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6.44 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House for the first time since my election. I hope that hon. Members will display their customary patience and indulgence on such occasions. A former Speaker of this House, J. W. Lowther, said in 1919 that there were three golden rules for parliamentary speakers:

I will try to bear them in mind.

In the tradition of maiden speeches, first, I pay tribute to my predecessor, John Maxton, who was clearly held in great affection and esteem by his colleagues on both sides of the House, as well as by his constituents. He was an assiduous, hard-working Member who served his constituency and his party's Front Bench with deep commitment. I am convinced that, had the Labour Party won the 1992 general election, John Maxton would have been invited to serve in government, a chance that he would have richly deserved, but was denied only through bad timing.

John Maxton was renowned in the Labour party for two reasons. First, he could claim impressive lineage as the nephew of the famous Independent Labour party MP, the red Clydesider, Jimmy Maxton. Secondly, he became something of a Labour hero in 1979, when he unexpectedly won Glasgow, Cathcart from the sitting Member, the then shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, now the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor). It is perhaps unusual for a Member's predecessor to have retired after 22 years' service, yet for his predecessor's predecessor still to be a Member. Even now, many of my constituents still speak fondly of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East, and I hope that, one day, I can match the affection with which he is still regarded in Glasgow, Cathcart.

Cathcart is one of nine Glasgow constituencies. Geographically, it is the largest in the city, stretching from Carnwadric and Kennishead in the west, to Castlemilk in the south and east; from Mount Florida and Crosshill in the north to Muirend in the south. Castlemilk itself, once a byword for deprivation, with a population equivalent to the Scottish city of Perth, now has a fraction of its original population. Castlemilk has changed out of all recognition over recent years and, importantly, the emigration from Castlemilk to other parts of the city is, at last, starting to be reversed. Of course, like any other housing estate in the country, Castlemilk does not have its problems to seek. In particular, drugs misuse has scarred the lives of thousands of families in my constituency, and I am delighted that the Government have given notice to those who profit illegally from others' misery that their evil trade will no longer be tolerated.

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Scots, and Glaswegians in particular, have a great resilient spirit, matched only by their sense of humour. There is nothing quite like a close encounter with a member of one's electorate to eradicate any sense of self-importance in a candidate. In the general election campaign, I was canvassing in Castlemilk drive one Sunday afternoon. I introduced myself to one elderly voter as the Labour candidate and asked, "Can I ask how you intend to vote on Thursday?". She replied, "Oh, I'm just going to go round the corner to the primary school as usual, son."

I am conscious of the convention that maiden speeches should avoid any controversial subjects; the last thing that I would seek is a reprimand from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for contravening any House rule. I doubt if I could respond to such a reprimand with the flair and humour shown, for example, by Benjamin Disraeli, who was once criticised by the Speaker for declaring,

He later apologised and said:

I hope that I can be allowed to say a few words, not so much about the Gracious Speech as about what was not in it. A great deal has been spoken and written in the past few weeks--and much has been said in the House this afternoon--about how we can encourage voters back into the polling booths. Some claim that a change in the electoral system for the House would increase participation at elections, but my experience has not borne that out. The first ever Scottish parliamentary elections in 1999 were held using the additional member system. Only 60 per cent. of voters in Scotland took part--more than 10 per cent. fewer than at the general election two years previously. In June 1999, fewer than 30 per cent of voters took part in the European parliamentary elections, which were held under the closed list system.

Now there are some who want a fourth, altogether different system for electing Members to the House, called AV-plus. Apart from the dangers of creating a two-tier House of Commons, with MPs of different status, and apart from the confusion that inevitably arises whenever a new voting system is introduced, we have to consider another more damaging consequence of changing the existing system. If Governments in future are cobbled together by politicians behind closed doors instead of being elected by voters at the ballot box, how can we expect people to come out and vote? My fear is that a few years after the new system was introduced, we would look back with longing and envy at the turnout of 2001. So may I take this opportunity to express the hope that a similar omission will be made from the Gracious Speech for many years to come?

It appears that I am setting out on my parliamentary career at a time when the public perception of Parliament and politicians of all parties is at an all-time low. We are told by political commentators that politicians are held in far less esteem by the electorate than was the case 50 years ago. We are also told by the same political commentators that that was one of the reasons for such a low turnout at the general election. There may well be some truth in that, but as a former member of the fourth estate, I suggest that at least some of the blame for the electorate's lack of enthusiasm for politics stems from the media themselves.

Enoch Powell once said that politicians who complain about the media are like ships' captains who complain about the sea. Nevertheless, at the risk of being swept

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overboard, let me ask this: during the election, how often did we read in the newspapers, hear on the radio or see on television so-called humorous advice to voters to go on holiday to avoid election coverage, or not to answer the door in case it was a canvasser? In their few attempts to make politics more interesting to a larger number of voters, journalists risk trivialising issues to the point of ridicule.

Now, many members of the public, the media and even this House may well find the Tory leadership campaign to be beyond ridicule, but I am making a genuine cross-party point. When BBC television news can illustrate the leadership election by depicting every prospective candidate as a cartoon pantomime character, it is time to ask whether the media's claim that politicians are no longer respected has not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We have all arrived at the House by very different routes and with very different qualifications to do the job before us. I hope my own experience and qualifications put me on a higher level than the unfortunate gentleman of whom George Bernard Shaw once wrote:

It is an extraordinary privilege to have been elected to this House. I believe that this sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom remains the best hope for radical change in the lives of the millions of people that we represent. So I finish by expressing the hope that in the next few years I can play some part in helping bring about the changes that we need and I thank the House for its indulgence this evening.

6.52 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) on his excellent maiden speech. He spoke generously about his predecessors, which was appreciated throughout the House; he spoke with humour and he spoke quite movingly about some of the problems of the low turnout. We all listened to his speech and we look forward to hearing much more from him in future. I thank him on behalf of us all.

I congratulate the Home Secretary on his appointment and welcome his new ministerial team. It is good to see them all in their places. I declare, as always, an interest, as I must in these debates, as a recorder of the Crown court, a former acting metropolitan stipendiary magistrate and now a deputy district judge in the magistrates courts in London. I should like to say something about the criminal courts this evening.

Mr. Banks: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has time to be here.

Mr. Malins: I missed the hon. Gentleman's intervention, but I bet that it was so good that it would probably have incurred him six months if he had appeared before me, which in the current situation would have had him out in six weeks--and not a moment too soon.

If I may offer the Government a word of advice, it is that they should not legislate too much. The criminal justice system has been subject to a plethora of legislation for the past 15 or 20 years. I remember the Conservative party starting it. When I was first elected in 1983 we

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seemed to have a Criminal Justice Act or two every year. Perhaps it is time to reflect for a moment on what we have done and to see whether we have got it right or wrong.

In a few moments, I shall turn to a couple of matters that we need to correct, but first let me say a word about prisons. Members on both sides of the House share a concern about the state of our prisons. It is not a party political issue. Members everywhere are ashamed of what goes on in our prisons. There are good ones, and Sir David Ramsbotham, who was an excellent chief inspector of prisons, pointed out the good prisons--the ones with a good work regime and good morale--but, my goodness, there are some bad ones.

I was most depressed by my last visit to Feltham young offenders institute, and I advise all hon. Members to go and see it. The institute is in two wings--A wing and B wing--one of which is for under-18s. A lot of money is spent on the under-18s, who have a constructive time. There is plenty of education, work and sport and morale is not too bad, but for the over-18s it is simply dreadful. Would any of us want to see young men of 19 locked up for 18 hours a day? The situation is absolutely hopeless. Any of us in that position would come out bitter and twisted--much worse than when we went in. Is there any team sport for the 18 and 19-year-olds? There is hardly any. There is very little education or preparation for the outside. That is the fault of Governments over the years. Perhaps the problem is money, but it depresses me as a judge and as a member of the Home Affairs Committee to go to Feltham and to see a real problem--to see young men for whom I am very sorry indeed. I hope that that does not sound soft. I mean that I am very sorry indeed that there they have absolutely zero chance of making any progress when they come out. It is an absolute tragedy. Let us all co-operate in trying to address it.

I was really pleased to hear the Home Secretary say that he would try to involve hon. Members on both sides of the House in sensible discussions about the way forward in the criminal justice system. I have had enough of yah-boo politics. I have experienced it for too long and I am not very good at it. I should like instead to have some serious chats with people who know the subject and I welcome what the Home Secretary said in that respect.

I am not sure whether we need wholesale changes in our criminal justice system. I would rather look at the current system and see where we can make some improvements. I am about to set out a technical problem. I would be tempted to ask hon. Members to put their hands up if they were aware of it, but I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rule me out of order if I did so. It concerns the youth courts and it is addressed to those who might be advising the Government. It is a real problem in the courts where I sit, and I sit from Camberwell to Greenwich, Woolwich, Horseferry road, Bow street and Highbury corner. It concerns 12 to 14-year olds and the question of custody in the youth courts.

A persistent offender aged 12 to 14 can be given up to two years' custody by the youth courts. A non-persistent offender cannot be given a custodial sentence, so what happens? If two young boys appear charged with a fairly serious offence and one is a persistent offender, he can be given two years' custody, but what about his mate, who is of good character? The youth court is unable to pass a custodial sentence. If it considers that custody is even a

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possibility, it has to send that young man to be dealt with by the Crown court, which creates enormous upset. Crown court judges are saying, "What on earth is going on? We are getting all these young men aged 14 being sent to the Crown court. That is stupid. Why on earth can't the youth court have the same powers in respect of those who were previously of good character as it has with persistent offenders?" It would be a small amendment to make, but it is a problem that worries district judges right across London. It is something that the Government need to put right.

There is another little matter that we could put right. Currently, there is what is known as a section 51 transfer. A defendant appears before the magistrates court and on an indictable-only offence does not get committed for trial, which takes weeks, but is transferred straight to the Crown court. That it straightforward when it relates to adults who are transferred straight to the Crown court and it is over in a flash, but no such power exists for youths. Why not? The provision could be tagged on to a Bill currently going through Parliament.

We are all worried about the Crown Prosecution Service. Is it underfunded? What is wrong? Is there a morale problem? Those of us who appear in court regularly see day after day the CPS apparently in some difficulty, to put it mildly, with its files, which cannot be found.

Defendants who have appeared before me at Camberwell Green magistrates court have elected for a committal to a Crown court, but the CPS representatives were told by their bosses to ask for a six-week remand before committal, or a four-week remand if the defendant was in custody. It takes about half an hour to prepare the papers for a committal, although it can take two days if it is a difficult case, but it does not take six weeks. Someone somewhere has to drive the CPS into being able to commit cases to the Crown court much faster than it has hitherto.

There is something in magistrates courts called the criminal justice unit--a group of people whom we never see. It is a type of liaison between the Crown prosecutor and police. Time after time, however, cases are adjourned because witnesses have not turned up and it turns out that the criminal justice unit had done nothing about warning them. There are inefficiencies in the system, and much has to be put right. However, we do not need a fundamental reform of the entire system.

I am slightly in favour of some reform of the double jeopardy rule. I think that there is a good argument for it in cases where a life sentence could be passed. However, I am worried about the proposals on jury trial, which I think will encounter a pretty tough fight in the House.

If we have a rule that simply says, "If magistrates think that their powers of punishment are enough, there will be no jury trial", it would exclude the possibility of magistrates having any discretion to permit the defendant, who may be of previous good character, to elect Crown court trial. We have heard about abuse of the system by which people elect Crown court trial, but such abuse is disappearing. Nowadays, there is something called plea before venue, and there are other means of keeping the process short. Other developments in magistrates courts are improving efficiency, notably plea before venue. I therefore advise Ministers to be very careful with their proposals on jury trial and to talk to the whole House about them.

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My final comments are on the great, big issue of the day--drugs. Young men of 17 to 25 appear before me who are heroin addicts. Their lives are ruined and it is absolutely tragic. They burgle houses to get the goods, and they sell the goods to buy the heroin. I agree that we need a royal commission on drugs, a sensible chat about which drugs we should or should not legalise and what to do about heroin. For example, there is now a drug, Naltrexone, which has been tested in America and which helps to block out the need for heroin. Cocaine is a problem, but heroin is the biggest problem facing young people today. Please, let the House spend four years trying to sort out the serious issue of the effect of drugs on young people in the criminal justice system.

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