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4 Dec 2002 : Column 910continued
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you agreed on behalf of the House to the modernisation procedures, you were kind enough to say that you would protect the rights of individual Back Benchers, so that if written statements were made by Ministers you would expect them to be non-contentious in the way that they were presented. You may like to know that today, the Secretary of State for Transport has made a statement about the London underground. There are considerable economic and political reasons for that statement to be debated in the Chamber, as it includes the suggestion that the underground system will not now be handed over to Transport for London as quickly as possible. May I ask you to examine the way in which the matter has been handled, because, whatever the reasons for the decision, Members of Parliament have a right to question the Secretary of State about this contentious matter?
Mr. Speaker: My priority is that Ministers should inform the House. They have a choice and they can use their judgment. They may make oral or written statements. In this case, a written statement has been made, and there has been no infringement of the rules of the House.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am aware that you do not have any responsibility for the content of ministerial questions, but could I ask you to direct a slight frown of disapproval towards the Home Secretary? I tabled, with due notice, 15 questions on prison overcrowding and received an answer to precisely one.
Mr. Speaker: I think that the right hon. Lady meant to refer to ministerial answers, not to questions. I have said before that perseverance is important in the House. She should keep annoying the Home Secretary until she gets the answer that she wants.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Further to the point of order of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), Mr. Speaker. Will you consider a slightly wider issue that relates to today's business as well as the matter that the right hon. Lady raised? At the end of the last Session of Parliament, I tabled in due time a number of questions to the Home Office that were material to the matters coming up in the Bill that we are about to debate. Most of them received answers saying, XI will answer this as soon as possible", or Xshortly", or XI will write to the hon. Gentleman."
I retabled the questions at the beginning of this Session. We have now had about a month of this Session, and yesterday I received a whole sheaf of answers saying, XI will write to the hon. Gentleman shortly." The questions are all material to the issues that we shall consider in today's debate.
Can you help us, Mr. Speaker? Can we do our job of scrutinising the Government if they do not give us key material until after we have debated the legislation to which it relates? That is unacceptable.
Mr. Speaker: I say to the hon. Gentlemanthis may also help the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)that the Public Administration Committee is prepared to look at any complaints from hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman may wish to take that course of action.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I received a reply from a Health Minister yesterday in response to a constituent's query raised in April, seven months after the original complaint was made. Can you help Back Benchers to get Ministers and Departments to give an early reply, because it makes us look like fools?
Before I begin my speech on this important measure, I want to pick up on the points of order raised by Opposition Members on questions that have not been answered. I instructed my Department that the consultation responses should be put in the Library today and I hope they are there this afternoon. However, I apologise unreservedly if Members who have laid questions that are relevant to the debate have not received substantive answers. That is not acceptable and should not have happened, and I will investigate it.
Although I will address specific clauses so that hon. Members can reflect on those aspects that are most relevant to them and then intervene if they want to, I first want to place on the record my thanks, and I am sure those of the House, to John Halliday and Lord Justice Auld for the way in which they conducted their inquiries, which informed the White Paper of 17 July and the legislation. I thank the Law Commission for its work over a number of years which has also informed the Bill's content, along with Ministers from all three Departments that are concerned with criminal justice. I am pleased that they are represented in the Chamber today.
I also want to thank those who contributed to the consultation on the White Paper. That was extremely helpful. In doing the same for the White Paper on sex offenders and sex offences, which we discussed a couple of weeks ago, we hope to engage Members more readily than appears to have been the case when we answered questions on the White Paper of 17 July.
We have endeavoured to pull together a range of issues that are relevant to the reform and modernisation of the criminal justice system. We started in the first Parliament of this Government by introducing legislative measures that have laid the foundations for what we propose in the Bill. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 has made a significant contribution, as I highlighted in our debate on the Queen's Speech. It is now absolutely clear that we need end-to-end reform of the criminal justice service and that that should fit with the other measures taken alongside it.
The Police Reform Act 2002 has already started to make a difference to the ability of the police to deliver their significant contribution to improving the criminal justice service as a whole. The initiative on street crime has not only made a difference by reducing robbery and snatch theft; it has also helped us to determine in what circumstances Departments and agencies fail to work adequately and, more importantly, to work together. We were able to see when they were not co-ordinated acceptably at a local level, and any major inefficiencies. All those agencies have people who work hard at a
I want to make this offer, which I know the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), and his colleagues serving on the Bill will want to proceed with: we are prepared to listen to those who have a major contribution to make to the Bill's improvement in Committee, in both this House and the House of Lords. We do not pretend to be the fount of all wisdom; we know that this is a complex and difficult area, and we know that proportionality is required. Although I have been and will continue to be extremely robust with vested interests, I recognise that there are voices of common sense who will guide us and help us to get this right.
If the Crown Prosecution Service, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office are to be able to take forward broad-based reform that will stand the test of time and have the support of all those of good will from different political parties, it behoves us to continue listening and to recognise that we must underpin the measures in the Bill with preventive action, which is crucial if we are to avoid people entering the criminal justice system in the first place.
Mr. Blunkett: I hope that my offer is extremely popular. I am just working out which of the voices I should give way to. I thought that I heard the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, and I will give way to him.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way to one of the reasonable voices in the House. In the spirit of what he has just said, may I put it to him that our Committee and most of those who gave evidence to us think that this would be a far better Bill if it did not contain the provision for disclosure of previous convictions? I do not ask him now to give an undertaking on that point, but I hope that he will think very carefully about it before persisting.