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7.15 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I echo what the Home Secretary said about a Minister who has departed from us but not from the Government—the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), who, along with Lord Falconer, handled proceedings here and, before that, elsewhere with delicacy, tact and intelligence. I also thank my hon. Friends who have laboured so mightily in the vineyard of the Standing Committee on a Bill that is both large and tortuous. I am sure that the Home Secretary is right in saying that significant progress was made there.

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Today, the Home Secretary was in his most charming and eirenic mode. I am tempted to reciprocate in kind, but I fear that I cannot quite do so.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Try!

Mr. Letwin: I have tried, but I have failed.

I have accepted from the outset that the Bill contains things that are good. It would be nice if those things could be saved, but I do not think any of them is heroically wonderful, and I fear that in its present form the Bill includes proposals to which we cannot subscribe. They have been enumerated during our debates, but I am thinking of the provisions concerning DNA—late in the day—the double jeopardy provisions as currently constructed, the provisions relating to the retailing of previous bad character as currently constructed and, most notably, the provisions on trial by jury, which we debated yesterday.

I do not think the Bill contains enough that is sufficiently good to overcome the harm that will be done if those provisions, in that form, become law. I hope that by the time we reach the end of the parliamentary process—which I suspect may be slightly later in the autumn than the Home Secretary suggested—those elements will have been changed to an extent that will make it possible for us to accept the Bill; but that is not the case today. I shall therefore ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose Third Reading, although I hoped not to find myself in that position.

The Home Secretary sighs with "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar", but that is all an act. In fact he is delighted that I am taking this stance, as it will enable him to say for months, whenever a criminal outrage occurs, that if only his Bill had not been opposed by a recalcitrant Opposition all would have been well—and while we are at it, we should bear it in mind that the Prime Minister will use the same excuse on every possible occasion during Prime Minister's Question Time. I am fully aware that that will be the sequel; but I could not live with myself if I suggested to my colleagues that we participate in the acceptance of propositions that I consider deeply offensive to those who care about fundamental liberties.

I ought to say a further word, which is that there has been a tendency as the Bill has proceeded for the Home Secretary to regard it as a No. 11 bus on to which he can climb from time to time and deposit a new goody. He has arrested the bus at various stops and climbed on with new goodies with such energy and so prolifically that I cannot recall a Monday morning recently when I did not wake up to have somebody from the media ask me for a comment on the latest initiative that the Home Secretary has said will be included in the Bill.

I have to admit that, in one case at least, I am also culpable, because I engaged in a spot of negotiation by airwave with the Home Secretary, and I am duly grateful to him for being willing to include whatever his version is of our amendment that would prevent burglars from suing. Largely, however, my record is clean while the Home Secretary's is not. He has introduced so many initiatives so hastily that the Bill contains much that was not in the White Paper, that was

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not discussed by the Home Affairs Committee in its full deliberations and that my hon. Friends and I have not had time properly to consider.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as I attacked him yesterday. This is very courageous of him indeed. May I invite him to explain to my constituents, to whom the vast majority of the Bill sadly will not apply, why he and his party are to vote against Third Reading? The provisions on firearms and on sentencing will not apply to the people of North Down and of Northern Ireland, and I would love to see him give that explanation to them.

Mr. Letwin: It is with great delight that I can tell the hon. Lady, for whom I have considerable respect, that I would not dream of daring to address her constituents. She alone is capable of the business of explaining these things to them, and I have no doubt that she will do so with eloquence.

I am convinced that there is a paradox in treating the Bill in such a way. One of its best elements, although we have not quite agreed on its form, is the process that it seeks to establish for deciding on sentences. My hon. Friends and I have suggested further amendments, which will no doubt be debated in another place. We can argue about the precise format of the process for agreeing sentences, but it is common ground between the Government and us that there needs to be a transparent and proper process so that none of us wakes up on a Monday morning and suddenly discovers that the guidelines have altered, that the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice are locked in mortal combat or that the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor are locked in mortal combat. Indeed, combat should be avoided on the whole in the proceedings of this nation, especially when it is mortal.

The Bill rightly sets out to create an orderly framework, so what does the Home Secretary do to it? He introduces a series of sporadic measures—one of which at least we strongly agree with, as it happens, and some of which we have doubts about—on sentencing rather than allowing the very process that the Bill will establish to be invoked for setting the things that the Bill says the process should set. I give that as one example of the irony that the No. 11 bus approach to such a Bill tends to create.

May I end with this? I hope that, as the Bill proceeds through the Lords, the Home Secretary withstands the temptation to turn it into a yet fuller bus and that the Bill as it leaves us now can be debated in a mature fashion in another place so that we can eventually arrive at legislation without the obnoxious bits that are preventing me and my party from supporting it.

7.24 pm

Mr. Allen: I welcome the Bill, which is a good one from the Government's point of view. There are a lot of excellent things in it that will be well received out in the country. The changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the bail provisions will be welcomed by the police. The changes on double jeopardy are long overdue. A small number of cases will be affected, but they are important cases none the less.

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The changes to the jury trial system in a small number of cases are also long overdue, although that has been a matter of controversy. On sentencing, which the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) alluded to, we are halfway there, and with any luck we will be able to finish the job very soon. The Bill contains many good ideas and a lot of good progress has been made.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the valiant campaign that he fought in Committee to make these provisions intelligible to ordinary people and to ensure that the man in the street could fully understand the law. In the same light, will he apply those considerations to trial by jury, and in particular address the risk that the Government's provisions might lead matters to fall within the domain of lawyers and become unintelligible to members of the public, so that justice might not be seen to be done?

Mr. Allen: I shall come to the intelligibility or otherwise of the Bill shortly.

As a Government Bill, it has been a resounding success; the failures have been by party and Parliament. In party terms, the Bill was eminently saleable to the electorate, yet they have been bypassed. The people on estates in my constituency and in other constituencies—they were referred to constantly in Committee—have not engaged with or been involved in the process of the Bill. In many ways, we have missed an open goal. So much of what is in the Bill has been demanded by the people out there, yet we have tried to stuff it through Parliament as fast as possible, rather than explaining what we are doing. I understand that the same is happening, I am afraid, with the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, which could also be used to connect with the people out there, rather than simply consisting of changes that are of interest to—or annoyance to—practitioners. We need to ensure that people understand that Parliament has a genuine role in connecting with people.

Parliament's fundamental process failures, the first of which was pre-legislative, have been very evident. We failed to engage all those involved in the daily coalface activities of criminal justice: serving police officers, probation officers, housing officers and victims, all of whom could have been drawn into our process by having a responsible and lengthy discussion of the Bill's fundamental principles. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. It had a valiant and brief effort at pre-legislative scrutiny, which proved of great assistance during our consideration of the Bill. Had the Committee been allowed openly to gather evidence from those who will be influenced by and use the Bill, I feel sure that it would have been far better even than it is now.

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