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I look forward to the Bill on party finances. We have to close the so-called Ashcroft loophole. It is urgent that we stop the Americanisation of politics, in which political parties are increasingly becoming beholden to individual rich men in the way that premier league football is becoming the playground of billionaires. We need issue-driven, rather than money-driven, politics. Nor do I accept the argument that there is a legitimate parallel to be drawn with trade union political funds.
Between 3 million and 4 million people voluntarily paying four or five pounds a year is the nearest thing that we have to mass politics in this country, and there is no comparison between the political levy and a multi-millionaire writing out a cheque for £2 million, £3 million or even £5 million to the political party of his choice.
I do not know whether the Government have plans for this, but I would also like to see a tighter cap on the amount that can be spent nationally. In my view, we missed an opportunity in 1998, important though the legislation that became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was. In 1998, the Opposition were short of money, so they just might have been prepared to negotiate more seriously on lower limits. When we have closed the Ashcroft loopholeI appreciate that this may not be too agreeable for my right hon. and hon. Friendsperhaps we could take another look at the so-called communications allowance that we awarded ourselves earlier this year, which I found hard to justify as it gives an unfair advantage to incumbents. I notice that it is attracting increasingly unfavourable comment.
I turn now to the counter-terrorism Bill. As we have just heard, it seems that it will include yet another attempt to increase the period for which terror suspects can be held without trial. In my time, it has gone from three, to seven, to 14 and to 28 daysto say nothing of the abortive attempt a while ago to raise it to 90 days. I shall listen to the arguments, as I did last time, but they are going to have to be a darn sight stronger than they were last time before I become convinced of them.
As I said in an intervention, I cannot understand the origins of this obsession with increasing the length of time for which terrorist suspects can be detained without trial. I quoted what the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, told me in front of an audience of 200 lawyers. I believe that the only possible conclusion is that it has more to do with politicians than with the needs of practitioners. I have no doubt that a policeman or someone from the security services can be wheeled out to say that the extension is absolutely necessary, but the case has not been demonstrated. I also noted the quotations cited bywas it the right hon. Member for Goole?
Mr. Mullin: Oh, yesa much safer seat. I noted the right hon. Gentlemans quotations from Ronnie Flanagan, Stella Rimington and Peter Clarke, all of whom urged caution on this issue. We should take them very seriously. When the introduction of 90 days was attempted, it was a truly friendless measure. I noticed that even the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Condon, voted against it in the other place. It really is time that the Government got the message on this. They may well find that the answer lies in post-charge questioning, but given that most terrorist suspects are likely to refuse to respond to questions, I am not sure that that will take us very far either. At the end of the day, when it comes to convicting terroristsI am as keen on that as anyone else; indeed, in years gone by I had rather better luck in doing so than some whose job it is to catch terroriststhere is no substitute for hard evidence.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is not one of the arguments against extending the period beyond 28 days simply that it would be counter-productive? It will cause antagonism within the Muslim communitythe very people whose help the police need to combat terrorism. So far, no compelling evidence has been produced by the Government or the police to justify going beyond 28 days, which is already the longest period of detention without charge in Europe.
Mr. Mullin: My hon. Friend is quite right, and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) made a similar pointthat there is always a danger of exacerbating the very problem that we are trying to resolve.
Let me deal briefly with the draft constitutional renewal Bill, to which I also look forward. It is not every day that the Government try to increase the authority of Parliament. If that is the purpose of the Bill, I welcome it. I hope that it will includeperhaps the Secretary of State for Justice will confirm thisa measure to make the Intelligence and Security Committee a Committee of Parliament rather than one appointed by and accountable to the Prime Minister. As my right hon. Friend knows, I have argued in favour of that for a long time, but it has met stiff resistance in the past, not least from parliamentarians already on the Committee. I would gladly give way to my right hon. Friend if he would like to confirm that. Hello? [Laughter.]
Mr. Straw: I was paying attention. The question is to what! In the statement to the House on 3 July, a range of possibilities for the Intelligence and Security Committee was spelled out. As I reported earlier last month, discussions are now taking place involving the Chairman of the ISC, the Government and others with a view to ensuring that the membership of the Committee should be put to this House for endorsement.
Mr. Straw: That is the current position, but as my ministerial colleagues often remind me, the constitutional renewal Bill will have to be drafted so widely that there will be ample opportunity for my hon. Friend to make suggestions about how to change that Bill. I am sure that he will take the opportunity to do so.
David Davis: If the hon. Gentleman undertakes to table such an amendment to the constitutional renewal Bill, may I suggest that he look at the model of the Public Accounts Committee, which has powers to summon, gains support to carry out investigations and has a Chairman from the Opposition? I make no criticism whatever of the current ISC Chairman, who is very good. I am making an institutional point that the Chairman should be from the Opposition rather than from the Government.
If we are serious about increasing the power of Parliament, we could do a few things that do not require legislation. We could end the three-month summer recess, for example, which does us such damage in the eyes of our constituents [Interruption.] I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has a debate on that very subject tomorrow evening.
We could also reduce the growing number of Back Benchers beholden to Government patronage. According to my reckoning, the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries currently stands at 56 and rising. I say with all due respect to my many hon. Friends who are PPSs that although everyone would accept that the top people need help to stay in touch with their colleagues, I am unclear why Ministers of State need them. Again with all due respect, I have to say that some PPSs are a downright menace, scurrying around inventing things to do, planting questions, even planting supplementariesand sometimes neglecting even to tell their masters that they have planted them in the first place! It has reached the point where the Government are no longer able to fill Select Committee vacancies without appointing PPSssomething for which we rightly criticised the principal Opposition party when it found itself in a similar position. I have mentioned the 56 PPSs, but that is to say nothing of the half dozen party vice-chairmen who have suddenly appeared from nowhere or the special envoys for the rain forest, the World cup and all the rest of it.
Our system has many strengths, not least the connection between Members and a defined constituency, but one of the weaknesses is that there is a large payroll vote and a growing number of aspirants beholden to the Executive, which is unhealthy, particularly if we are serious about ensuring that Parliament can function efficiently. This trend is not really in the interests of the Government either, so if we are serious about increasing the authority of Parliament, it should be reversed. As I have explained, it would not require legislation.
Finally, I shall say a couple of sentences about star wars. Just as we are in the process of extricating ourselves from the catastrophic American adventure in Iraq, we seem to have got ourselves involved in another foolish neo-con enterprise that is not in our national interest and has potentially destabilising consequences for relations between ourselves and between east and west. I hope that we will reconsider while there is still time to get out.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): First, may I say how good, if unusual, it is to see Liberal Democrat Members outnumbering other Members in the Chamber? I hope that will happen on other occasions.
I suppose that we should be modestly thankful to the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary for at least appearing to be a little less legislatively prolific and hyperactive than their predecessors. After all, this is the Government who produced 24 criminal justice Bills and 3,400 new offences in 10 yearsby my reckoning, that is equivalent to making two things illegal for every day that Parliament has sat since 1997. I hope that we can now put behind us that extraordinary record of legislative promiscuity[Hon. Members: Incontinence.] Incontinence evenI am casting around for the best way to describe it. [Interruption.]
Mr. Straw: As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says from a sedentary position, she and I are chaste in comparison. As the hon. Gentleman often dines out on this matter, may I invite him to say which of those offencesand send my right hon. Friend and me a letter about ithe would like to be removed from the statute book?
Mr. Clegg: Legislation on identity cards, legislation removing the distinction between innocence and guilt in DNA databases, legislation restricting the right to protest in ParliamentI could go on. I will send the right hon. Gentleman a list.
Having said all that, we must be mindful of the fact that eight counter-terrorism Bills and six immigration Bills have already been introduced, so the fact that a new counter-terrorism Bill and immigration Bill are to be introduced does not suggest that the habits of legislating to deal with problems that are not always susceptible to legislation have been entirely left behind.
Following the Secretary of State for Justices extraordinary Panglossian, rose-tinted account of his Governments record on law and order and the criminal justice system, I am tempted to remind him that this Government have presided over criminal, inhumane levels of overcrowding in our prison system, the highest rates of reoffending in the western world, sky high rates of public fear about crime and an absolute collapse in the morale of our criminal justice systemfrom a probation service that is on its knees to an almost permanent state of antagonism between the Government and the judiciary.
None the less, I should like to focus my remarks on the counter-terrorism Bill, and I thank the Home Secretary for our meetings on its provisions, which she will introduce in the weeks ahead. She knows that we already agree on plenty of things, and that plenty of things will deserve much greater scrutiny once we see the details. That being so, it is all the more curious that the Government appear so determined to reopen the vexed debate about the period during which the police can detain any of us without charge, and that she seems to have made such a beeline for an issue that is divisive, wrong in practice and wrong in principle.
As I have said to the Home Secretary, the suspicion arises that the reason for all that is politics rather than the lack of evidence. Is she labouring under the need to meet the political pledge made by the then Chancellor, now Prime Minister, back in November last yearI quote The Independent headline: Brown backs 90 day detention for terror suspect? That was in the good old days when everyone expected great things of him. No doubt it seemed to him a good idea to talk tough on terrorism as he was crowbarring his way into No. 10. But should we really change the law just because of prime ministerial posturing? Should the Home Secretary become a prisoner of prime ministerial political machismo? I do not think so.
The Government always used to claim that they were wedded to evidence-based policy making, yet we know, by their own admission, that there is no evidence whatever for the move. The New Statesman noted in an interview with the Home Secretary in early August that
she cannot cite an example of an existing case that would have benefited from an extension.
In addition to that uncertainty, she said this morning that she does not know how far she would want to extend the period during which the police may detain people without charge. Yet one of her security Ministers said on Monday, on Sky television, that he thought it would be
up to 56 days probably.
I have heard some pretty odd arguments for the extension of the period during which the police may detain people without charge. The weirdest of all referred to the case of Kafeel Ahmed, one of the terror attackers at Glasgow airport, who fell into a coma and subsequently died in hospital. It has been suggested on several occasions that he might have needed more than 28 days of questioning. That is absurdthe clock starts ticking when someone is formally detained. Why would we need to detain someone who is in a coma in a hospital bed? Surely we would wait until they had come to before starting questioning?
The Government have said euphemistically that they can envisage a scenario in which the change might become necessary. I can envisage all sorts of outlandish scenarios. I can envisage one in which France might wish to invade England, but I do not suggest that we should legislate to close the channel tunnel overnight.
As I said to the Home Secretary, there are plenty of things that we can do together. Some of them are already covered under the Governments plans, particularly post-charge questioning, which we welcome; some are not. As she knows, we have long advocated the more aggressive use of plea bargaining to garner information on terrorist masterminds. As she also knows, there is still a strong case to clarify the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service uses the so-called threshold test so that charges may be brought in the first place, even if all the evidence has not been fully gathered. As she also knows, my party has long felt that there is a strong case to make intercept evidence admissible in court.
Collectively, those changes would go a long way to removing the concerns, such as they are, about the guillotine effect of the 28-day deadline. Surely it is more sensible for us to invest our time and political energies in this place in exploring the issues on which we enjoy genuine cross-party consensus, rather than unnecessarily open Pandoras box on the issue once again.
The Government talk soothingly about the need to create consensus, but there already is a consensus and it is shared by the Home Affairs Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, campaigners such as Liberty, the Governments former Attorney-General and the Opposition parties. The consensus is based on evidencethe evidence on which we extended the period from seven to 14 days in 2003, and from 14 to 28 days just two years ago. Are we going to return to the issue over and over again? Surely not.
There is also the evidence that we already have the longest period of detention without charge inI choose my words carefully, in view of the earlier debateany comparable common law system on the planet. Most importantly, because of the evidence that
is shared by the security services, the police and others, rushing forward without compelling reason risks alienating opinion in exactly the communities that we need on our side.
Extremist preachers of hate will seek to radicalise youngsters in their communities, whatever we do. Surely we have learned by now, however, that breathless talk about the war on terrorism, or sloppy anti-terror legislation, gives them needless additional ammunition to sustain their twisted and misguided grievances.
In the debate about 28 days, the Prime Minister has a fundamental problem. Yesterdays Queens Speech could have been delivered word for word by his predecessor, not least on this issue. What is the point of a new Prime Minister if he delivers the same old menu of his predecessor? When will the Prime Minister learn, on this issue above all, that repackaging the failures of his predecessor is simply a road to nowhere?
Before I conclude, I should like to comment on, and ask questions about, immigration. The Governments position seems deeply confused. I read on Monday a headline in the Evening Standard¸ Brown battles back with 35,000 cut in migration. In The Daily Telegraph on the same day I read, Migrants to be made to learn English. That all comes hot on the heels of the entirely implausible and almost certainly illegal pledge to deliver British jobs for British people.
So why is there a deafening silence on all those issues in the Queen's Speech? Will those breathless pledges be delivered, and, if so, how will they be justified? I think that the House deserves to know.
Over the past 10 yearsand it has come back to haunt themthe Government have combined the worst of both worlds on immigration. They have combined tough-talking, headline-grabbing populism with serial administrative incompetence.
The Liberal Democrats start with three simple principles. First, an immigration system and the levers of its administration need to work. That is why we have long advocatedeven before the Conservatives jumped on the bandwagonan integrated border force with real resources and the right police powers, so that we know who is coming into and going out of the country.
Secondly, the Government should plan for the consequences of immigration, particularly in local areas where there are rapid changes of population. That is why it is essentialand we have always advocated thisthat central Government grants to local government are provided more quickly, and reflect changes in local demographical statistics more quickly. It is also why, in the long run, we will continue to campaign for a genuine devolution of tax-raising powers, so that communities can decide for themselves to allocate resources where they are under pressure locally.
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