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3.48 pm

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): It is a privilege to follow the speech by the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). I agreed with every word that he said, not only when he reminded us of the importance of climate change, but in his comments about the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. He also reminded us that, however awful the terrorist atrocities that we have seen, with climate change this country faces an atrocity involving a loss of life that would take us way beyond the number of people who have been killed by terrorism.

I shall briefly speak on home affairs. I spoke on the subject for my party for two years, so I have followed the debate with great interest, particularly the contributions of the shadow Home Secretary and my party’s spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). One strong theme that emerged in those speeches was the wide range of issues involved in home affairs. As I said in an intervention on the shadow Home Secretary, perhaps one of the reasons there have been failings in home affairs over the past few years is that there are too many issues for a single individual with the title of Home Secretary to handle and manage. I shall say it again: the issues currently dealt with under the title of home affairs need to be broken down in a much more manageable way. Very able Home Secretaries have failed simply because the task has gone beyond them.

The shadow Home Secretary pointed out that some Home Secretaries have been able to cope with the issues in the past, and he rightly cited Conservative Home Secretaries and Roy Jenkins. The world has moved on, however, and the complexity and range of issues are very different from the problems that Home Secretaries faced in the 1970s and ’80s. There is a strong case for looking again at the Home Secretary’s job load.

The Home Office has been criticised for the number of Bills that it has introduced. I remember making those criticisms myself, but on reflection I agree to some extent with what the Home Secretary has said: there is no fundamental problem with introducing legislation, if it is introduced to allow us to respond to a change that has taken place. And there have been great changes—in the number of fraud cases, including computer fraud, in internet pornography, and in our
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problems with terrorism and drugs. It would be wrong to criticise the Government for responding by introducing Bills because, sadly, we need legislation to tackle today’s problems.

My criticism is that every time that the Government introduce a Bill, their press releases, and speeches made in the House of Commons, show that they imagine that it will tackle all the problems. There is a churn, with new legislation replacing previous legislation without the Government acknowledging that they got it wrong last time. In every press release, they imagine that nothing has happened before. When a new initiative is announced, it is to tackle every single problem. A little less arrogance from the Government when they introduce new Bills would be welcome.

On antisocial behaviour, in particular, the Government have been offenders on a number of occasions. Vast amounts of antisocial behaviour legislation has been introduced. Despite the myth, the Liberal Democrats supported the vast majority of that legislation. At first, I was sceptical about some antisocial behaviour orders, but when I was out and about as Front-Bench spokesman, visiting places across the country, I saw that on certain estates ASBOs were having a positive impact. Residents who were frustrated by antisocial behaviour at least felt that the council or Government were trying to do something. However, the jury is still out on the long-term effectiveness of those measures. This week, figures have shown just how many ASBOs are being breached. We know, too, that the various fines introduced under new legislation are, in many cases, just not being paid.

It seemed to me that ASBOs would always be a short-term quick fix and that the danger was that the long-term problem would not be tackled. At worst, the result would be that problems were moved around from one estate to another. The Government came in with a policy of being tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime. ASBOs have been effective in many ways in sounding—and being—tough, but where are the measures to tackle the underlying causes?

I welcomed the Government’s announcement this week that they will focus on very early intervention in the cases of young children, providing what they describe as supernannies. I am not a big fan of the nanny state, but the existence of such nannies is probably justified because we know that early intervention can make a big difference, and the measure will tackle causes. I praise the Government for some of their work on youth justice, as there has been some excellent work on early intervention in that regard. However, there is something missing in the market: we must consider what to do with 15, 16 and 17-year-olds when they leave school.

When I was spokesman for my party, if I had been brave enough I would have argued for some kind of compulsory national service, which would be tagged on to the end of the academic school year. It is controversial, but I believe that we need to do something to tackle the issue of what happens when individuals leave school. Recently, the leader of the Conservative party put forward similar proposals, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has also talked about using volunteering in a positive way for young people. There is merit in considering a scheme that would allow our youngsters to get involved in different projects
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across the country. They could move away from their peer group and mix with different peer groups, and take part in a national programme of volunteering. That may be a way of providing benefit to them and giving them a change of experience at the end of the academic year.

Such schemes would not work for everybody. Sadly, many youngsters start on a life of crime and end up in prison. It is on that aspect that I am most critical of what the Government have done over the past nine years. Their failure to tackle reoffending rates is a national scandal. We have too many run-down Victorian-style prisons, where suicide and self-harm rates are high and prisoners can get hold of drugs. That there are such high reoffending rates and such poor reading and writing ability among prisoners is a scandal and it costs each of us, as taxpayers, about £350 a night. That is why prison does not work. I can say that now even if I am criticised for it, because nobody cares what I say. Prison does not do what it should be doing; it does not make this country safer. It may work in the narrow context of locking somebody up for a period, but the fact that so many people come out of prison to commit further crimes is a scandal.

As politicians, we should be brave enough to talk about the abolition of prison as we know it. Of course, it would be a vote loser, but I can say such things now. Prison as a one-stop shop for all offenders does not work effectively. About half of all prisoners should be in some kind of secure unit—[ Interruption.] I can see Conservative Members shaking their heads, thinking that this is all rubbish. Some individuals are clearly a danger to society and they should be held in secure units, but to do the same with others who should be trained and rehabilitated does not work. We should create new, modern education and training units, where the focus is on learning—reading and writing—and obtaining the skills to get a job. As other Members have said, we should also be tackling the high rate of mental health problems among prisoners.

My third topic—terrorism—has already been touched on. Last year, when I spoke for my party, I was involved, with the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and others, in negotiations on the controversial 90-day detention issue. In speeches, I probably made out that the issue was clearer cut in my mind than it actually was; in fact, I had a great struggle with it. It seemed to me that if there was a genuine case for holding somebody for 90 days because it could give this country great security from terrorism, it would be wholly irresponsible for a politician not to be prepared to look seriously at it. I struggled for hours, looking at the evidence, listening to briefings from the security forces and trying to balance questions about liberty, security and safety.

In the end, I am glad that I opposed the proposal because it was right to do so at the time. If the Government propose new measures, I plead with them not to base them on the rhetoric used by the Prime Minister last year, when he tried to imply that people who opposed the Government’s measures were in favour of terrorists and trying to help them. New proposals should be based on sound, hard evidence. It is an injustice to those who struggled with the issue to portray them as people who were careless of our country’s security.

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Finally, I am absolutely convinced that one thing that will not help this country’s security is the introduction of ID cards. It is a disgrace that the Government keep changing the message about ID cards. How many different arguments have we heard? Benefit fraud, health fraud, internet fraud, terrorism— the list is long and it goes on and on. The really long list is the amount of cost involved in producing ID cards. Over the next 12 months, the Government should have the courage to back down from the scheme. It will cost billions and will not tackle the problems.

Tough and creative solutions for tackling crime exist, but they do not lie in quick-fix Bills and quick-fix headlines. They sometimes lie in taking brave and difficult decisions and I hope that, as the shadow Home Secretary suggested, the Government will take a more statesmanlike approach to the issues rather than being led by tabloid headlines.

3.59 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I do not agree with all the remarks made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), but I recognise the passion with which he spoke.

At the heart of the Government’s programme, outlined in the Gracious Speech, is action to create strong, stable and secure communities. I am pleased to speak in this debate on home affairs, because we all realise that stable communities with shared values, where there is economic opportunity and a strong sense of civic pride, create conditions in which extremists find it more difficult to operate. Extremists feed on communities where people feel powerless and isolated from each other.

I particularly want to welcome the White Paper “Strong and Prosperous Communities”, which proposes to give more power and freedom for local government and local people to work in partnerships. It talks about allowing communities to come together to make decisions about how money should be allocated in their area, depending on the community’s priorities. The experience of the single regeneration budget, under which communities and councils worked together to improve their areas, shows that those improvements were sustainable only when strong community associations emerged as a result.

Of course, in order to achieve the Government’s stated aim to strengthen communities, there have to be proper funding mechanisms to ensure that funds are targeted at those who need help most. There should also be funding from Departments to complement the ability of groups to raise money through funding streams such as the national lottery. Last week, I visited two primary schools in my constituency: Cale Green and Mersey Vale. I pay tribute to the head teachers, David Marshall and Jayne Mullane, staff and parents at those schools for creating such a strong sense of community. Cale Green has 33 per cent. black and ethnic minority pupils and at Mersey Vale the figure is 67 per cent., of whom 63 per cent. have English as an additional language.

The good thing is that the objectives of all the parents at the schools, regardless of race and religion, are the same. They all want a moral, safe and secure
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environment for their children to grow up in and flourish. They all want their school to be at the heart of the community and a place where people meet, socialise and support each other. That is the aim of the Government’s children centres and the extended schools programme. At Cale Green, white and Asian parents are trying to set up a friends of the school organisation and would like a community building, which could become a centrepiece of the school, for use by parents, children, local residents and different groups. Cale Green and Mersey Vale work hard to promote understanding, tolerance and knowledge of different races and religions. That is impacting on relationships outside the school gates. An increasing number of cross-cultural, cross-faith and cross-ethnic relationships are building up outside school between children and families. That is breaking down barriers and helping to create a truly inclusive community.

As a properly constituted association, the friends of Cale Green hopes to access funding for its community building. There are funding opportunities available for such organisations, such as lottery money. However, it is important that direct Government funding is also available. When the Childcare Act 2006 comes into force, local councils will have a duty to tackle inequalities and improve outcomes for children in the borough. It is through those kinds of initiatives that councils will achieve those objectives.

Given the opportunity, more and more residents will proactively help to make their neighbourhood a better place to live. We saw that in my constituency with the successful growth of friends of the parks groups. Indeed, they were so successful in Stockport and the rest of the country that funds from the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister ran out. There is certainly an appetite to get involved and I can see that friends of schools organisations could be equally successful.

If we are to go down the exciting path of making local services more responsive to local needs, it is important to get the funding mechanisms right and to make sure that investment is precisely targeted so that all those who are most disadvantaged do not miss out, wherever they live. Traditionally, Government funding streams have been allocated by measuring levels of deprivation on a borough-wide basis. Under that system, constituencies such as mine, although it has one of the most deprived wards in the United Kingdom, do not qualify for certain funds. The formula does not take into account areas of intense deprivation that are masked by better-off areas in the metropolitan borough of Stockport. Stockport is the seventh most polarised borough in England.

We now have a valuable tool for targeting funds more precisely: the index of multiple deprivation. It pinpoints deprivation to small areas of about 1,500 people. They are called super output areas. Under that system, Stockport borough has 11 super output areas that fall within the 10 per cent. that are most deprived nationally. Nine are within my constituency.

I was delighted to see that the safer and stronger communities fund neighbourhood element allocated money using the super output areas, instead of
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borough-wide criteria. The cash went to the worst 3 per cent. nationally, and my constituency received about £1.6 million over four years through that fund. I would like to see future programmes building on the more localised allocation formula.

Schools in my constituency do not qualify for money from the building schools for the future programme until 2015 or 2016—again, because borough-wide deprivation was a key factor. I hope that there will be a review of how that money will be allocated in future to take into account schools that admit pupils from the most deprived areas in my constituency whose educational outcomes need to be improved. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) also feels strongly about this issue, as Reddish Vale technology college is in one of the most deprived wards in his constituency, but does not have access to building schools for the future money because it is located in the metropolitan borough of Stockport.

I am pleased that the Government are making more use of funding formulae, including the index of multiple deprivation and the use of ward statistics, that target deprived areas more carefully. Allocation of funds for the very impressive Sure Start projects worked well because money was distributed on the basis of ward-level rather than borough-wide deprivation. Stockport was lucky enough to get one of the original Sure Start projects in Adswood and Bridgehall. It is doing some tremendous work and local people have been provided with volunteering opportunities, training and jobs through Sure Start. I have represented the area for 14 years and I have seen my constituents’ lives—their confidence, knowledge and opportunities—transformed because of Sure Start, which has led to real and sustainable regeneration of the area.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families is returning to Stockport to open the next centre in Brinnington, where she will be made very welcome. Such centres are an excellent example of how our finely targeted funding can be accurately aimed at all the most deprived areas that need it most, regardless of which local authority they happen to be located in.

Funding is a key issue for both the schools that I visited last week. Both Mersey Vale and Cale Green are encouraging social inclusion. They are working together to promote inter-faith and cultural understanding in a country where there has been much concern about the divisions between faiths. I am anxious to ensure that their efforts to draw down funds can be matched by cash from either the Government or the local council. For that to happen, I believe that some of the current funding arrangements will have to be changed and more emphasis placed on using super output areas and supporting community initiatives.

We are fortunate enough to live in times of increased social investment in communities, thanks to economic stability and the policies carried out by the Labour Government. We should not, however, be complacent because even more money is going into our communities; we should be ever more determined to see it targeted at those who need it most.

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4.8 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Sadly, the Queen’s Speech is a recipe for populist authoritarianism, for the grabbing of headlines and for the triumph of soundbites over substance. Nowhere is that critique more valid than in relation to legislation and policy emanating from the Home Office or in relation to legislation or policy which does not emanate formally from, but which bears the hallmark of, Home Office intervention and mindset. That, to me, is a matter of great regret and I believe that it is true across the domestic piece.

In a number of powerful speeches there has been considerable focus on the subject of anti-terrorist legislation. There has been no indication whatever that either the Prime Minister or his Government are resiling from the zealous, hasty and unfounded commitment to 90-day detention without charge, and there are considerable and ominous signs to the contrary. Ministers seem to be committed to it. The Prime Minister has already decided, does not appear to think that any evidence is required and wishes to proceed. The Home Secretary has at least had the decency and parliamentary consideration to tell us that he is sympathetic to such a policy, but that it would benefit from, in his own words, an “evidential base”. In essence, there is a clear commitment to it. I have to say that, having listened to the debates 12 months ago, I was unconvinced then and I am still more unconvinced now. There is now a recognition that some evidence is required to justify changing policy and law in that way. The Government have had 12 months since the defeat of their last proposal to come up with that evidence, present it to Parliament, proffer it to the public, debate its merits and reach an authoritative conclusion, and thus far they have manifestly failed to do so.

Having listened to and considered the arguments, I believe that we would be much better advised to pursue a different course. Let us go for the use of telephone intercept evidence, the objections to which have been successfully overcome in virtually every other civilised country in the world. Let us consider the merits of interviewing people after they have been charged in order to acquire additional evidence. Let us recognise the merit of investing in more staff who are better paid and more highly qualified, the better to encrypt, decipher and assess relevant evidence. That is a practical approach.

I warmly endorse the overall stance on this subject of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who was the beneficiary of serious briefings at the time of earlier legislation. With great respect to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, who is sitting on the Treasury Bench and who knows that I do not take a deliberately partisan approach, the Government simply have not made their case. That is the reality. Simply trying to browbeat people into submission will not work.

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