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7.36 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): It is a pleasure to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase). I entirely agree with most of what he said, particularly his remarks about the international criminal court. The proposal being put before the House for our approval is long overdue.

We heard the elegiac tones of the speeches of the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). I hope that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney will not mind my saying that I found our time together on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs enormously enjoyable. I learned a great deal from his experience and his contributions to the Committee. Indeed, he made a huge contribution. I hope that it will not hurt either his or my reputation too much when I say that there were often times when we agreed whole-heartedly on issues. He will be missed by the House when finally he chooses to retire. I wish him every success in his future life.

The Prime Minister made an interesting slip of the tongue earlier. I hope it survives to the official record and is not corrected. He talked about "all the nonsense from the shadow Home Secretary, most of which we are doing already." Nothing could better encapsulate the problem that many Liberal Democrat Members have with the

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Government. There is a great deal of nonsense coming from the shadow Home Secretary, and sadly some of it is being bought and acted upon by the Government.

Much mention has been made of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown) and his famous diaries. I have not read the entire book. As usual, I turned to the index to see whether I was mentioned. I am mentioned twice: first, when, shortly before the election in 1992 it was said that I was optimistic--of course, I lost; and again shortly before the 1997 election, when it was said that I looked glum--of course, I won. That is an assessment of my predictive qualities.

Mr. Robathan: Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten us on how he is feeling at present?

Mr. Heath: I am delighted to be able to serve my constituents in addressing the issues of the Queen's Speech. However, as a Queen's Speech, it was a considerable disappointment. What a feeble thing it was. It was dejeune and inadequate in many ways. It tried desperately to sound tough and convincing, but when I analyse what it contained, I do not think that there was a great deal.

Yet again the Home Secretary has tried to emulate his Conservative predecessor by constantly introducing gimmicks that make it sound as though the Government are being tough on crime. Those gimmicks almost always come from America. I cannot understand why it is believed sensible to go to the United States of America to learn lessons on dealing with crime effectively. Given the crime rates in America compared with those in Europe, surely there are better role models to use. This indiscriminate curfew is being adduced as the latest panacea to deal with youth crime. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) that an indiscriminate curfew is a civil liberties issue. Everyone agrees that we should deal with youngsters who cause trouble and should find appropriate remedies, but applying a curfew indiscriminately, whether people are guilty or not and whether they have ever had a criminal thought in their head or not, seems to me the wrong way of going about it.

The same issues arise on the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill, which I thought we had seen the end of but which is coming back again. Social security fraud measures will be introduced. Of course, everyone wants social security fraud to be addressed, but why attack the dependants of fraudsters--their families--rather than the fraudsters themselves? That is not a sensible way of dealing with the problem.

That is not to say that the Gracious Speech does not contain some good measures. Like the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, I hope that the measures to deal with vehicle crime will be effective. When I was chairman of Avon and Somerset police authority, vehicle crime was a big issue. We diverted resources from other areas to deal effectively with vehicle crime and burglary.

I am extremely pleased that at last the private security industry is to be subject to registration. I campaigned on that issue as chairman of the police authority and through the Association of Police Authorities. I cannot believe that we have managed to allow an industry to develop in which anyone can put on a cap, acquire an Alsatian dog and declare themselves to be a guard irrespective of their

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criminal record or the way in which they do the job. They are given access to private property and public areas on the pretence that they have authority. It is high time that we dealt with that issue.

Other measures to tackle crime effectively are absent from the Queen's Speech. What a shame there is no measure directly aimed at supporting the victims of crime. What a shame there is nothing to increase the criminal justice system's capacity to do restorative work, so that criminals are brought face to face with the results of their crimes and are made to recognise what they have done to their innocent victims.

Most of all, what a shame that nothing in the Queen's Speech will address the presence--or, rather, absence--of police in many of our communities. That is felt strongly in the rural areas that I represent, not because we have an enormous crime rate, but because crime is increasing and people have an increased fear of crime. They see no police presence, which is very worrying. That is partly as a result of years of underfunding of the police service, and partly as a result of increases in crime rates because police activities have been redirected to other priorities. One can understand that. The big cities act as magnets for police resources because that is where crime is committed. There have also been changes in the way in which the police operate.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the biggest changes that causes the police not to be on the beat is the power that the previous Government gave chief constables to direct resources? They have chosen to reduce the number of police on the beat and put resources into other activities. That is part of the problem. Until chief constables recognise the need to put police back on the beat, the problem will continue.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is partly right. Chief constables take those operational decisions, but they often do so for the best of motives. They believe that that is the only way properly to attack the problems of crime. The trouble is that the patrol function is crucial, not so much in arresting criminals but in producing a feeling of security in local communities that reduces the fear of crime. That is often seen as a lower priority.

I would have liked a measure to create retained police officers. I have argued for that for a long time. We are perfectly clear as a society that we should have retained fire fighters to help in rural areas--that is well- established--and we have a retained military reserve in the form of the Territorial Army, but we do not have retained police officers as an adjunct to the regular force so as to use skills properly and to provide a police presence. Such a measure was missing from the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: My speech will be longer than I had intended if I continue to give way, but I shall happily do so.

Mr. Luff: I shall be brief. I want to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that such a measure is

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one of the so-called gimmicks to which he referred. That policy is also espoused by the shadow Home Secretary, and I am sure that he will be delighted to welcome it.

Mr. Heath: I do not count such measures as gimmicks. The Conservative party has finally come to support a policy that we have espoused for a very long time. I can point to my advocacy of that argument for many years.

The Gracious Speech contains a strange section on the Department of Trade and Industry. It says:

Some may say that we could have done with increasing the effectiveness of the power to reduce opaque language in the Gracious Speech. That Bill is the only measure that the DTI will produce. I hope that it will be more effective than every other Government commitment to reduce regulation--whether from this or the previous Government. It should not cover areas in which regulation is meant to improve the safety of the consumer or the general public, but should deal with areas in which there is regulation for regulation's sake.

I wish that we were taking other measures to help local retailers and local businesses, such as reform of the uniform business rate. It is laughable that the Conservatives propose to give rebates on the uniform business rate because it is so unfair. They introduced it, and we know that it is unfair because of its effect on small retailers.

I should have liked the DTI to address properly the problems highlighted by the Scott inquiry on arms export controls. That point was also made by the hon. Members for Wolverhampton, North-East and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. I wanted the DTI to deal with mercenaries and brokers as well. That is a crucial area. The Foreign Secretary was clear and forensic in his attacks on the previous Government on this issue, so I cannot understand how he has managed to go through an entire Parliament without introducing legislation in this area, or persuading his colleagues to do so.

The Queen's Speech contains no Bill on the environment. There is no consumer Bill, which we were promised. There is no reference to a broadcasting White Paper. There is nothing to address the gross inequalities in the resources provided for public services across the country. I speak for my constituency and my area. I cannot believe that, in the fourth year of a Labour Government, there is still a differential of £1,500 per child per year between what the Government provide for children in our schools and what they provide for children who attend schools in leafy London suburbs. That inequality is unacceptable.

I welcome the fact that the Government have put a floor on the standard spending assessment increases, but I want a floor on the entitlement of every child, so that they get a fair deal and our schools get the capital investment they need to bring them up to an appropriate standard. We should also get the investment needed to deal with the hospital service in our rural areas.

At the last election, we were not told by the Government that things can only get better, but that they would get only a little bit better, and that we would have to wait another five years for anything to happen. Many areas have not seen

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the benefit. I believe that there are benefits for some parts of the country, but they are not getting through to the south-west, to the rural parts of Britain.

That brings me to my last major point. The week before last, the Government issued their rural White Paper. There is much in it that I applaud. It recognises some of the problems in rural areas and attempts to address them, but the difficulty is that nothing in the Queen's Speech underpins the rural White Paper with action in the form of legislation, or even a mention of intent. We heard nothing in the Gracious Speech, or from the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition, about rural areas and what could be done for them.

I find that extraordinary, given that we face such a great crisis in agriculture and are dealing with services so far below par and so far from the legitimate aspirations of rural areas that we wonder how we will receive the services that we should expect. There is nothing in the Government's proposals to deal with regulation on farming, nothing to introduce an agricultural ombudsman and nothing to deal with the rate reforms that we had been led to expect. Because there is nothing in the programme, there will be no action for yet another year on the problems in rural areas. That is a dereliction of duty.

There are many dogs that did not bark in the Queen's Speech, and there are some Bills that are only too evidently barking. As other hon. Members have said, it is not a programme for legislation; it is a programme to get the Government through to the next election.

I do not know whether it is in bad taste to mention the gunpowder plot in this place on the day of the Queen's Speech, but the Government's proposals are sky rockets, designed to fizzle into the sky with a few crackles and a little noise. However, they will fall to earth, because the Government know, we know and the country knows that most, if not all, the Bills will not reach the statute book. They will be stopped in this House or in another place. The blame will be put on the other place for being reactionary, regardless of the fact that it is now modeled on the Government's own creation, and they could have gone so much further.

That will be the excuse and the argument that is put to the British people. It is not good enough. So much more could have been accomplished in the Queen's Speech, the next legislative Session and the present Parliament. We will be looking for much more action and a little less spin in what remains of this Parliament and in the next.

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