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Madam Speaker: I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern for the House. However, he will know--probably rather better than I--that, when the time comes, the House asserts its independence in electing its Speaker. I have great faith that it will do that.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Further to that pointof order, Madam Speaker. I recall the circumstances surrounding the election of your predecessor, Lord Weatherill. Is there not something to be said for the House of Commons having a Speaker whom the Prime Minister of the day does not want?

Madam Speaker: As Eric Morecambe used to say, "There's no answer to that."

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. During Question Time, you rightly rebuked me mildly for not resuming my seat. May I apologise unreservedly, but also offer the explanation that my eyes were firmly focused on the Government Front Bench and the Minister and that my hearing was impaired by the noise from the Labour Benches? I am sorry that I did not resume my seat more quickly.

Madam Speaker: Questions are sometimes rather longer than I want them to be.

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Organic Food and Farming Targets

Joan Ruddock, supported by Mr. Norman Baker, Mr. Colin Breed, Mr. Cynog Dafis, Mr. David Drew, Ms Julia Drown, Jane Griffiths, Mr. Martyn Jones, Mrs. Diana Organ, Mr. John Randall, Mr. Andrew Robathan and Mrs. Betty Williams, presented a Bill to make provision regarding the setting and achievement of targets for organic farming and food consumption; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on 5 November 1999, and to be printed [Bill 153].

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Civil Registration (Access to Records)

3.35 pm

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): I beg to move,

The main purpose of the Bill is to provide improved public access to records of civil registration--those of births, marriages and deaths. The Bill will give clarity to sections of the Marriage Act 1949 and the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, which prevent information from being obtained unless certificates are purchased. The proposals, which have widespread support both in and outside the House, attempt to address defects in the arrangements as well as clarifying the law.

The 1949 and 1953 Acts do not prohibit access to records. They authorise the issue of certified copies of birth, marriage and death certificates. However, those seeking information may look only at the index of records. To receive the information that they require, they must pay the unnecessary and exorbitant sum of £6.50 for a certificate, which, in many cases, the researcher does not need. Many of those researching information about ancestors in order to prepare a family tree or family history find the fee for certificates and the inability to browse erect unnecessary and expensive barriers.

The Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages has long recognised that the present arrangements are unnecessarily restrictive. Demands by members of the public to remedy the difficulties are growing. Many hon. Members will have received representations from constituents who read Family Tree Magazine, or who are members of the Society of Genealogists or one of the many family history societies around the country.

My Bill will provide a right to browse records, reducing the frustration of genealogists and other researchers who can obtain information only through certified copies of entries, and must purchase them without knowing what information they contain. Nor can copies be returned for a refund if they are of no use. The main aim of the Bill is to eliminate the need for researchers to conduct a search through the speculative purchase of certificates and to replace it with a right to examine records so that they may select information of interest to them.

The proposal relates to older records. The Bill will contain a provision opening historic records--those of 75 years or older--to public view. The 1990 White Paper "Registration: Proposal for Change" specified that period, considering it to be a reasonable compromise. That period also gained the greatest measure of support--almost half--among those who responded to the consultation paper to the Green Paper that preceded that document.

For recent records, the existing system will remain. Members of the public may still obtain information through the purchase of copies of specified items. This important distinction between recent and historic records will be drawn because of concern that the right to look up events--especially births--in public indexes, and to

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purchase copies of the records, offers scope for certificates to be used too readily for the creation of false identities for purposes of personation and fraud.

Those who have campaigned for a change in the law recognise that a balance must be struck between facilitating worthwhile research into family histories--an interest that grows every year--and the need to reduce the possibility of abuse. With that balance in mind, it is right to provide access to information but alternative arrangements for the purchase of certificates of recent events, which provides an approach for the prevention of personation and fraud.

I recognise that the previous Government intended to remedy the defects in the system, but they never found the parliamentary time to fulfil their good intentions. I am also heartened that this Government intend to make change and modernise the arrangements. "Supporting Families", the consultation document published last year, proposed that there should be a review of the civil registration system in England and Wales. The then Economic Secretary acknowledged that the Victorian legislation on which the civil registration service is based places too many restrictions on the type and extent of service and hinders the use of modern technology to meet the needs of a changing society.

I understand that the aim of the review was to consider the existing operational framework of civil registration and to set out options for its future development, including access to registration records. The final phase of the review has been completed, with the publication on8 September of a public consultation document "Registration: Modernising a Vital Service".

Chapter 4 of the consultation paper is devoted to improving service delivery through better access to records. It acknowledges that the present paper-based system cannot be sustained and suggests that technology holds the key to solving problems of storage, retention and retrieval of future records. I welcome the recognition that technology will play an important role in access, and that is why my Bill will provide for computer-based records to be retained and allow access to records by way of information communication technology.

I am pleased to have the opportunity today to move this motion under Standing Order 23 and I trust that the House is persuaded of the need for change in this area of the law, a change that will benefit a large number of people throughout England and Wales and many who live in other parts of the world whose ancestors were born and lived in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Keith Darvill, Mrs. Eileen Gordon, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Clive Efford, Mr. Gareth R. Thomas, Mr. David Lidington and Mr. Bob Russell.

Civil Registration (Access to Records)

Mr. Keith Darvill accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law relating to access to registers of births, marriages and deaths; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 5 November, and to be printed [Bill 154].

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26 Oct 1999 : Column 813

Opposition Day

Home Office Issues

Madam Speaker: I have had to impose a 10-minute limit on speeches for Back Benchers throughout debates on the next two motions.

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.42 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I beg to move,

The motion in the name of the Opposition calls to the attention of the House and that of a wider audience the long series of mismanagements, incompetence, inaccurate statistics and general mess over which the Home Secretary has presided since he took office in 1997. I have been extremely kind to the right hon. Gentleman in selecting only a few of the things that have gone wrong on which to make comment. There may be more on a later day, but today I simply wish to address four issues. The first is police numbers.

The Home Secretary made a very interesting statement in his Labour party conference speech, which he has since defended on the ground of technical accuracy. There is, of course, an enormous difference between technical accuracy and a picture that would be recognised by the outside world. When he had finished telling us that he was going to supply the money for "more" recruits, or an "additional" or an "extra"--whichever version one wants to take--5,000 police recruits, there was an assumption not only on the part of the press, media and public, but even the Police Federation, which after all understands these things, that that meant that he was pledging an extra 5,000 police officers.

I am sure that if those same bodies had decided that he was pledging 5,000 fewer police officers, the Home Secretary would have rushed to put them right. He would have rushed to say that they had got it all wrong, and that what he really meant was that there would be only 5,000 extra recruits. However, because they put a rather optimistic interpretation on what he said, he kept strangely silent--until today, when he gave an extremely fascinating explanation to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It was not only fascinating to listen to, but to watch, because the Home Secretary set out to rival Houdini.

The right hon. Gentleman said that, after all, he had got it completely wrong, and that, when he talked about 11,000 police recruits, he really meant that police forces

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were planning to recruit not 11,000, but 15,000. Oddly enough, his representations to his own Treasury Ministers referred to 11,000--I do not know whether they will now ask for the money back, on the ground that they were misled. The Home Secretary and all independent bodies have said consistently that the recruiting plans actually meant 11,000 officers. Today, he said that that was all a mistake, and he blamed his officials for giving him the wrong information.

In the House, we cannot identify officials--but I am inclined to ask who they were. Were they, perhaps, the same officials who clean forgot to renew the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts? Were they the same officials who wrongly briefed the Home Secretary on his own Home Office figures when he gave a press conference on asylum? Were they the same officials who caused him, quite mistakenly, to give the Welsh Assembly powers over Welsh criminals? Were they the same officials who caused him to publish the names and addresses of witnesses in the Macpherson report? We do not know, but what we do know is that every time something goes wrong, this Home Secretary, who in his first speech to the House made a virtue of the fact that he would take responsibility for everything that happened in the Home Office, has, since then, quite consistently blamed his officials for every error that he has come up with.

However, for the sake of argument, let us accept that the figure of 15,000 is right. Will the Home Secretary now set out simply and clearly, and in terms that admit of no misinterpretation, whether his revised figures, given to the Select Committee today mean a net addition to the police force, in the lifetime of the Labour Government, of 5,000 officers? Do they, or do they not? Do they mean a net addition of 5,000 officers, even before 2003? I am being kind to him. Do they, or do they not? Do they even mean that, when the Government leave office, there will be more police officers than there are at present, or will there be extra or additional officers to those who are there at present? Alternatively, will the numbers be the same, or will they be fewer? Can the Home Secretary confirm that, according to the statement that he submitted to the Select Committee, the statisticians say that the new recruiting figures--on which he now relies to extricate himself from the hole that he dug for himself--

and that they do not represent "sophisticated modelling".

The right hon. Gentleman looks puzzled, so I will help him. Will he confirm that that was part of the statement on figures that he submitted today? In case he wants to come up with some technical argument about whether that formed the statement or the appendix, will he just tell us whether those words are true--are they crude projections? If there are to be more police officers by the time the Government leave office, how many more will there be? Will he take May 1997 as his baseline of comparison?

A generous observer of today's Select Committee hearing would have concluded that the Home Secretary was mired in muddle, but a more cynical observer would have noted that he was becoming enmeshed in a web of deceit. We might also ask the Prime Minister whether he wishes to come to the House and correct his statement that the right hon. Gentleman had painted an accurate picture in referring to 5,000 extra officers. I think that it is time for a retraction and probably an apology.

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Before I leave the issue of police numbers, I must raise an associated question that will impact on recruiting. The 22 October issue of "Public Finance" reveals the cost of the new radio system that the police are obliged to implement; they have no choice in the matter. In case the Home Secretary is suffering from any confusion, it is called the public safety radiocommunications project. The publication cites the total cost of that project as £1.5 billion. Is that figure accurate? If it is, how far does the Home Secretary think that the mere £50 million that he announced in his conference speech will go towards funding that project?

If the police have to implement the radiocommunications project and must find the funding shortfall between £1.5 billion and £50 million, can the Home Secretary seriously tell the House that recruitment will not suffer? Does he accept the comments made to me by a chief constable and an assistant chief constable that, in light of the requirement to implement the new system, recruitment must suffer?

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