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6.26 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I welcomed the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) to his post earlier today during Question Time. I do not wish to disparage him too much but he made a tired, thin and somewhat disappointing contribution in his first outing as shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. His policies were

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completely conspicuous by their absence. We heard no information about the way in which the Conservative party would implement the Bills that we set out in the Queen's Speech. Do Conservative Members want a Parliament free from hereditary peers? Do they agree that the office of Lord Chancellor should be reformed? Do they support the need for a full-time Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs? Do they agree that we need a clear separation of powers? Do they want a more pluralistic judicial appointments process? Do they want an end to the Prime Minister appointing the Lords Speaker? We heard no answers to any of those questions because they would probably answer no on all counts. They have no direction or vision and always want to return to the past.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Mr. Leslie: Speaking of which, I give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman is always charming and I hope that he has forgiven me for asking him during the past Session whether his mother knew that he was out so late. When he addresses the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), I hope that he will raise his argument to a higher level than that of the Home Secretary, who simply reduced his level of argument by saying that he could not give a toss.

Mr. Leslie: I told the Home Secretary that the hon. and learned Gentleman was still smarting from the way in which my right hon. Friend put him down. My right hon. Friend summed up his views rather well in that respect.

Let us return to the truth about the coming legislative Session. The package of legislation in the Queen's Speech is planned to deliver safer and more secure communities, social justice, lifelong opportunities and better quality of life together with better economic stability, a modern democracy and a strong civic society. Those principles will underpin the year ahead in Parliament and nowhere can that be seen more clearly than in the field of home and constitutional affairs.

Detailed contributions were made by many hon. Members ranging from the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who talked about tuition fees, to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) who talked about the Forensic Science Service, pensions, council tax, television licenses and several other matters. My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz), for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) and for East Lothian (Anne Picking) were worried about different electoral systems in Scotland. We must be aware of the importance of clarity for the electorate. I am aware that consultation on the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill found that the majority of people wanted to maintain the Scottish Parliament at its current size. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) made a thoughtful and useful contribution on the role of UK Members of Parliament and devolution issues, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris).

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On the wider constitutional reform Bill, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) opposed any change: nothing new there, then. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who chairs the Constitutional Affairs Committee, gave a cautious and sceptical analysis, but I think he appreciated and welcomed the move towards an independent judicial appointments commission, and I am glad of that. The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) commented on Northern Ireland constitutional issues.

On the House of Lords reform Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) gave his proposals for a hybrid solution. The hon. Members for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and for Ribble Valley want to retain the hereditary peers for some obscure reason. The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) gave us an interesting anecdote about having a sherry with the former Duke of Northumberland. He also made some interesting points on House of Commons reform.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): In relation to the point raised by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), when will consultation with the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform begin? Indeed, when will the Joint Committee be set up again? The Minister told the House:

Since then, his Secretary of State has written to the Chairman of the Joint Committee saying that there will be discussions. When will they start? Will they take place before a Bill is tabled?

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman should allow the debate on the Loyal Address to finish. It is for both Houses to decide which Joint Committees they establish. I believe that the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform has an ongoing role to consider the future shape of House of Lords composition and other matters. We do not close the door on those issues, but we are left with the same problem: do we stick with the status quo or do we get serious about reform and get rid of the hereditary principle that allows people to serve in the second Chamber by reason of their birthright? I know which side I am on.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab): I have asked my hon. Friend's boss in the other place this question. Will the Bill on House of Lords reform give us an opportunity to vote on an elected element in the House of Lords?

Mr. Leslie: We published the proposals for the Bill. A range of clauses will cover hereditary matters. We want to resolve the impasse that arose in February when the House could not conclude a view on composition. I am sure we all want to find a way through that. Indeed, a number of hon. Members aired their suggested solutions.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) gave her views on the importance of rights for disabled people and on a single equality commission. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) welcomed the proposed disability legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) welcomed the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed are worried about streamlining the appeals system. The system will continue to exist, but it needs a better balance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland said. My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward) gave a cogent and well argued case for us to face up to the difficult issues, unlike the fantasy island approach of the Conservative party. It has still not named the island that it would use, although we know that it has to be poor. That is some help.

The hon. Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) greatly supported our domestic violence measures. Further suggestions were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) also made some important points on that issue.

At the outset, the Home Secretary set out our plans for protecting victims, for standing up to criminality and antisocial behaviour, for protecting our borders and for updating our civil contingencies and emergency plans. The three criminal justice Departments—the Home Office, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Attorney-General's office—are committed to working jointly, with ever increasing integration, to ensure that offenders are arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced efficiently and effectively. The new Department for Constitutional Affairs is now established and working well.

Turning to democracy, our laws need deciding democratically, and the House of Commons will be held accountable for the legislation that we pass. It is the new Department's job to protect and enhance democratic accountability, while ensuring that our laws are interpreted and upheld by a strong, impartial and independent judiciary, manifestly free from political interference.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I was struck by the hon. Gentleman's remark about the three Departments dealing with criminal justice, because I well remember the Home Secretary saying to the House, in angry tones, back in the summer that there was no question of the Department for Constitutional Affairs having any role in the development of criminal justice policy. May we please have the full details of this remarkable transformation?

Mr. Leslie: If the hon. Gentleman, who, I think, claims to be the shadow Attorney-General, is under the impression that the Attorney-General does not have a role in the criminal justice system, he ought to swot up a little more. The Attorney-General has a role in the criminal justice system, and the Department for

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Constitutional Affairs has a role in the criminal justice system through the administration of the courts—the hon. Gentleman may well have spotted that the courts are important in criminal justice. The Home Office, of course, leads on criminal justice policy overall. That is an important trilateral system.

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