Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): Neither do I.

Mr. Duncan: I can think of some very good reasons why not. In discussing crime and asylum, we have made our concerns absolutely clear. In simple terms, we want more police and better detection. On asylum, we want a system that meets our responsibilities to approach the issue in a dutiful and considerate way and which recognises that there is a problem with numbers and with process. However, we want to ensure that our discussions on the law that we are going to make are not infected by what has, over the decades, been a rather tarnished debate. We want to ensure that we consider the issues without any antiphony of nasty accusations and exchanges of abuse. We pledge ourselves to do that, as hon. Members have asked of us.

We will find common ground with the Government on some issues. In mentioning domestic violence, I acknowledge the quality and genuine nature of the speech made today by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford). She has experience on the matter, which affects the lives of many people. There is no party disagreement about how we want to approach the issue.

I merely observe, however, that some vexed issues are bound to arise. One that has been mentioned is the question of whether provocation might be used as a plea of mitigation for someone who has murdered their partner. In reading the paper, I discovered that the Solicitor-General would like to abolish that plea. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said that she wanted to abolish it because it was unfair to women. She explained that many women are victimised by their husbands. It therefore strikes me—this is only an initial observation—that the plea of provocation is more likely to be used in defence of a woman who has killed a man than vice versa. That illustrates the quality of the debate that we will need if we are to make good law. In principle, however, the Bill on domestic violence is one that we definitely welcome, and we should all look forward to applying our minds to make sure that we convert it into good, practical law.

Similarly, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition said in his reaction to the Loyal Address, we welcome the Bill on civil partnerships. May I ask the Minister to confirm that it will come under the responsibilities of the Home Office, and that it will not in any way be the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry, as the original consultation paper was? There has been some comment this afternoon that it may revert to the DTI. None the less, I hope that I can steer this measure through the House—perhaps, on my side of the House, I am uniquely qualified to do so, at least visibly—and again some important areas exist in which we can make a difference to people's lives.

For a long time, same-sex partners have felt that they have been discriminated against, as partners of different gender are able to marry and thereby guarantee their protection of assets and rights. Here again, there will be some important issues. We should all examine our

2 Dec 2003 : Column 463

thinking as to whether the religious significance of marriage should be respected and recognised and not rendered useless or less distinctive. Now that our welcome for this Bill is clear—and, as all Members will know, the Opposition will have a free vote on the matter—I hope that we can have a debate free of homophobia, and given that the Opposition have been accused in the past of a rather severe approach to this matter, a debate free of what I might call Toryphobia, so that we approach the matter in a constructive and sensible way.

Mr. Leigh: Would my hon. Friend care to comment on the point that I made about co-dependency? For instance, sisters will be discriminated against if they have been living together for a long time, as will a daughter living with an infirm mother.

Mr. Duncan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has beaten me by a whisker, as that was going to be my next comment.

As we look at same-sex relationships and the interdependency that we recognise exists, we can see that a similar interdependency exists in non-sexual relationships. In many cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) pointed out in his original article in The Times last year, two sisters who have been living together for many years, in terms of their assets, tenancies and pensions, may be very interdependent and are at the moment discriminated against. We will certainly examine the Bill when it is published to see whether the provision can be extended more widely to recognise the kind of interdependence that we are told at the moment will not be contained in the Bill. I can cite the example of a neighbour who cared for an old lady for 17 or 18 years who was disabled, but as soon as that old lady died she was evicted from the council house because she was not able to continue the tenancy. That is a grave and unfair injustice, which perhaps this Bill should be extended to address. I therefore hope that the House will be able to consider the Bill in an equally constructive way.

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) and my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) pointed to a growing problem: too many layers of government, too many systems of voting, and too many structures of representation that are becoming increasingly incomprehensible to the voting public. Were we to look at a list of the issues that will appear on the radar in this field, we would see that it is long and complicated: local government restructuring, pilot schemes for 2004, the election regulations for 2004, regional referendums, all-postal elections, the frequency of local election cycles, the state funding of parties, voting age and the age of a candidate, political advertising, the role of television—I could go on. To any student of politics and anyone who is simply a participant, the system is becoming very difficult to fathom.

I put it to the House that that increasingly complicated picture may be an important reason in explaining the detachment from the political process felt by a growing number of people. All hon. Members would like participation, turnout and, indeed,

2 Dec 2003 : Column 464

membership of our own political parties to increase, but when things are so complicated, diverse and in many respects almost utterly inexplicable and inconstant, we ought to re-examine whether we are doing the right thing in many different ways.

The Home Secretary hopes that his proposed legislation is all about anticipating events, not reacting to them, but I am afraid many Opposition Members think that it most certainly is not. In some respects, the proposed asylum legislation is a sort of rehash of previous measures. The constitutional proposals that he advocates are very muddled and stem from no particular logical origin. Indeed, they may well lead to the supremacy of the Home Office over the judiciary, so it was an extraordinary admission by the Home Secretary to suggest that the constitutional change that we see arising from a botched reshuffle was indeed a shambles.

Today's most telling intervention came in the middle of the Home Secretary's speech, and it was made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who referred to antisocial behaviour. All hon. Members have to appreciate that teenage disorder is becoming—indeed, perhaps it has become—the biggest issue of the time, and we all find it very difficult to address and find solutions.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) illustrated the difficulty of finding a clear solution to constitutional reform. He said that there was no chance of imposing a solution, no chance of having a fully elected second Chamber and no justification for having a fully appointed one either. He is at least trying to chart a course out of the stalemate, but we can all see that the mess we are in will be very difficult to step out of.

It vexes me ever so slightly—it is ever so slightly annoying—that I have to admit that the speech made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) was one of quality. What he said today constituted an important contribution to our discussions. Of course neither any of my right hon. and hon. Friends nor I would agree with the way in which he wants to abolish the lord chancellorship and establish a supreme court. We agree with some aspects of what he said about asylum and identity cards, but we certainly agree with what he said about the need for more visible policing and, particularly, for education and training in prisons, given that illiteracy and innumeracy are the greatest problems faced by released prisoners. The Conservative party would want to consider schemes that could allow prisoners to earn their way out of prison early through educational achievement.

Corporate manslaughter was mentioned, but may I tell the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) that we must beware of legislating in respect of gestures and anger? Not all accidents have someone to blame for them, and in considering such legislation we have to beware of creating a new injustice while trying to solve one that people feel deeply exists at the moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and I have exchanged views on civil partnerships, but he said that there was perhaps an argument for having an elected upper House with no Ministers in it. Again, that illustrates the danger of stepping down the route of constitutional change. Let me predict that, as soon as the upper House is legitimised in total and perhaps

2 Dec 2003 : Column 465

becomes one in which no Minister sits, we would next face the argument that we should therefore directly elect the Prime Minister. Out of such shifting change, we would then find that we would have stepped almost all the way towards a presidency on the American model. If hon. Members want that, they should say so, but I would argue against drifting into it unknowingly, which is to some extent what those gradual steps are pushing towards. My hon. Friend also spoke about overcrowded prisons and under-educated prisoners.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) admitted—this was telling—that reform of the House of Lords was not about actual failings in how it and the judiciary have performed. He was saying that, once again, we have to legislate based on perception and, as he put it, on principles. However, when it comes to the detailed work of the constitution, we have to legislate based on fact, practicality and what happens and not according to perceived qualities that do not suit a modern age.

The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) painted the less-than-attractive image of the Lord Chancellor doing the Home Secretary's dirty washing. This seems to be an early advert for Vaz over Daz.

I shall now concentrate for a while on the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). If people read it, they will see that he gave the House a forensic and devastating dissection of the Government's failure to think through constitutional reform. He outlined the serious consequences that will ensue, not as some charge, out of private pleading, but out of a genuine and informed concern for the effect that the proposed reforms will have on justice and judicial structures. We also benefited from his image of a rhinoceros as our Lord Chancellor.

It would be invidious for me to continue to pick out all the speeches or some of them, because I do not have the time. However, perhaps I can set the framework for the debate that will follow over the legislative year ahead. The Opposition regret the absence of any overarching principle in the way that the Labour Government have embarked on constitutional reform. They have stumbled into it through accident and out of anger and vindictiveness. However, on constitutional reform, we must remember that we are setting rules for all—for both sides and for a day on which the boot may well be on the other foot. It behoves us all to find a consensual approach to the setting of rules and to do that from a foundation of principle rather than party advantage.

The Opposition perhaps take a different philosophical approach. When it comes to constitutional reform, we look for evolution rather than revolution. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough put it, we look for reason rather than rationalism, with rationalism being the thought that one can go to a blank piece of paper and construct proposals from nothing. A system of government that has existed in democratic form for 350 years forms part of a continuum from which experience, knowledge and gradual change need to emerge without turning everything on its head in the meantime.

2 Dec 2003 : Column 466

We can also see that there are severe differences even within the Cabinet. The Leader of the House bewailed the fact that the upper House was not legitimate when it tried to block the proposals for foundation hospitals. However, he voted against an appointed House in February and will now have to defend such a House as a plank—and an important plank at that—of Government policy. The members of the Cabinet who rail against us and the structure of the upper House will find that they are railing against each other if they examine the record of what they have supported in the past.

The performance of the upper House as an effective revising Chamber has shown up this Chamber for the deficiencies that, I think, all of us know exist. We are not as good at scrutinising legislation as we pretend. When we say to the sixth formers whom we address that Bills go upstairs to be examined line by line, let us not pretend that, sufficiently often out of that sausage machine comes the better law that we should all seek. Instead, we tend to see the rubber stamp of the dominant political party in the House at the time. It is thanks to the upper House that, more often than not, some of the idiocies that party pressure and the dominance of the Whips have enshrined in law are revised. It is only if we are to look to the interests of our constituents that we will appreciate the importance of that.

There is a looming threat of the invocation of the Parliament Act. Some of the language used by Government Front Bench has become too loose. The invocation of the Parliament Act is the nuclear button in terms of democratic conduct. It was designed to be used for key pieces of legislation that were critical to the Government's programme—it was used for a Budget, in the first instance, because a Government can do nothing without that. It has only latterly become a power that people think that they can invoke on smaller measures. I urge the Government to be careful about the way in which they think that they may invoke that Act.

When we consider judicial appointments, we shall apply with the same rigour the principles and purpose that we wish to display during the passage of all legislation because there are deeply important issues to consider. We do not want to be pushed into the creation of a supreme court, and the great expense of a massive building, if that has no advantage over the way in which our judicial system has operated in the past.

There is a busy legislative Session ahead and we shall approach it as honestly and punctiliously as possible. We shall set the highest standards of scrutiny and argument, and I hope that we shall thus show the House and all voters the deficiencies that we already see in much of the proposed legislation.

Next Section

IndexHome Page