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20 Nov 2002 : Column 666—continued

4.45 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Liberal Democrats welcome very much this important debate on the Queen's Speech. It is right that the whole of the last day, which is traditionally important, is given over to law and order. The Home Secretary, the Conservative shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and I have very different constituencies. However, there is not one of us who does not know that crime and the fear of crime is at the top of our constituents' agenda, so it is right to concentrate on these issues. I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his consistent and constructive willingness to have dialogue about the detail of the Government's programme. He has heard me say in the Chamber before that we will take that opportunity up. We have always responded so far and have had, I hope, constructive dialogue on various matters in the past and will seek to do so in the year ahead.

We are having this debate, quite properly, against the background of an enormous amount of Home Office legislation. In the first five years of the Labour Government, 37 Bills were introduced. I estimate that at least 20—others claim 12—were to do with law and order. I suggested to the Conservative spokesman a moment ago that this is no different from the style of the

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previous Administration, under whom 51 Bills were introduced. In their last year alone,19 Home Office Bills were introduced, of which 13 dealt with law and order, so the phenomenon is not new. When we reflect on the way in which we deal with legislation in the year ahead, we must ask ourselves what we need to do here and what needs to be done elsewhere. How much do we need legislation and how much do we need administration to deal with the big issues confronting us all? How do we keep crime going down—I hope that journalists hear that, as according to the figures, it is going down with undesirable exception of violent crime—and make sure that detection and conviction go up?

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Violent crime is an important exception.

Simon Hughes: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman's Government failed lamentably to tackle that, as violent crime went up every year under the Tories. I hope that he accepts that violent crime decreased for some years under Labour, but is now on the up again. For me, it is the most important criminal justice issue—violence in our community is the most dangerous, insidious and unacceptable aspect of criminality.

There are no easy answers—if there had been, I hope that the previous five Governments would have found some of them—so we must try responsibly to work out the best way of responding. There are six Bills on law and order in the current legislative programme, of which three are almost entirely non-controversial, but that does not mean that there will not be lots of amendments and debate.

Generally, however, people accept the desirability of including magistrates and crown courts in the same system, as long as justice remains local to the community and is not moved away from people.

A sexual offences Bill, trailed yesterday, will be introduced. A largely modernising, non-discriminatory and consolidating measure with a lot of good new components, it received broad support yesterday from Members on both sides of the House.

There are two measures to deal with our international responsibilities. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) will be responsible for the Extradition Bill and possibly the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill, which was published today. By and large, those measures too are good, but the difficult issue, as the Government know, is whether people should be taken from this country to be tried elsewhere without guarantees of adequate judicial process and whether people charged by foreign authorities should be pursued when they come here. Both aspects of the problem are dealt with in the two Bills which, no doubt, will be hotly debated in both Houses.

There are two controversial Bills, including the prospective antisocial behaviour Bill—we have no idea yet what it or the White Paper will include. The Home Secretary is smiling, because he knows that that is true. I got the impression, if I may say so, that concept of the Bill came up on the outside lane rather late in the day before the Queen's Speech. I detected that there was

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originally intended to be one criminal justice Bill, and then something came out of the stables and took off, in a race of its own. Such Bills have often fallen at the last fence. Indeed, some parts of such Bills have never got on to the course, or not got over the first jump.

When the Home Secretary was in the coda phase of his speech, listing the positive achievements of the past five years, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said quietly, XWhat about curfew orders?". That is an example of an initiative that emerged from the stalls, went to the starting point, but never appeared to be backed by anybody after that.

I hope that the Home Secretary will keep his word, as he has done with regard to other matters, and consult about the White Paper. There are some good antisocial behaviour initiatives in all our communities, and the best of the best must be shared and rolled out, if we believe that a particular initiative can have a wider application.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Does my hon. Friend accept that where we do not have a White Paper and where we have not had pre-legislative consultation, there is a good case for pre-legislative scrutiny by an appropriate Committee or Joint Committee, as the Leader of the House suggested?

Simon Hughes: Not only do I support that, but I hope that in this case, where there is widespread interest and with so much knowledge out there, the Home Secretary might consider it appropriate for the Bill to have pre-legislative scrutiny, and also possibly to be considered by a Special Standing Committee, which could take evidence. People who give evidence could then feel part of the process. Antisocial behaviour affects communities, and if communities can have a say in the legislative process, they will feel much more engaged.

Many of us regret that the Bill that was not included in the Queen's Speech, was the one on corporate manslaughter. As the MP for a Thames-side constituency where the Marchioness sank, and with other colleagues around the House, I hope that it might still be brought in—not that we are asking for more work—under the additional opportunity provided by the statement,

as it is extremely important and it has been in the gestation phase for a long time.

I have one word to add to the important exchange that took place earlier on homeland or domestic security. That is, of course, the most important issue facing us. I hope that the Home Secretary knows that all of us, in all parts of the House, will work with the Government of the day and the Cabinet Ministers of the day to retain confidences and to share information and try to make sure that our citizens are protected to the best of the ability of all our services at all times. I join him in paying tribute to the security services, and in expressing surprise that the excellent debate that we had went entirely unremarked, although there were some important contributions.

I hope that there is a real debate about how best we cope with international terrorism. My intervention was not meant to say that there is not merit in the argument from the Conservative leader; indeed, our party

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suggested that the matter be considered. The idea is not new for us, but we advance it in a deliberative and careful way. We need to reform Government sensibly, intelligently and gradually. We should not suddenly come up with an idea and think that that is the complete solution. It must be the case, though, that solutions for a huge federal state like the United States would generally be inappropriate for a much smaller unitary or nearly unitary state like ours.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that whatever we do with regard to homeland security, we must remember that among the things that we are protecting are individual freedoms? It would be a sad day if we ended up compromising the civil liberties of the innocent general public in order to try and catch the very small number of people who seek to violate them.

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend raises a hugely important point. Our leader, in his response to the Queen's Speech last Wednesday, emphasised what unites all of us on the Liberal Democrat Benches. We are a party with a liberal tradition and a belief in civil liberty as the basis of our constitution. We start with the individual and individual liberty. That is why my hon. Friend and I voted together last year against many of the specific measures in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. We did so not because we are against dealing with terrorism or reducing crime and increasing security, but because we think, for example, that there are better ways of protecting liberty than keeping people locked up indefinitely without trial in a prison in south-east London. There was an honest debate about that issue and we will continue to make those points. I anticipate that we will advance them strongly in relation to one or two forthcoming Bills—not least the criminal justice Bill—and have the robust debate that the Home Secretary is always ready to have, although with an understanding of where the other parties are coming from.

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