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No progress can be made on funding if the question of trade union contributions is not addressed. We accept the arguments about the individual element in
those contributions, but we also recognise that trade unions are significant donors of block sums of money, both nationally and in individual constituencies, over and above individual affiliation. Moreover, it is clearly impossible to ignore the scale of donation to the Conservative party, something that the Liberal Democrats have experienced only to a much more limitedand occasionally controversialextent.
None of us can ignore the criticisms that others make of aspects of the system from which we benefit. That made consensus desirable, and my Committee also felt that greater taxpayer support should be conditional on removing big paymasters, of any kind, from the political system. Taxpayers will not want to yield up tax for that purpose if they do not get visibly cleaner politics as a result.
Consensus is highly desirable. I am very disappointed that the all-party talks seem to have broken down at the moment, and I do not think that any party can have a veto on progress in this matter. However, whether the Government are able to make progress will depend on whether they can retain a broadly even-handed approach. The Government will have to get legislation through both Houses of Parliament, and they do not have a majority in the other place. Cross-Bench peers, as well as my colleagues, will be looking for evidence that the Government are bringing forward a settlement that is reasonably objective. If that settlement cannot be achieved by means of a formal agreement among the parties, the Government will go ahead and legislate. I would not criticise them for doing so, as no one should have a veto on this matter, but they would be successful only if the basis of the legislation were widely seen to be objective.
I shall not go into too many more of the matters arising from the Governments constitutional agenda, as we shall have many more occasions to do so. I merely want to say that progress towards reform of the House of Lords must continue to be made, and that I look to the Government for some momentum in that regard, rather than deferment. I also remind the Government that they will have to return to the question of electoral reform, and that they have still not fulfilled their commitment to publish a document that they have been preparing for I do not know how long. I have no great hopes for the document, as I suspect that those who wrote it were looking over their shoulder the whole time. However, we cannot look at the British constitution from a basis of principle, as the Prime Minister wants to do, without asking the question: does the system ensure that the opinions of voters are fairly represented in Parliament in a way that enables government to be conducted in an orderly and consistent manner? Such questions must be addressed and that means looking at electoral systems.
I conclude by considering a worrying omissionthe absence of the coroners Bill from the Queens Speech. The measure has been an issue for some time, especially since the two Shipman inquiries, which made clear how deficient the existing coroners and death registration systems were. In a report in 2006, the Constitutional Affairs Committee was extremely critical of the draft Bill for two major reasons. The first was that the Bill did not sort out the resources problem. It attempted to create a national structure while leaving coroners
dependent on myriad systems of hand-to-mouth supportsometimes from police authorities, sometimes from local authorities and sometimes from their own solicitors practicesto run the coroners system. Secondly, the Bill did not tie together the coroners and death registration systems. We cannot deal with the problems identified by the Shipman inquiries without marrying together those two systems.
When the Bill did not appear in the Queens Speech last year I was reasonably content; indeed, in a small way, I felt it might have been a victory for the Committee that the Government were forced to reconsider the Bill and perhaps undertake a bit of a fight to sort out the resources issue, which involves talking to local authorities as they provide most of the resources for the existing system. I thought that the Government would be able to introduce an improved Bill as a result of that process, but it has not happened. I received a courteous letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), which states:
As you are no doubt aware, the Coroner Reform Bill was not included in todays Queens Speech.
we intend to bring the Bill before Parliament as soon as time allows.
One of my more charitable colleagues said, That means were going to get the Bill, doesnt it? I said, Oh, no, no. I have been in the House 34 years and I have often seen that language used. It almost always means that the Bill is not coming at allit is like the bus that is just around the corner.
Peter Luff: The right hon. Gentleman has given us an interesting piece of information. The document The Governance of BritainThe Governments Draft Legislative Programme firmly included the coroners Bill. I assume the document is still relevant but it has clearly been superseded by the Queens Speech, so that calls into question the whole point of putting the draft legislative programme before the House in the first place.
Mr. Beith: Indeed. I, too, wondered about the status of the document. There can be nothing of greater status than the words put into the mouth of Her Majesty when she delivers the Gracious Speech so I am puzzled about the relationship between the two documents.
I am taking the uncharacteristically cynical view that the coroners Bill is not about to hit us. That is serious because coroners throughout the country know that the system they are trying to run is ramshackle although they are doing their best with it. The coroners who conducted the two inquiries into the Shipman affair both indicated that they believe the proposals made so far would not meet their concerns. The Government have an opportunity, but they are being seriously neglectful of a situation that affects many of our constituents.
I do not argue that the answer is lots more inquests. The Committee took the view that we probably have rather too many inquests in the English jurisdictionthe Scottish jurisdiction does not have them at all; it has fatal accident inquiries, but only rarely. A larger
number of inquests is not necessarily the answer. The system may not require a huge addition of resources but it requires much more coherence so that it does not miss Shipman-type cases altogether.
I realise that the Government will make some reforms that can be carried out in a non-statutory way. I realise, too, that they have tried to address the serious problem of military inquests arising from Afghanistan and Iraq by giving more resources to the two coroners most affectedin Oxfordshire and Wiltshirebut that simply illustrates the creaking and ramshackle nature of the system. It is only through phone calls from Departments and offers of extra help that we can deal with things that the system should be capable of coping with already. The Government must return to that matter, and the Committee will continue to monitor what they are doing on that and other issues.
National security and terrorism are the most important things on the agenda today. I worked for a couple of years at the Home Office as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the current Attorney-General, and to those who trivialise the threat of terrorism, I say, Think again. This country is under serious threat. I have no time for the conspiracy theorists who say everything is got up by the Government and the security services: national security is vital.
One measure I welcome in connection with making our nation and our communities feel safe is a unified border force. North East Lincolnshire, where Cleethorpes is located, sounds like a nice, rural area, but that is misleading. We have one of the biggest and busiest ports in the country at Immingham, where, as with the other Humber ports of Goole and Hull, a phenomenal amount of freight traffic enters the UK. All too often, those of us in that part of Lincolnshire feel a bit forgotten in debates such as this one. When we talk about national security and border forces, we probably naturally think of our large cities, such as London, and ports such as Dover, but the sheer volume of traffic in places such as Immingham means that we need to consider the area seriously in any debate about national security. I shall be keen to see how a unified border force will pan out in areas of the country such as the one I represent.
In addition to our ports, we have an airport in my constituency. Increasingly, people trying to enter the UK clandestinely are avoiding some of the more traditional ports of entry. I have forgotten the length of the UK coastlineI knew it when I was at schoolbut it is phenomenally long. People are using smaller ports and airports to try to enter the country clandestinely, which has implications for national security. If it is easier to enter the country through those ports and airports, people who want to target the UK could use them, so I hope that Ministers will ensure ample security coverage outside the main cities and the southern coast ports of Britain.
Security is not just about big national interests, vital though they are; peoples sense of security and safety depends on how they feel in their communities.
According to the British crime survey, crime has decreased, but we would probably all say that people feel no safer in their communities. Peoples sense of personal security depends largely on what happens when they open their front doors, what people see when they walk down the street, what happens in their workplaces, what they read in national and local newspapers, what they see on the local news and what they hear on the radio.
I worked as a journalist for many years before entering this House. I do not know whether other hon. Members agree, but I feel that in recent years our local and national media have focused more and more on crime. Journalists must report the news, but whenever I open a local newspaper, it seems to me that there are many more terrifying banner headlines compared with when I was younger. That gives the impression that the law has broken down in all our communities, which is not the case, because it is usually a minority who hold a community to ransom through their lawless behaviour. In many ways, politicians are also responsible, because we always talk about crime, and there is almost an arms race on who can introduce the toughest legislation. I am not blaming a particular party, because we are all complicit in a situation in which crime has gone down but people do not feel commensurately more safe and secure.
Last night, through the wonders of satellite television, I watched the local news from my area, Look North, which included yet another report of an attack on Humberside fire and rescue. When the fire brigade was called out to deal with an arson attack on an estate called the Willows, it was deliberately attacked. What sort of people would do that, given that four firefighters had lost their lives just two days earlier? The thugs involved broke into properties and removed fixtures and fittings, to which they then set light, and when the fire brigade arrived, they deliberately attacked it.
Following that report, and similar reports in the past couple of weeks, people have contacted me to ask what the Government are doing and to suggest the need for legislation, but legislation has been introduced. The Father of the House introduced a private Members Bill on attacks on the emergency services, and it became law. Those provisions came into force in the past couple of months, and people need to be reminded that they exist. When people saw that news report, however, those provisions did not make them feel any safer, because they saw the break-ins and arson attacksit was all very graphic.
In my part of the country, people are worried about antisocial behaviour, and I guess that people are worried about it up and down the land. People do not feel safe if, when they walk out of their front doors, they see graffiti and broken windows, or if there is noise at night. In that case, they feel that crime has taken hold, which makes them more fearful, although crime has gone down.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op):
My hon. Friend is discussing the cognitive dissonance between what people read about and see on TV and what they experience in their lives. Although there is widespread collection, examination and
ratification of crime statistics, no parallel information is gathered in relation to antisocial behaviour, graffiti and other matters that people worry about. Although crime is falling, we do not have the data to reassure people about other matters that alarm them about the quality of their lives and the security of their homes.
Shona McIsaac: My hon. Friend makes some valid points. Although the police are judged on how they deal with antisocial behaviour, the gathering of statistics on behaviour that often stops short of the criminal is not particularly robust, and perhaps we can consider that.
I am afraid to say that North East Lincolnshire and the area covered by Humberside police was rather late to pick up on the national agendaon police community support officers, for instance. I know that some people argue that we need more warranted officers, but when PCSOs were on offer, I and other Members of Parliament for the area urged the police authority to go down that route. Unfortunately, the police authority did not agree, so it was one of the last parts of the country to get community support officers. That may have fed into peoples feeling that they are not safe, despite the fact that crime is going down. They are beginning to see the community support officers on the street, and I am pleased that the current chief constable has worked hard to pull the situation back because we started so very late.
I raised the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who kindly visited the constituency and met people who were troubled by antisocial behaviour. He came up a couple of months ago, and I think that he found the visit very instructive. When he was being questioned by victims of antisocial behaviour, I found it interesting that people were again saying, Why dont the Government do something? It was similar to the response to the attacks on the fire services. He responded, The Government have done this, and have done that.
We should consider how well councils, the police and other organisations with which we work to tackle antisocial behaviour and crime are using the powers available to them. There are two unitary authorities in my constituency, and one of them is certainly a lot further behind the other in using the powers available to itwhen one has experience of two neighbouring authorities, one can compare and contrast. I want the Government to give people a bit of a push to use the powers that are already available.
Probably only a minority of people are responsible for the antisocial behaviour in our communities, and they hold us to ransom. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill is a carry-over Bill, but I welcome one particular aspect of itthe extension of crack house closure powers to deal with premises at the centre of serious and persistent disorder or nuisance regardless of tenure. That is vital. Whether councils are slow to act or not, they have powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, as do registered social landlords and housing associations. However, there was a gap in relation to private landlords and owner-occupiers. I am pleased that the powers are now available to tackle that part of antisocial behaviour.
Literacy and numeracy are linked with criminality and antisocial behaviour. It is a sad fact that the majority of people who commit serious crimes in this country have very poor literacy and numeracy skills. The same goes for the whole prison population, and we have to tackle that problem by taking a more integrated approach. I do not know how many Members saw it, but there was an instructive documentary on TV. People will think that I spend all my time watching TVin fact, it is rather rare that I do, but this documentary was very instructive. It was called Last Chance Kids and I think it was filmed in Barking and Dagenham; it was certainly that part of the world. It was about a primary school that focused on ensuring that every child gained some ability to read in a year. The head teacher had given herself a year to try to improve such skills. It was instructive to note that young boys with the poorest literacy and numeracy skills were the most disruptive in the class. Antisocial behaviour, which could lead to more serious behaviour, was therefore beginning in primary school. The pupils were bored and, as they progressed through the school, they had no connection with what was happening, so they became disruptive in the classroom and in the playground. They began to bully. By the end of the year, the head teacher had managed to get all the children reading, and their behaviour improved enormously.
We must therefore consider such matters when we discuss criminal justice and antisocial behaviour. Drug treatment orders are currently available when someone is convicted of a crime, but should not we consider numeracy orders? That might sound a bit trite, but prisons do not tackle offenders literacy and numeracy. We must examine that in greater depth. Literacy and numeracy could be improved, for example, through offender management when people are released from a custodial sentence or in other ways. However we do it, we must make people who commit crimes literate and numerate. If we are to break the cycle of criminality, we must give them the necessary skills, which start with the most basicliteracy and numeracy. I would love tests to be conducted on those convicted of a crime to assess their skills.
In the neighbouring constituency of Grimsby, which is also covered by North East Lincolnshire, there is a wonderful project called Space, which is run by the Rev. John Ellis. It featured in The Sunday Times magazine a few weeks ago. Like the head teacher in the east end who was trying to get some of the toughest kids and those with most difficulties reading, Space takes some of the most challenging young people in our community and tries to break the cycles of antisocial behaviour and criminality. It is achieving astounding results with some of those challenging young people. We must get people reading and improve peoples skills. I hope that the Governments agenda and some aspects of the Queens Speech will contribute to that, but it is not easy to do. It will take a generation because it has to work through society before we genuinely experience the impact of such policies.
Regeneration is also necessary to tackle antisocial behaviour and criminality and make people feel secure in their homes and communities. Sorry about this, folks, but I am going to mention another television programme. I am sure that some hon. Members have heard of Location, Location, Location. It recently
covered the worst and best places to live in Britain. North East Lincolnshire came out as the sixth worst place. That was based on all sorts of statistics. We are a coastal area, with infrastructure problems; we are remote and so on. However, if a local authority and other agencies are trying to get investment and bring in teachers and doctors to their remote urban area, they do not need Phil and Kirstie going around saying that it is the sixth worst place to live in Britain. I am sorry to say that Grimsby regularly features in a book called Crap TownsI am not sure whether that is unparliamentary language. Barrow upon Humber in north Lincolnshire has been judged an excellent place to live. It is, therefore, not all bad news, and Cleethorpes beach has blue-flag status, which is wonderful.
How is North East Lincolnshire council trying to bring investment into the area and get away from the image of Grimsby as a dreadful place to live? The council wants to change the name of the local authority from North East Lincolnshire to Grimsby. It makes no sense to use all that money to change the name of the local authority, which is well described by North East Lincolnshire, because that is where it is. The money could be better used in tackling antisocial behaviour, for example.
Finally, I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will be brief. I am not sure how many barristers are still left in the Chamber, although I see that some of the usual suspects have gone, so I might be safe to talk about this [ Interruption. ] Ah! I might even get some answers, now that one of them has walked back in. Thanks to changes that the Government introduced, I recently had to spend some time on jury service. It was very instructive, particularly when one not only had voted for the legislation under which the defendants had been charged, but had even been a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the time and therefore knew the legislation fairly well.
It is not often that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) and I agree, but from my experience as a juror I thought that the judges were excellent in their handling of cases. I thought that the police were excellent, too. However, my opinion of the prosecution and defence barristers was somewhat lower.
The cases in which I was a juror involved sexual offences. Having served as a juror on such cases, I still have concerns about how we handle them. I got the impression that people judge the victim, particularly based on how they behave in court; indeed, I have read about the issue since and spoken to various organisations. If we are to achieve justice and deal with victims, we have to do something about peoples perceptions of victims and how they should behave in court. We need a far better explanation of what constitutes consent in cases involving sexual offences. We also need much more simplicity in saying what beyond reasonable doubt means, which does not necessarily have to mean beyond all doubt.
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