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Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con):
As is so often the case in Queen's Speech debates, we have had a wide-ranging discussion on difficult issues, freed from
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some of the constraints we face when considering individual Bills. Several aspects of the debate were extraordinary. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) attempted an analysis of several of the underlying causes of crime and disorder in our society. I did not disagree with the views that he expressed with his characteristic care.
As I listened to the hon. Gentleman, I was struck by the fact that he was raising a real issue that Labour Members should perhaps consider. He rightly identified a society that is getting richer and consuming more, yet in which there is erosion of civil infrastructure while the behavioural revolution seems to be moving in the wrong direction. We must pose the question, on a cross-party basis, of how that has come about. It seems to me that it is at least partly a result of a system in which traditional values have been eroded and consistently undermined by those seeking change and education has been transformed, but in whichwe must also accept thisthe desire of many for permissiveness has not always been matched by people respecting the obligations that go with that.
At the other end of the spectrum, we heard the depressing, albeit honest, vision of the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). Freed at last from the constraints of his constituents, he effectively told us that he had reached a point at which he believed that the only solution to his constituents' problems was an armed police force. He went on to say that only enforcement to prevent people from doing such things as playing nasty war games would start to moderate behaviour. Is it not the case that over the past decade, we have consistently seen one legislative attempt after another to moderate people's behaviour by regulation, yet that has completely failed to achieve desired goals? The Government come along and ban the shooting of .22 pistols because they say that that will send a powerful signal that violence is unacceptable. Far from that doing anything of the kind, however, the use of guns has risen, yet law-abiding people and those who might have attained a state of responsibility by being allowed to use a handgun in a gun club are prevented from carrying out a legitimate activity.
The right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) provided us with an astonishing Panglossian view of the world. After seven years of a Labour Government and seven years of endeavour, he asserted that somehow the consequences of the rise in crime that now concerned him could have nothing to do with Government policy whatsoever.
I regret to say that the right hon. Gentleman's comments were echoed by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who I am afraid made a speech that could have been written for him by the Home Secretary. There was no criticism of Labour, yet in his important capacity as a Committee Chairman he highlighted the very fact, which he failed to do today, that there is not much point in criticising the judges for the Sentencing Guidelines Council and its recent guidelines because the fault lay with the Home Secretary for failing to draft the Bill properly, which led to the introduction of those guidelines. The consistent view of the House is that we have insufficient time to consider legislation.
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We had many contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House, identifying what was going on in their constituencies. It was a pretty unhappy picture, but all the more telling because it came from their own experiences. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) talked about the widespread use of cannabis and the disintegration of communities in his constituency. My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) pointed out that as her police force is chronically underfunded, it is a bit difficult to expect it to carry out its functions, something that was picked up by other hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) went into considerable detail on his views on identity cards. He also highlighted the problem of police precepts. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) said that the police are hamstrung by bureaucracy and gave telling personal experience of that, which the Home Secretary denied in the course of the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) explained that community support officers in her constituency are not well regarded. They have been referred to as scarecrows within the police force. I might not agree with that pejorative term, but if the Government want to introduce neighbourhood policing, they will need police officers to bring it about.
I am bound to say that there were also some interesting contributions from Labour Members. The right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) highlighted his anxieties about current trends as the Government try to tackle the problems. He was worried about them establishing Diplock courts in terrorist cases, but they are not contemplating that because they already have the power to set up such courts. It is clear from what the Home Secretary said that he is thinking about setting up a form of special court, similar to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, to try terrorist cases in a completely different and, I suspect, inquisitorial fashion from the way in which they are tried at the moment. There can be no other explanation for what he said on the "Jonathan Dimbleby" programme one Sunday. That fills me with great foreboding.
The problem is that the Government have form when it comes to our civil liberties. If they were saying that we had to alter jury trial for terrorists or introduce identity cards after years of libertarianism, I would listen carefully, but instead they tell us that those things are necessary when, over the past three years, we have had a procession of illiberal authoritarian measures, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford
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(Mr. Green) rightly said, combine authoritarianism with ineffectiveness. We had the attack on jury trial generally; the ruthless attempt to get previous convictions and bad character mentioned, before we reined them in, even in cases in which it would have been manifestly unfair; and the disgraceful attempt to oust the jurisdiction of the courts in the case of asylum seekers, who are not a popular group. At the end of that, the Government tell us that the measures that they are introducing will reconcile and balance liberty with security.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) pointed out, all these measures, particularly when they refer to the undermining of jury trial for terrorists or, for that matter, religious hatred, to which I shall return, and certainly on identity cards, need to be considered very carefully in the context of their impact on our civil liberties. I have to say that I simply do not trust the Government at all on those issues any more.
I note that as usual the crude mixture of populism and necessity is invoked to justify the measures, while at the same time the Government have failed so badly in getting a return on the massive investments that they have made in trying to curb crime. We hear about drugs, but we know that the drug treatment that the Government envisage is a pale imitation of what is available in Sweden, or indeed, in the more enlightened states in the US, and has not worked. We hear about ASBOs, but from what we see on the ground, most of us believe that they are not working at all. [Interruption.] Not only is there a 36 per cent. failure rate through breach, we know that many other ASBOs are regularly or routinely breached but never taken back before the courts. When I put that question to the Minister, she said that she was terribly sorry but that there was no central collation of that information.
The Government's record is a poor one. Will ID cards work? We are pragmatic; we will listen to what the Government have to say, we will scrutinise the legislation in detail and we will try to come up with constructive suggestions to ensure that our civil liberties are not eroded and lost. We shall certainly look askance at any attempt to diminish jury trial.
The matter of religious hatred exercised the enthusiasm of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), but I am unpersuaded by his argument that the measure will not have the unintended consequence of leading to a general blasphemy law under which all religious groups will hurl insults and insist on the prosecution of each other as they engage in such criticism. That is the experience in Australia where such a law has been implemented. I recommend that the right hon. Gentleman look carefully at those issues.
This Government's problem was highlighted in a comment made just before the 1997 election. I was listening to a radio programme on which Mr. Charles Powell, as he then was, was asked for his opinion of the Leader of the Opposition, as the Prime Minister then was. Mr. Powell was asked what the right hon. Gentleman was trying to achieve for his country, and
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after a moment's pause, he answered that he thought that the then Leader of the Opposition found Britain too feudal and wanted to make it more Napoleonic.
I thought that that was pretty bad at the time, but it now dawns on me that Mr. Powell did not specify whether he was talking about Napoleon I or Napoleon III. This Government are indeed modelled on the Government of Napoleon III. There is the crude populism, the use of referendums to try to get results and to rubber-stamp Government decisions, the undermining of governmental procedure, the willingness to cut corners and, on some of the edges, the whiff of corruption[Interruption.] Oh yes. On some of the edges there is the whiff of corruption in the way in which the Government suborns the civil service. That was highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) in his speech. The truth is that the Government are not succeeding at all in curbing crime, but my goodness they are successful in restricting our freedoms.
The point was made during the debate that in many parts of the country the police are seen less and less as the protectors of freedom. That has been my experience in my constituency, and it worries me enormously. The fact that the police are ineffective in dealing with crime but very good at imposing the regulations that the Government have introduced brings them into disrepute with the public. This country needs a proper reassessment of what can be done to reduce crime, empower local communities and introduce proper community policing. We must ensure that sufficient police officers are available to achieve that aim and we must ensure that there are proper immigration controls. As a result, people will be reassured that they can live in a society where they can engage with one another for the common good. The Government seem to be incapable of delivering thatall that they can deliver is more law, more regulation and more failure.
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