Session, or that if they did, they had certainly not mentioned them in the Gracious Speech. Later that day, we learnt that the criminal cases review authority legislation would be introduced in some way or another--that was disguised in a general statement about law reform measures. The legislation is important and it is generally agreed that it should be introduced. I am surprised that those four words could not have been squeezed into the text of the Gracious Speech. We shall want to study that legislation, but it is even more important that we study the commitments behind it. For the review authority to be effective, it will have to have the resources to deal with a very large number of cases and investigations. A large number already come before the Home Office. On the Home Office side, there will be some saving in resources because its officials have to consider the cases. I am not suggesting that those same officials should merely be transferred to the new authority--that would not give the impression of an authority approaching the subject in a new and independent way. There will be a saving in another column, however, which will help in part to ensure the necessary resources. It will be important to ensure that the authority has those necessary resources.
That legislation was included in the Gracious Speech. Other Bills were not included--not even disguised under the title of law reform. One Bill that should have been included so that the Home Secretary could justify his actions publicly was a criminal injuries compensation Bill. The right hon. and learned Gentleman got into a mess in the courts because there is already statute law on the subject, which he chose to ignore. He set out a wholly different compensation scheme. If he is firm and clear about his intentions, he should have brought a new Bill before the House to set out his scheme, which we could have amended, challenged and questioned in detail. Instead of offering the victims of crime a proper system of compensation, with whatever modifications he can justify, the Home Secretary is offering merely a chatline on which victims can make representations to prison governors--which they can do now, in any case-- without any knowledge of whether the person detained is likely to be released or is under consideration for release.
Instead of helping the victims of crime in the area where they most need it --with financial resources to cope with the consequences through a system of compensation--the Home Secretary offers an illusory benefit. He is simply offering them the sort of thing that one gets to complain to if there are too many traffic cones on the motorway. One rings up somebody, but it has no effect whatever. The Home Secretary has confirmed to me that there will not be a system for telling the victims of particular crimes that the person who caused them such suffering is about to be considered for release. Therefore, any representations that they make may be years out of time for their relevance to a particular inquiry. Victims may not realise that the possibility of release is coming up sooner than they anticipated, and they had better get on the phone pretty quick if they are to have any effect on it. It is not a serious proposition that the right hon. and
Column 273learned Gentleman is offering the victims of crime and, at the same time, he is doing them considerable harm with the changes that he made to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, which he has not been prepared to bring before the House.
A further piece of legislation that could be brought forward to fill the gap left by the Post Office privatisation was referred to by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw): the regulation of the private security industry. It is simply not acceptable that someone can walk out of Wormwood Scrubs, buy a dog, get a uniform and set up as a security business.
Mr. Beith: Indeed, and he could steal a van to put the dog in. He would then be in business, and he could go knocking on people's doors saying, "I am in a position to help you with your security, and I cannot guarantee what might happen if you do not subscribe to my security scheme." That can happen, and the police are worried. Even beyond that utterly criminal approach to security, there are areas of genuine anxiety, that what ought to be police work is being done increasingly by private security firms. There is a legitimate place for the private security industry. It would not be an efficient use of resources to have police constables doing entry and exit searches, and that sort of thing. But the more we bring the private security industry into basic police work, the more we offend against some of the essential principles that make us have the kind of police force we do.
If all we are looking for is protection, we could pay a private security firm to act as a bodyguard for us, individually and collectively. What we are paying the police for is something different: security under the law. That must not be threatening or intimidating to the innocent. It must not be arbitrary, and it must not favour one group over others. It should involve particular care for the vulnerable, and should allow and encourage civilised life to go on. That is why we pay trained, professional, disciplined and accountable police officers. They do not simply go fire- fighting on crime, but they are actively involved in crime prevention as well. Therefore, the area of work for private security firms should be more clearly defined, and the good private security firms should be protected from those who moved into the area on the basis of either very low pay or even the employment of people with criminal records.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): In south Yorkshire, few private security firms pay more than £2 an hour, and some pay as low as £1.80 an hour. The quality of trained work force that one can get at that pay is extremely low, and people who are paid at that level are not able to deliver the professional security needs that private companies want. Should not part of the regulation process involve training and pay too?
Mr. Beith: It is clear from any examination of the training standards of security firms that levels of pay as low as those referred to by the hon. Gentleman are likely to lead to standards that are so low that they fail any proper regulation system. There should be such a system, and legislation to deal with it. While the Gracious Speech lacks pieces of legislation, we are still coping with the consequences of last year's Gracious Speech, and the legislation that it introduced.
Column 274The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act itself has had no immediate effect, other than the production of demonstrations against itself.
The Police and Magistrates' Courts Act is already having considerable effects. Police authorities are being set up, and in respect of both appointments and budgets, many of the problems that we foresaw are happening. On appointments, the elected
representatives do not know who was on the list and who was crossed off by the Home Secretary. There is considerable anxiety at the tendency for the people whom the Home Secretary recommends on the list which he sends back to include a significant number of known Conservatives and Conservative supporters.
There is also a tendency--this underlines the same thing--in some police authority areas for the Home Secretary's returned list to be concentrated on those parts of an area where the Conservatives are strongest. I have heard claims in respect of that in the Thames valley, Buckinghamshire and Salisbury area. The Home Secretary's lists, in so far as we are able to find out who is on them, might well be used to try to frustrate the decision of electors in the composition of elected local authorities in the areas concerned. There is a considerable row in Cambridgeshire, where the Conservatives dominate the three-person selection panel, although they are in the minority on the local authority. One panellist has been appointed by the Home Secretary and, with the help of magistrates, the Conservative group got its leader appointed as the second panellist. Of course, those two between them choose the third panellist, so they are in a position to overturn the political balance that was decided by the public at the ballot box last year. The Home Secretary sent back a preferred list of 10 to the authority, which the authority challenged. There is no system of appeal and no way of going behind the decision of the Home Secretary in his choice of people which, again, included several well-known Conservative supporters. Fears that the system would be used by the Home Secretary as a means of trying to insert his political choices despite the views of the voters are proving justified.
At the same time, the initial budget projections put out by the Home Office for the new police authorities caused such anxiety that the Home Office had to think again on them. As a result, most police authorities have no idea what sort of budget they can set when they come into office in a matter of weeks. The stewardship of the Home Secretary in an area of legislation that he has already introduced is just as worrying as the legislation itself.
I now refer to the environment aspects of the Gracious Speech. Everyone attaches a great deal of importance to the environment legislation in the Gracious Speech. That is a good thing in principle, but it could go badly wrong if the legislation is not properly drafted.
There is a danger that the amalgamation of the three
responsibilities that will create the environment protection agency will make it weaker than the sum of parts. The draft management statement suggests that the agencies will be under strong central Government control with no real local subsidiarity and without some of the independence that the National Rivers Authority has shown.