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9.10 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am in a unique position this evening because, thanks to the work of hon. Members from all parties, Members of the House of Lords and many outside organisations, we not only have a better Bill but one that is built on consensus. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, who has done a good job tonight, and two former Home Office Ministers who helped with the Bill—the Secretaries of State for Constitutional Affairs and for International Development. As hon. Members can see, people get promotion by being involved with the Bill. Above all, I thank my good friend, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins)—I almost called him Sir Paul—for his work in Committee. In all seriousness, we are grateful for the

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work of Committee members, the way in which the Opposition have responded and the spirit of consensus that developed from Second Reading onwards. That is an exemplar for Parliament as a whole, and embodies the way in which the Chamber and politics generally should operate.

It was with trepidation that we drew up the Bill, and dealt with the balance between offenders and offences. For the past 50 years, from 1956 onwards, people have been reluctant to change the law or engage vigorously with difficult issues because of the dangers of taking them out of context. This Parliament has engaged with those issues, and one Committee member even described the measure as a "model Bill". We owe everyone from all parts of the House who has led and participated in debate on the Bill a deep debt of gratitude. I am more of a politician than a parliamentarian, but I think that it has been is an example of Parliament at its best.

The tone that was adopted when the Bill was introduced, and continued in Committee and on Report, showed that we wanted to deal with some of the most difficult problems as well as issues that required sensitive handling in their presentation to the public. On Second Reading, we reflected on comments made in the House of Lords, some amusing, some which made us grimace, and some things that we would rather forget. However, in the House and in Committee those issues have been dealt with in a way that has led to consensus, and I am grateful to everybody for that. Of course, different points of view have been expressed. I am not often outdone by Parliament on the sentences that should be imposed on people who commit crime, but on the issue of grooming we accepted the additional penalty that the Committee and the House suggested. We have been able to close loopholes that were drawn to our attention by the media, making it an offence, for example, to undress a child without the interference that would previously have warranted immediate action and a court case.

We have had genuine differences, which have arisen again today, on issues such as anonymity, where for once it was not the Government who wanted to legislate; I know that we in the Home Office sometimes go for legislation first and think of other solutions afterwards.

Simon Hughes : An unusual paradox.

Mr. Blunkett: This is not the former Liberal Democrat spokesman's swansong. I could not miss the voice, the manner or the heckling. Nevertheless, his contribution is welcome because he has seen the Bill through with us.

On anonymity, I hope that the Association of Chief Police Officers and the media, as well as the way in which we can toughen the guidance, will make a difference. I am certain that, if they do not make a difference, the attitude that has emerged in this House and the House of Lords will ensure that further steps are taken. That is both a clarification and a warning to those who have engaged with the issue.

Implementation will be vital. As was mentioned on Second Reading and in the statement on domestic violence, unless action is forthcoming from good words, there is no point in our spending time deliberating in Committee and in the House. The inter-ministerial

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group on sexual offenders and the taskforce on child protection on the internet are crucial in carrying forward Members' work and ensuring that we have solutions that work.

As I said, modernising the law on sexual offences has been a bed of nails for a very long time. We needed to modernise the law in the 21st century not simply because of equality or fairness, or simply because it was right to do so, but because it was essential to get the law right to tackle acts that all of us would agree are heinous crimes. It was therefore important to ensure that we were not engaged in a past agenda concerning private behaviour and how people live their lives—an agenda that occupied people in the 20th century for far too long. As someone who is known in Labour circles as a bit of an authoritarian, it has been a particular pleasure and pride for me to be the Home Secretary who has introduced this legislation in 2003. I do not want to be compared with Richard Nixon, but it took him to recognise the Republic of China, so there is hope for me in the future—although not, it must be said, in recording people's phone calls.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): We've got the tapes.

Mr. Blunkett: You've got the tapes; you've got the message.

Finally, I thank the non-governmental organisations that have campaigned, advised and, on occasion, supported us. The venture has been collaborative and a genuine model for how we should proceed. It has been an example of how Parliament can make a difference. It is a great pity that because of consensus rather than controversy, very little of what has occurred will be recorded in the news media tomorrow morning.

9.18 pm

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his words and the spirit in which the legislation has been introduced. The subject is not easy—I certainly did not find it so, and I am sure that that is true of all those who served in Committee. There was a common determination that we should not approach the Bill in a partisan way, and I hope and believe that we have created legislation that will stand the test of time.

A great deal of credit goes to the Government. When the Bill started out in the House of Lords, there may well have been a temptation, particularly when the key areas relating to rape were placed under scrutiny, for the Government to cease the consensual approach and feel that they were being threatened. It is greatly to the Home Secretary's credit that he listened carefully to what was being said and accepted amendments that I believe have in no way detracted from what he was trying to achieve in changing the law in relation to rape, but have provided essential safeguards that will guarantee that a fair trial can take place. The Government are to be commended for what they have done in that respect.

When we have approached the Bill here, it has been noteworthy that, because of the good work in another place, many areas of the Bill have gone through, I hope not on the nod—I hope that we have always scrutinised it sufficiently—but at any rate with no dispute whatever.

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On those matters where there have been anxieties, one has only to look at the number of amendments tabled by the Government on Report to acknowledge that they have taken on board most, if not all, of the anxieties that have been expressed. In every respect, the Bill leaves the House in a better state than that in which it arrived, although it had already arrived in a good state because of the Government's attitude from the outset.

I thank—I echo what the Home Secretary said—the non-governmental organisations. I also thank the police, who have provided us throughout the Bill with much support and assistance in difficult areas, particularly many of those dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). I thank him for organising some briefings that we received during the Bill's passage. I also thank the Government Whip exceptionally in respect of this Bill, and those who have whipped for the Opposition. We have succeeded in scrutinising in every aspect in Committee a Bill that was timetabled. I am sorry that we did not quite achieve it on Report but I do not blame the Government for that. Indeed, it would be churlish to blame Liberal Democrat Front Benchers. The blame certainly lies elsewhere.

The Bill is modernising and it is now gender neutral, and I am delighted about that. I am also delighted that it will clearly provide greater safeguards for children, which has been a great anxiety in the House. I hope very much that those work. I am pleased by the modernisation of some areas of law, which while understandable were archaic. I greatly welcome the Government's last-minute decision to accept that the marriage exception was irrelevant in the 21st century. While it may have been appropriate 100 years ago, it ceases to be so when we are living in a much more diverse society where there have to be ground rules about the way people behave.

I do not want to take up more of the House's time. It has been a pleasure and, indeed, a privilege to participate in the passage of the Bill. As for anonymity, the one outstanding matter, I am grateful to the Home Secretary for what he said. It is an area of deep anxiety. I hope that he can accept in that spirit the reason why we have kept on raising it, even though I accept that the Bill will not stand or fall by that particular clause. I hope that the Government can come away with constructive proposals by negotiation with the media, but if they cannot it is a matter that we will have to tackle, because otherwise the administration of justice will become very difficult.

I do not want to end on an unhappy note. The good note that I can end on is that I think that we have done—I hope that we have done—a good job. I thank all those who have participated in the Bill for making that possible.

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