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4.56 pm

Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West) (Lab): The debate has provided a broad canvas, as with all Queen's Speech debates, for right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to address it on matters of general principle and detail, but I should like to confine my remarks to general principles, particularly in the context of today's debate on home and constitutional affairs.

This challenging, perhaps over-ambitious, programme of reform certainly gives the lie to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) that this is a tired Government. Far from it—this is a progressive, forward-looking and bold programme. In my view, it is a good programme and I welcome it. It does not shy away from some very contentious issues that the Government have to address, such as the higher education funding gap, and, in the context of this debate, our constituents' very real concerns about asylum and immigration.

It is essential that we have a tolerant and multiracial society. To underpin that, I must congratulate the Home Secretary on his approach of trying to establish a balance between setting up a transparent, open and managed immigration system, while bearing down, with tough and sometimes controversial measures, on what my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), who spoke from experience, said was the outright abuse of the present system. That balance must be established, and I congratulate the Government on bravely going down that path.

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The measures have to be tough, but I share the concerns expressed by many hon. Members on both sides of the House that some of the measures in the proposed asylum legislation may be a step too far. However, I am fairly confident that the Government will have carried out a human rights audit, as is required for all legislation under the Human Rights Act 1998. We know that, when introducing the Bill, the Secretary of State will have to declare that it is compatible with the Human Rights Act, but when the Minister sums up, he may be able to cast light on the Government's current thinking on whether there is a need to derogate from the European convention and the articles in it that deal with the privacy and sanctity of family life. That is a real concern. However, I agree with the thrust of the proposed measure and the Government would be shying away from people's real concerns if they did not act robustly to deal with what is perceived to be uncontrolled abuse of the asylum procedure.

I congratulate the Government on introducing the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. It is entirely right that we should rebalance the criminal justice system rather more in favour of victims by keeping them informed and by acknowledging the damage that crimes, particularly violent crimes, can do. We can do that without undermining the guarantees of human liberty that are enshrined in our criminal justice system.

I was impressed by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). She referred to those heart-rending cases of death or injury that are occasioned to children by fathers who have been given unsupervised access. That is a real problem and I am sure that the proposed Bill will go some way to dealing with it. I have experience as a lawyer of dealing with cases of domestic violence and I place considerable trust and confidence in the ability of the courts—if they are properly advised and have before them sufficient material from social services departments—to arrive at right and just conclusions. It is right that contact should be given to fathers; it would be a draconian step to stop them seeing their children.

I also welcome the proposed children Bill, which would bring to England the benefits that a children's commissioner has brought to Wales and Scotland. There is a need to address some of the issues that we face relating to the abuse of children, particularly those in care.

I now turn to the general principles behind the draft Bill on identity cards. I do not object in principle to the idea of identity cards and I accept the Home Secretary's contention that such cards can be an effective tool in combating identity fraud, the growing threat of international terrorism and organised crime. However, the devil is in the detail and much more practical work needs to be done. The last thing we want is such a measure to fail because of practical difficulties in its implementation.

I wish to mention a cause that is particularly close to my heart—the problems faced by people with disabilities. I represent an area with a large pensioner population in which disabilities are a matter of concern. We know that 8.6 million people in the United Kingdom have disabilities, but the Government have an excellent record in dealing with the issue. Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss

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Begg), will come into force later this year. It will require shops and services providers to make adjustments to their properties to cater for disabled people. We welcome that, and I welcome the proposals in the draft Bill to extend the scope of disability protection to transport operators and to widen the definition of disability.

I shall deal briefly with constitutional reform. I tend to agree that the whole business of reforming the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords and abolishing the post of Lord Chancellor could have been handled better, although it is necessary to address those anomalies. I welcome proposals to introduce a supreme court but firmly believe that any legislation on that should be informed by the underlying principle that the independence of the judiciary should not be undermined. We cannot exaggerate the value of an independent and high-quality judiciary, and that is crucial if we are to maintain the rule of law in a mature democracy such as ours.

I accept that there will be contentious aspects of the Government's programme, but it is none the less courageous and forward looking.

5.5 pm

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): I shall address my remarks exclusively to one aspect of the Queen's Speech: the announcement of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. I shall also refer to the comments of hon. Members who spoke about the Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) on her remarks about children, with which I concur. I disagree with some points made by hon. Members about contact with and access to children, because we must be careful when dealing with children. We should not adopt a one-size-fits-all policy or trust a system as though it could never fail. I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) that the courts can make mistakes, such as giving schedule 1 offenders unfettered access to their children with no other people present. Children have suffered terrible harm as a result of that, and such mistakes will continue to happen unless we take the problem seriously.

It is, perhaps, not well known in the House that I have had an interest in domestic violence for more than 30 years and that I work closely with the victims of that crime. However, my interest in the matter developed earlier than that. Many hon. Members will have seen an interesting television programme that recently featured in the top 10 of TV cop series—"Dixon of Dock Green". When we watched the programme, we heard the familiar strains of the theme followed by the words, "Evenin' all". There was a little homily at the end of each show, one of which was, "Well, of course it's been a quiet night, but if I had to go to every house where a chap thumps his wife of an evening, I'd have nothing else to do." That attitude was considered the normal state of affairs in the 1950s and 1960s, and I am glad to say that I think that few police officers have such an attitude these days.

I would like to think that our attitude to domestic violence could change as swiftly as people's attitudes to issues of equality, such as homosexuality and the rights of people who undergo gender transition. When I was

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growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, people never dreamed that such important changes of attitude were possible. The attitudes of people to ethnicity and race have altered completely and radically, in such a way that the majority no longer consider some people to be part of a sub-culture. However, domestic violence is still a huge problem, which shows that attitudes to that have not changed at the pace that I would like.

We must think carefully about what the Bill signals. After my 30 years of working with women who are victims, it represents one of the most tremendous changes heralded during my short time in the House. In the past six years, I have, perhaps, been too quiet a campaigner—but a campaigner nevertheless—for the quiet victims of what is too quiet a crime. Too often it is hidden away. Neighbours turn their heads, ashamed. The victims and their families are ashamed. I have heard it said that people from a particular ethnic group are more ashamed than others. That is nonsense. All victims of domestic violence feel ashamed. It is a pernicious and horrible situation that too often is condoned by the victims' families, neighbours and communities. It is the only crime for which we think the right course of action is to move the victim, not to deal with the offender. That is why the Bill is so important.

The victim needs to find sanctuary and to be supported by the law. The Bill will do much to achieve that, but it does not go the whole way. The Government might want to consider other measures as well. Although the Bill will protect people who come forward for help and treat them as victims, we should relieve them of the burden of going through the courts knowing that the offender will retaliate. Incidentally, domestic violence offenders are easy to identify. In other crimes, we have to look for the offender. In domestic violence cases, the offender is well known, although we still find it difficult to put him through the court process. A person is likely to have been offended against 35 times before a successful prosecution is brought. That is a terrible state of affairs. In addition, the victim has to make difficult choices in the period when those crimes are being committed.

I accept that the Bill is gender neutral and that men sometimes suffer at the hands of their partners, but I shall concentrate on women, especially mothers. The effect on them and their families is so tremendous that it is right that we are at last taking a careful and considered approach to an important problem. At the moment, the message we give to such women is, "You have no choice." I have heard council officers tell them that unless they are prepared to move within 24 hours to a hostel, a refuge or a homeless centre, the crime that they report will not be taken seriously. Have those council officers visited a hostel, a refuge or a homeless centre? If so, would they choose to make that move for themselves? The accommodation is not desirable. The furniture is in such a state that we would not want our children to sit on it. Drug abusers might live opposite or prostitutes might be down the road. Is that a real choice for women?

The answer is not simply to invest in better standards in refuges. We must also tell local authorities that they have a duty of care. Part of that duty of care is to protect a woman in her home so that the members of the community can support her. They know the woman and the offender. They will notice him if he enters the street

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and be part of her protection package. The school that her children attend can also be part of that protection package. Her children will be comfortable in that school and protected because they are well known to the teachers. It is a safe place. Why move them away from it?

We should be telling doctors that they, too, have a part to play in protecting women in the community. It is not difficult to do. In fact, it is relatively inexpensive to prepare accommodation so that it has safe doors, CCTV and panic buttons. It is important that women should be protected in their homes. It costs £600 a year less per family to make people safe in their homes than to move them on and on.

It is time for this madness to stop. It is time for people to be safe and protected not just before the law but by society. Now is the time for the public campaign to say that this is a crime that is recognised by us all, not only Members of the House, the judiciary or the police. We should all band together and say that this is something that we will no longer accept in our society.

I want, in closing, to thank Kate Flannery and other members of the domestic violence unit, particularly Thelma Singleton, for all the hard work that they have done and the support that they have given me in our quiet campaigning over many years.

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