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8 pm

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I should like to record my congratulations to the new Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). He served with me from the beginning on the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is shortly to become the Justice Committee. He was acerbic in his questioning of Ministers, and showed neither fear nor favour to Ministers of the Government whom he supports. I hope that he will apply that rigour to his new work; I am sure that he will.

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May I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on teasing out the issue of the programme motion? I am glad that there have been discussions on that, and that it looks as though the issue will be resolved satisfactorily. I would expect no less from the Lord Chancellor. He always shows an exemplary degree of recognition of the importance of procedures of the House—by the admittedly not always demanding standards of the present Administration—and that is something that I have come to expect from him.

It is necessary to look at the background to the Bill, because in some respects it has been built on rather shaky foundations, given some of the problems that we face in the criminal justice system. Prison numbers have been cited several times, with 81,000 and rising, and hundreds in police cells. The early releases under the end-of-custody licensing scheme have also caused concern, and the prison officers’ dispute is a matter of serious concern to the Minister of State. Whatever view we take of the tactics used by the Prison Officers Association, we need to bear in mind the prison officers’ deep sense of being undervalued.

The Minister came to my constituency and together we visited Acklington and Castington—a prison and a young offenders institution. I will give the House an example that the right hon. Gentleman will remember. The prison officers asked how it was that they, who were carrying out their jobs on behalf of our society, were almost the only public servants who were not protected from the effects of smoke inhalation when going about their work. Prisoners are allowed to smoke in their cells and, as the Minister observed, in some cases that involves groups of cells and other areas in which they can move about, and into which the prison officers must go. “Yet again,” said the prison officers, “nobody thinks about us when laws are drafted or policies devised.” The Minister must be aware from some of the meetings that he has had that many prison officers feel seriously undervalued, not just financially but more widely as well.

The Carter review into the custodial estate and sentencing represents another element of uncertainty in regard to the foundations on which this legislation rests. I also referred in an earlier intervention to the chaos over indeterminate sentences for public protection. They are being used far more widely because of the lack of judicial discretion available. They are applied to summary offences, and now cover 153 offences, some of which would normally attract a very short sentence. The result is that the Parole Board cannot deliver reports in time, and people are therefore being detained when there is no proper basis for doing so. The whole system collapsed in Wells and Walker v. the Parole Board. In the meantime, the president of the Queen’s Bench Division said that the Parole Board needed 100 extra judges to manage a system operating on this scale. The chief executive of the Parole Board has said that £3 million has been allocated to the National Offender Management Service to address the problem, but

That system is going very seriously wrong indeed.

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Meanwhile, NOMS itself is proving as wasteful and useless a superstructure as we all warned it would be. It was bolted on top of a system that was already under strain, and we could have used the money required for the creation of NOMS in much more constructive ways. Mrs. Brennan of the Ministry of Justice is reported to be carrying out a fundamental review—to which the Minister referred earlier—which might even recommend the break-up of NOMS, even though it could retain some nominal overall structure. On top of that, the NOMS information technology system is in chaos.

As if all that were not enough, there is an unresolved dispute between Ministers and the senior judiciary over the safeguarding of judicial independence. That has particular relevance to sentencing. We still have not had any kind of statement from the Lord Chancellor on whether further discussions on that matter are taking place, and I hope that we shall have the opportunity to press him further on that this week.

None of those problems will be solved by the Bill. Even where it addresses some of them, it does not seem to tackle them effectively. I have read and re-read clause 12, on indeterminate sentences, and it might be a mark of my inadequacy, but I still cannot understand what its effect will be. It certainly will not be to remove the problems relating to indeterminate sentences that I have just identified.

Of course, there are good things in the Bill, most obviously perhaps the fact that it will give a statutory basis to the prisons ombudsman. That is overdue, necessary and very welcome. However, some of the Bill’s provisions could actually add to the number of people in custody. For example, some of the provisions in clause 2 on youth offender orders, and even those in clause 72 on street offences, could have that effect.

The Bill raises some important wider issues that have not been considered by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, and any view that I express on those will be a personal one. I shall confine myself to just one of them. Clause 26 will allow the Court of Appeal to form a view when considering whether a conviction is unsafe on the basis of abuse of process, and to form its own view as to guilt on the basis of the evidence available to it. I am glad to hear from today’s discussions that that clause is to be reviewed. It would give the Court of Appeal a fact-finding role—not its normal role—and has the potential to undermine the integrity of the judicial process by allowing bad process to obtain a conviction. This could encourage what has misleadingly, or perhaps euphemistically, been called “noble cause corruption”—that is, the fabrication of evidence in order to obtain convictions when satisfactory evidence does not exist.

Having made my criticism of the clause, however, I believe that we must also consider this question. If there is sufficient evidence of guilt but there has been some abuse of process, who should be punished? The danger is that if the method of dealing with abuse of process is to allow the appeal and free the offender, it will not be the person who has carried out the abuse of process who will be punished. It will not be the police officer who has fabricated evidence, or the prosecutor who has admitted into the prosecution case material
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that should not have been so admitted who will be punished. It will be the public, the community, who will have a dangerous criminal against whom there is clear evidence of guilt released on to their streets. So it will be the public who are being punished, not the person who perpetrated the offence.

While it must be wrong to found conviction on unsafe processes, it is also wrong that the punishment for an abuse of process should be visited on the public, who are seeking the defence of the criminal justice system, rather than on those who have carried out the abuse. Wherever possible, the system ought to be punishing the abuse rather than stepping back from the determination of guilt. I am not convinced that the clause has got this right, although it does address a genuine—if quite rare—problem. The Government are right to try to address it in the Bill, and I hope that we can arrive at a satisfactory solution through further discussion. I hope also that, in response to the consideration that has taken place today, those discussions will be suitably measured, not only on that clause but on the many other features of this complex Bill.

8.8 pm

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity to make my maiden speech during the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which I believe will help to make our communities safer when it is implemented.

During the Sedgefield by-election, I became aware that antisocial behaviour continues to be a constant worry for local people, even in an area such as Sedgefield where, because of this Government’s policies, crime is well below the national average. Sedgefield constituency has been in existence since 1918, except for a short period between 1974 and 1983 when it was absorbed by other constituencies in County Durham. I pay tribute to those MPs who represented Sedgefield prior to 1974.

If anyone had said to me, when Sedgefield re-emerged in 1983, that our Labour candidate would become leader of the Labour party and then the first Labour Prime Minister since 1979, that after 10 years he would resign his position and leave Parliament to become a middle east envoy, and that I would become his successor after fighting a by-election, I would have asked that person whether they had ever thought about taking up writing fiction. Fact, it would seem, is much more original than fiction.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish Tony Blair, my predecessor, all the best for the future and put on record that I believe that this side of the House owes him a great debt of gratitude for the 13 years of leadership that he provided to the Labour party. The country owes him the same for the 10 years of leadership that he gave this nation. I know from speaking to him about it that he will always hold a special place in his heart for the people and communities of Sedgefield. I would also like to give Tony Blair’s successor as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown), my best wishes. I look forward to many more years of his premiership.

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I have always lived in Sedgefield and it is an honour and a privilege to represent the area where I grew up. For the people of Sedgefield, politics is not a game. For them, politics must do what it says on the tin. I hope that I can live up to that simple but honest request. I am the son of a coal miner. My Dad worked down the pit for almost 40 years and when I left school, he encouraged me to go on to do whatever I wanted, but he did not want me to follow him down the mines. He wanted better for me and, likewise, I want my family to go on to aspire. Aspiration should not be the preserve of the privileged few. It is something that we should all be allowed to reach for. That is one of the reasons why I joined the Labour party and it helps to form the basis of my creed.

I grew up in the Trimdons—a cluster of former mining communities in the north of my constituency, which share the same heritage as many other villages in Sedgefield such as Wingate, Wheatley Hill, Thornley, Deaf Hill and Station Town to the east and Fishburn, Bishop Middleham, West Cornforth, Ferryhill and Chilton to the west. It is those communities that are remembered when Sedgefield is referred to as a former coal mining area. When Tony Blair became MP in 1983, the coal mining area of County Durham had been ravaged by the then Conservative Government—and those memories run deep. In those days, hope and aspiration were neglected and thrown on the spoil heap of unemployment and deprivation.

When my predecessor made his maiden speech on 6 July 1983, he drew attention to the plight of the unemployed in Wingate. He said:

Today—24 years later and 10 years into a Labour Government after my predecessor led us into victory in 1997—I am proud to say that the unemployment rate in my constituency is at or below the national average. Where there were 5,500 people in Sedgefield out of work in the mid-1980s, there are now just over 1,000 today. Today my constituency is ringed by new or refurbished hospitals, with a new hospital built on the outskirts of Sedgefield village itself. Education results are massively improving and there are now more than 1,000 new businesses in County Durham. Between Fishburn and Sedgefield, there is a new science park, NetPark, which is nurturing new cutting-edge technologies, which will attract highly valued jobs to the area so that we can face up to the challenges of globalisation. For those among us who care to compare Sedgefield today with the Sedgefield of the 1980s, they will see that it is a better place, in no small measure because of the resilience of my constituents and the policies of this Labour Government.

In the west of the constituency lies Newton Aycliffe, a new town and the largest conurbation. It is a thriving community, with a population of 25,500 and to its credit one of the largest industrial estates in the region. Newton Aycliffe is a town with a bright future. The town has its issues, such as the regeneration of the privately owned town centre, but it was William Beveridge
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himself, the father of the welfare state and founder of the new town movement, who became chair of the Newton Aycliffe development corporation in 1947.

To the east of Newton Aycliffe is the town of Sedgefield, after which the constituency is named—an ancient town, but with modern aspirations. Like other communities in the constituency, it keeps an eye in a forward direction. Further to the south, the constituency is more rural and includes the communities of Hurworth, Heighington, Middleton St. George and Piercebridge. It is an area of the constituency that is different from the rest, because in the by-election it was there that the Liberal Democrats stopped saying that they were the alternative to the Labour party and started saying that they were the alternative to the Conservative party.

The identity of Sedgefield has been transformed since 1983. It is now confident, aspirational, proud of its coal mining heritage and I will continue to march with the miners’ banners through the streets of Durham on gala day. However, the future lies in technology—once the preserve of science fiction—with strong communities, outward looking and ready to face the challenges of the 21st century.

We live in a world where change can be fast and can seem threatening to an already existing way of life. Others more cynical may want to exploit that for their own ends. I am talking about the presence of the British National party. I raise that concern not for my own sake, but for the sake of the communities I represent. The BNP had not been present in Sedgefield until the local elections, but then their leaflets arrived on our doorsteps. They spread discontent, where discontent did not exist. They talked about a rising tide of crime, when crime in Sedgefield is below the national average. They talked of Sedgefield being “swamped by immigrants”, to use their language, where in fact 99 per cent. of the population saw themselves as white British in the census of 2001. That kind of cynical politics has no place in the communities where I grew up, where the watchwords are compassion and solidarity.

The people of Sedgefield are at their best when challenged. They do not turn to cynicism or prejudice. They draw from the deep well of community and solidarity, which has nourished the area for so long. The words,

are not written down, or even spoken, but they are acted upon. For example, estates that have been pestered by antisocial behaviour have pulled together to root out the problem. In West Cornforth, the Cornforth partnership runs a successful youth project, which has seen the reduction in the amount of antisocial behaviour in the village. Local people and agencies have pulled together and united around progressing the well-being of their village. Likewise, in Ferryhill, the Ladder project is doing similar work and is a tribute to the local community.

Those are examples of hope—and where there is hope, aspiration follows. What gives aspiration structure is education. We need to give our young people the wherewithal to fulfil their potential and equip them for the challenges of the future, which is why I endorse this Government’s approach to education.

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Sedgefield has changed beyond recognition in my lifetime, but it is only in the past 10 years that the heartbeat of optimism has found its rhythm. I can assure my constituents that I will fight to protect their communities, promote their interests, serve them with diligence and build on the success of this Labour Government. With that, I have a lot to do, and I am grateful for the opportunity to make this, my first speech, to the House.

8.17 pm

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow that maiden speech, which had all the elements of a good one. It was well delivered, if I may say so, and it was delivered to time. It was an excellent walk through the hon. Gentleman’s new constituency. Indeed, as he talked about those new industrial estates, the new town centre and the place ringed with hospitals, I am sure we all wished that we, too, could have had a Prime Minister who served our constituencies and delivered that level of investment. Unfortunately, not all of us have been quite so lucky. In all seriousness, it must be very difficult to follow the previous Member who represented Sedgefield. Whatever one thinks of his politics, by virtue of his high position he will be a difficult act to follow, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do so with aplomb.

Now, to turn to this evening’s debate, we heard a lot of tough rhetoric from Ministers earlier, but is the reality going to match that rhetoric? On the basis of previous performance, I find that somewhat hard to believe. We have heard more about tough sentences and increased numbers of prisoners, but the reality is that what is important is never the maximum sentence but the sentencing guidelines given to magistrates and judges.

In 2005, for example, 5,957 people were convicted of having a knife in a public place, but only one of them was given the maximum sentence possible. In that same year, 5,689 were convicted of possessing a knife or sharp, bladed instrument unlawfully, but only two were given the maximum sentence. When it comes to drugs, about 7,000 people were convicted of possession with intent to supply cocaine, crack, heroin, ecstasy, LSD, methadone and other class A drugs. Of those 7,000 people convicted of intent to supply, only one—just one—received the maximum sentence. Many of them did not even receive custodial sentences. I recently attended a police raid on a known heroin dealer. A quantity of heroin was found, but the dealer was let off with a caution. For all the Government’s rhetoric, the reality has not been tough on crime or tough on the causes of crime.

There are other serious examples. Just a couple of years ago, a Bill was passed against the disgusting act of female genital mutilation, but, as far as I am aware, not one single person has been convicted. From all the information that I have received, it seems that only one person has been investigated for that horrendous crime. At the same time, the Government have been happily handing out bucketsful of taxpayers’ money in compensation to prisoners and asylum seekers who have been encouraged to stick in bogus claims by money-grabbing lawyers working on a no win, no fee basis.

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