Previous SectionIndexHome Page

20 Nov 2002 : Column 655—continued

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The right hon. Gentleman knows that I join him in many of his criticisms, but does he accept that they could equally be made of his colleagues in the 18 years before he entered the House? The last Tory Government had 37 Home Office Bills, including 13 in the last year. However, crime doubled under the Tories and violent crime went up every year. In the last five years of the Tories, police numbers fell. On behalf of his party, does the right hon. Gentleman now say that those approaches and parliamentary initiatives were wrong and inadequate? If that is so, does he have a commitment to the funding to deliver what he says he wants and does he have a figure for the number of police that England and Wales need?

Mr. Letwin: The hon. Gentleman is in the enviable position of being able to attack everyone on all occasions. We are currently discussing the question of whether this Government have delivered, and my argument is that they have not. The fact that we have had problems in the past—and we have—is not to deny that we succeeded in reducing crime significantly at the tail end of the last Government, because of the measures that the then Home Secretary took, which were right and which have been continued by the present Government, to their credit. The Government came to power saying that they would solve all the criminal justice problems that we had left unresolved. They have failed to do so.

We have had five years of Labour Government. We have had 12 criminal justice Bills. We have had vaulting ambitions, boundless energy and countless initiatives, but we have not had a clear, settled and effective policy. We have not had results or delivery. Let us hope that this year will be the first year in the five-year history of this Government that is truly a year of delivery for the citizens of this country, who face disorder on a scale that concerns all and terrifies some.

4.4 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): We are all agreed that there is a problem. We are all agreed that the official Opposition will help us with that problem. They will help us because they agree that there is a problem. They even agree that there is a problem that needs to be addressed and that legislation might be a good idea. They even agree that, in principle, the legislation that the Government are bringing forward might be worth supporting. There is only one proviso: that during the Bill's passage through the House, and especially in the House of Lords, the Opposition will go out of their way to do anything that they can to stop the legislation reaching the statute book. Moreover, they will take every opportunity to undermine the Government's efforts to make the legislation workable. That is my experience over 18 months as Home Secretary.

20 Nov 2002 : Column 656

I want to make an offer—

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I am surprised at what the Home Secretary has said. I remember that the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), thanked the Opposition, at the end of the passage through the House of the Proceeds of Crime Bill, for their contribution to proceedings. I recollect that about 60 amendments tabled by the Opposition were accepted by the Government and incorporated into the legislation, which was thereby improved. Is that what the Home Secretary is referring to?

Mr. Blunkett: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is a decent, honourable and courteous man. After 459 clauses and half his life, he felt the need to thank those who had helped him both in Committee and in the House. I do not think that he was quite as grateful to those in the House of Lords who got in the way of making the Bill more workable.

I was about to make what I think is a generous offer. Yesterday, the shadow Home Secretary was generous enough to say that, with a fair wind, the Government's proposals would have the Opposition's support—subject, of course, to the detail of the legislation being acceptable. I accepted what he said. I want to make an offer to the right hon. Gentleman and to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). They are welcome to suggest changes and improvements as we move through legislation, and to bring forward their own legal advice if they think that the Government's advice is flawed.

I cannot say fairer than that. We have established, as we did yesterday, that we are in such agreement that only two questions remain: is the Home Office up to drafting something that will work, and will the result have the impact that we want? I want the answer to both questions to be in the affirmative. I think that we can move forward in a spirit of total unanimity. I nearly said anonymity, but unanimity is the better way to describe it.

I shall turn to one or two points raised by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) in relation to terrorism. The Leader of the Opposition has enjoined the right hon. Gentleman to make the interesting if slightly zany suggestion that we copy the Americans and create a homeland tsar of Cabinet rank. Presumably, we would also have to create a homeland department to back that tsar.

I want to get this matter out of the way, as it is causing great disquiet. People have read The Sunday Times and the Daily Mirror, or reprints of the relevant articles. There is a genuine worry that needs to be dispelled, so I shall deal first with the structural issue.

Would it be a good idea to have one person of Cabinet rank whose sole job was to oversee and co-ordinate anti-terrorism measures—and that would include the work of the security service and the anti-terrorism branch of the Metropolitan police—and the civil contingencies now known as resilience? That person would take forward measures to enhance the plans that are already well worked out as a consequence of the threat of terrorism from Ireland. Would it help if one individual had that responsibility? At present, colleagues are

20 Nov 2002 : Column 657

required to co-ordinate through Cabinet Committees. They take responsibility and are held to account for the matters with which they have to deal for the funding that they oversee; and for the priorities that they have to weigh. Would it be better if that responsibility were put into one person's hands? That would detach measures on resilience and anti-terrorism from the mainstream activity of Government Departments.

A couple of weeks ago the House discussed the protection of Heathrow, in connection with proscription orders. Would it better for the Department for Transport to deal with that, or a separate Cabinet Minister? Would it be better for the Department of Health if a Cabinet Minister took away the role of determining and weighing priorities, of integrating with local activity, trusts and the work of the chief medical officer, and centralised it? Would it be better if a Cabinet Minister intervened in the detail of every Department rather than requiring Sir David Omand to produce integral reports highlighting and reinforcing the need for improvement where it is required and supporting the Cabinet Committees in getting buy-in from everyone across Government, not separating it into one person's bailiwick?

More important still, would it help to build the confidence of and reassure the nation if every time a newspaper made something up, that Cabinet Minister was expected to answer for it at the Dispatch Box? Would it be right, on the back of what The Sunday Times wrote or the interesting story in the Daily Mirror with named underground stations—reminiscent of a similar article by the same journalist on Irish terrorism—for a Cabinet Minister to jump up at the Dispatch Box or appear on the XToday" programme? I think not. The result would be that someone's whole focus in life would be answering the kind of scurrilous rumour-mongering that destroys the chance of getting real messages across so that when we say that there is a specific warning and indicate that there is a particular problem, people will not believe us.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I have listened to the Home Secretary very carefully and I accept that it is a fine and difficult judgment. However, does he accept that there is an issue of time? As Home Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman has six Bills to take through the House. The Secretary of State for Health has a complicated 10-year plan to deliver. The Secretary of State for Defence is probably about to be involved in a war in Iraq. And as for the Deputy Prime Minister, we will leave him on one side. Who will have the time and focus to get it right? We have seen conflicting answers to the same questions over recent weeks.

Mr. Blunkett: I do not believe that we have. I do not think that evidence has been adduced to indicate that conflicting answers have been given. I have been quite prepared to welcome the right hon. Member for West Dorset and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey for briefings and I will continue to do so. If they can show me contradictions in what has been said—bearing in mind the fact that those who are close to these matters, as well as journalists, know perfectly well who is responsible for speaking on behalf of the Government on these matters—I would be happy to write to the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and apologise.

20 Nov 2002 : Column 658

There have not been contradictions; we have indicated that wild fantasies from those who do not carry responsibility for the consequences of their speculation in the media and elsewhere have not helped. That is very different from people saying that there have been contradictions in the message coming from the Government. I appeal to the British media: do not hide the truth or duck finding out what is going on, but for God's sake do not make things up on the back of the speculation of people who wish to demonstrate that they know more than others and think that they should be listened to.

On 9 September I placed in the Library of the House a substantial update setting out the steps that we had taken over the previous year. I updated this two weeks ago. Yes, there was a cock-up in the Home Office. I am not normally known for enthusiastically embracing every tenet of open government for its own sake, but on this occasion I do not think that anyone could floor us for having issued a draft for quarter of an hour and then having reissued the correct one. There was the first draft, then there was the correction—I have explained what happened. I have also explained that I do not believe that the term Xdirty bomb" takes us any further, which is why we removed it. We did not remove the wider general warning and update that was repeated by the Prime Minister at the Lord Mayor's banquet and has been repeated by him since, including on television earlier this week.

Next Section

IndexHome Page