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Election Broadcasts

16. Mr. Soley: What proposals he has to review the Representation of the People Acts in relation to broadcasting during general elections. [11672]

Mr. George Howarth: My hon. Friend will be aware that we have no specific proposals to do that. However, the election that took place in May is the subject of a consultation exercise. I understand that broadcasters are to meet officials in the Home Office to discuss the operation of section 93 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. If they come up with any proposals, obviously we shall consider them on their merits.

Mr. Soley: There is considerable and growing concern among broadcasters, politicians and the public about the way in which our elections are covered; that coverage should allow open and fair debate in a political situation. Would it not be a good idea, if we did conduct a radical review of the Representation of the People Acts, to consider ways in which constituencies are covered in general elections and by-elections, to allow a more free and open debate?

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is right. There is a problem in as much as, if one or two candidates in a constituency are covered in a broadcast, a minor candidate further down the list can prevent the broadcast proceeding because of the need for equal coverage. However, it is a complex matter and I believe that, before I give my particular view on it, it would be right to receive representations from the broadcasters. That process is in train.

Mr. Ian Taylor: Given that, by the time of the next election, 40 or more digital television channels will be available to viewers, what restrictions does the Home

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Office intend to place on the Prime Minister against the multiple showing of the type of video that we saw at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman should be very careful. I think that the more that the general public see of the Prime Minister, the happier they are.

Crime Victims

18. Mr. Watts: If he will make a statement on the treatment of victims by the criminal justice system. [11674]

Mr. Michael: The Government are firmly committed to helping victims of crime and to taking action to redress the balance of the criminal justice system in the favour of victims. We have already taken several steps to achieve that. We are giving Victim Support an extra £1 million a year to develop its work with victims and witnesses and to establish a national telephone helpline for victims. We have established an interdepartmental group to undertake an urgent, wide-ranging review of ways to assist vulnerable or intimidated witnesses. There are several other proposals, including sentencing proposals.

Mr. Watts: Can my hon. Friend give the House an update on any progress that has been made in speeding up the process of dealing with cases that involve young persistent criminals?

Mr. Michael: The steps that the Government are taking are intended to halve the time that it takes for persistent offenders to come before the courts. As the Audit Commission showed last year, it currently takes, on average, a ludicrous four-and-a-half months to get young offenders before the court. [Interruption.] I take it that that was applause for our intention to cut that time. We intend to halve that time, so that persistent young offenders are dealt with quickly by the courts.

Illegal Drugs

19. Mr. Flynn: What new measures he intends to introduce to reduce the demand for illegal drugs. [11675]

Mr. George Howarth: My hon. Friend will be aware that we intend to advance the proposal for a treatment and testing order in the new legislation that will be coming forward shortly and that a United Kingdom anti-drugs co-ordinator was appointed recently. The Government are determined to combat the menace of drugs in our society.

Mr. Flynn: Did my hon. Friend read the report this weekend, in the newspaper Disability Now, of the results

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of a survey of 200 severely disabled people, who said that they are using cannabis as a medicine and that they are breaking the law to do so, because of its unique medicinal effects for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and glaucoma? Why is it that heroin and cocaine can be legally prescribed, but the tens of thousands of people who use the much milder drug cannabis for pain relief have to depend on criminals and the illegal market?

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend will be aware that all drugs used for medical purposes have to be scientifically tested. If cannabis succeeds in those tests--if it is proved that it has medicinal qualities--my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has already made it clear that he would be willing to consider allowing medicinal use of it. Unfortunately, as of now, there is no such evidence.

Community Policing

21. Mr. Laurence Robertson: If he will list the steps he is taking to establish the levels of public satisfaction with community policing in each area. [11677]

Mr. Michael: The Police Act 1996 requires police authorities to obtain the views of local people on the policing of their area. That is done by a variety of means. Once our new statutory duties on local authorities and the police to establish local crime prevention partnerships are in place, there will be an obligation on those two bodies to conduct a crime and disorder audit in their areas and to consult the local public on it. That will improve the way that the police consider the local public's views on, and experience of, crime and the fear of crime.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the public's concern about community policing. He will also be aware that the police do not view bobbies on the beat as the most effective way of policing. Given the importance of the public's perception of policing in their areas being favourable, how does the Minister intend to deal with that?

Mr. Michael: I am not quite sure what question the hon. Gentleman is asking. We intend to ensure that the police, with local authorities and the wider community, fully understand and analyse the problems of crime and disorder in their areas so as to target them specifically and to cut crime. Our target is to cut crime, not to watch it go on increasing.

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Viscount Tonypandy

3.30 pm

Madam Speaker: All Members of the House have heard with sorrow of the death of Viscount Tonypandy, who was our Speaker from February 1976 to June 1983. I wish, on behalf of all parties and of each and every right hon. and hon. Member of this House, to pay a tribute to the memory of one of my most distinguished predecessors. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

Born in the mining communities of south Wales, George Thomas became a schoolmaster and, at the age of 25, a Methodist lay preacher. He entered the House in the vast intake of new Members in 1945. He quickly adapted to the ways of the House and, rather unusually, was chosen as a member of the Speaker's Panel of Chairmen at an early stage of his parliamentary career.

On the return of the Labour Government in 1964, George Thomas held junior office in the Home Office, the Welsh Office and the Commonwealth Office. It was a cause of great pride to him when, in 1968, he was appointed to succeed Mr. Cledwyn Hughes as Secretary of State for Wales. When his party returned to office in 1974, he was asked to take the post of Chairman of Ways and Means, and such was his distinction in that office that it came as no surprise when, two years later, he was unanimously elected Speaker on the retirement of Selwyn Lloyd.

For the next seven years, George Thomas was a dominant figure in the Chair. His presence was magisterial, but at the same time he appeared human and friendly. He was particularly adept at breaking tensions in the House with his own brand of humour. Radio listeners--this was before television was brought into the Chamber--became familiar with the attractive Welsh lilt of his voice.

Outside the Chamber, Viscount Tonypandy's influence was considerable. He was the first Chairman of the House of Commons Commission. In Speaker's House, many Members of all parties, including younger ones, had reason to be grateful for his wise advice and friendship. On his retirement, the then Prime Minister summed up the feelings of all Members when she said:

After his retirement, George Thomas became a valued contributor from the Cross Benches in that other place, and despite lengthy periods of ill health, he kept up his many outside charitable and other activities, most notably as chairman and later president of the National Children's Home. But the place where he liked most to be in his later years was in his beloved south Wales.

In saluting Viscount Tonypandy's memory, I know that I speak for the whole House in thanking God for his distinctive life of service to this House, to the country at large and to all his fellow men and women. We offer our condolences to his family and friends.

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