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Chris Huhne: I am far more worried about the possibility that a populist, who was not necessarily badged under the BNP logo but might be running as an independent or whatever, could secure election in some part of the country under the proposals of the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleagues, or could be running a crime and disorder reduction partnership under the Government’s proposals. Those seem to be real risks, so if we want to avoid confrontational politics in holding our police forces to account, and if we want to make sure that police authorities are genuinely representative of all the
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strands of opinion and the different groups and minorities in their force areas, we must look again at what the Government propose, and we must not go the way that the Conservatives suggest.

There is much to be welcomed in the proposals for crime mapping. As I said, I welcome extra transparency, and if we can reach a situation whereby people, locally, where it really matters, understand what is happening to crime—and, by the way, to clear-up and detection rates in their area, which are not included in the Government’s proposals—we can increase reassurance that crime is being adequately dealt with. That is important.

I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield that there are real doubts in the public mind about the integrity of crime statistics, in part because it is easy to point out contradictions between the recorded crime figures and the British crime survey figures. I have little doubt that the BCS data, for reasons that Conservative Ministers gave when they were last in government, are the best for assessing long-run trends, but I should like the Office for National Statistics not to have a mere tick-box regulatory role but to take direct, hands-on responsibility for the statistics. I can remember the 1980s, when the Conservative Government changed the definition of unemployment almost every other month. By the end of the decade, public faith in the unemployment figures had virtually disappeared, and it was necessary to re-establish public faith by ensuring that the figures were seen to be collated by an entirely independent body removed from those using the data to make political points. I very much hope that there will be broad consensus for the proposals.

We are very much in favour of many of the measures that the Home Secretary has announced in this place and elsewhere. Many of them were trailed in the press—not, I suspect, a leak but a brief: in government, “we” brief, but “they” leak. There were a number of briefings, which seemed highly orchestrated, about the advantages of ending binge drinking with measures to restrict promotions and super-cut-price deals. Much of that, however, is to use legislation as a press release rather than using existing legislation to increase the number of prosecutions of off-licences for selling to people who are under age.

That problem is extraordinarily prevalent. One survey suggested that 40 per cent. of establishments selling alcohol are prepared to sell to under-age drinkers, and do so—yet the existing law is poorly applied. There has been an increase in the number of prosecutions relating to the sale of alcohol to under 18-year-olds; in England and Wales, the figure has increased from 105 in 2002 to 854 in 2006—the latest figures available to me. However, in comparison with the scale of the problem—if it really is the case, as the survey suggests, that 40 per cent. of establishments are selling to under-age people—the number of prosecutions is still just scratching at the surface. We need to be much tougher in dealing with this issue.

The Home Secretary spoke about the immigration Bill. The Liberal Democrats will support the Government’s commitment to the integration of ethnic minority communities, which is absolutely crucial and a vital part of ensuring that a proper immigration policy works, but why are the Government cutting funding for non-English speakers? There has been a 39 per cent. plunge in
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non-English speakers enrolling on English language courses: the number is down from nearly 550,000 to 335,000—the lowest since 2001-02— [ Interruption. ] The Minister for Borders and Immigration suggests that the figures are somehow false, but they come from the Government’s answers to our parliamentary questions.

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, and I am grateful for his support for English language courses, but we have to look at the totality of expenditure on English language courses, not just the particular figures he has cited. However, I take his point.

Chris Huhne: We asked for the total expenditure in this case, and the answer that we got was very clear. I am afraid that it does not bear out the suggestion that there has been any increase in Government funding. The budget for English language lessons for immigrants was cut by £9 million last year, from £298 million to £289 million. The figures show, as I said, a 39 per cent. reduction in non-English speakers enrolling on English language courses. Again, a theme, certainly a theme of everything that the Government have been doing in this respect, is one of good intentions carefully flagged up in the use of legislation as a press release—but where is the implementation? Where is the delivery?

I am very pleased that the communications data Bill has been dropped. I hope that that truly Orwellian proposal will not come back, as it would have created an expensive database of phone calls and e-mails, and, frankly, would have been an extraordinary intrusion into civil liberties. We have not heard—I hope that we will be told by the Justice Secretary in his winding-up speech—how the Government intend to react to the very firm decision today by the European Court of Human Rights about retaining the DNA samples of those who are innocent. Given the results, that is an extraordinarily firm decision. I cannot remember, in many years of observing the European Court, a 17-nil decision—completely unanimous—that the Government’s position is contrary to the European convention on human rights.

If the Government want a sensible policy on what samples should be held on a DNA database, they should get rid of all samples from innocent people—as they must now do, I believe, as a result of the European Court ruling—and they should start a programme to collect samples from people who were convicted before 2001. We now know that more than 2 million people who have been convicted of a criminal offence are not on the DNA database, because they were convicted of committing a crime before 2001. So we have a ridiculous topsy-turvy Government policy of accreting samples from innocent people, children and others who are under age. That is absolutely useless in improving the conviction rate, as we now know, yet we have not been collecting data samples from people who were convicted, although that would be much more effective. Again, I am pleased that the Home Secretary has made it clear that there will be no question, other than at our borders, of having police and other official powers to check for identity cards.

I have been talking for rather longer than I wanted to, because of the interventions, but let me say something about the coroners and justice Bill. I am still suspicious
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of what may be the Government’s intentions on that Bill. There is no doubt that we need reform, that speed and timeliness in coroners’ inquests are a real issue, and that it is crucial that bereaved families can get an inquest rapidly. However, the Government’s proposals in the counter-terrorism Bill, now dropped, were horrendous, and they must not be resuscitated. Coroners’ inquests are an essential bulwark against the abuse of state power, as they establish what happened if a death occurs, particularly in custody at the hands of an agent of the state. They were initiated precisely because we could not trust the Tudor secret service to perform its duties unless deaths in custody were properly investigated.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): On a specific and important point, in the wake of the inquest into the tragic death of my constituent, Imogen D’Arcy, who committed suicide at the age of 13, having accessed suicide websites, campaigners on the issue, including the all-party parliamentary group, Papyrus, the Samaritans and the D’Arcy family, warmly welcome the announcement that the Government will tighten the law on suicides in connection with websites, but that needs to be explained properly. We believed originally that that would come under the Suicide Act 1961, rather than the coroners and justice Bill. Will the Government give us more clarification, particularly a timetable? People want to see change as soon as possible.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I hope that the Secretary of State for Justice—or someone else who was listening—can deal with that issue in the wind-ups.

Before I finish making the point about coroners playing a crucial part in holding to account the abuse of state power, let me say that we welcome and will support many other aspects of the proposals. We do not, however, feel that the police reform proposals go far enough. We have argued—on police pay review, for example—for a complete review of the police contract. For example, an issue that we do not hear about from either Conservative or Labour Members, despite its pertinence in current circumstances, is the very restrictive nature of the single point of entry for chief constables.

Broadly, people should come into the police force from the bottom, and there is an honourable tradition, as in the French army at one stage, of every corporal carrying a field marshal’s baton in their knapsack. However, with complex issues such as the prosecution of fraud, for example, where a degree in accountancy and some experience as a forensic accountant might be of considerable use to someone leading an investigation, there must be enough exceptions to bring in people if they have particular expertise. We would like to open up the issues regarding the police contract such as lifetime employment, pay linked to seniority, pensions and the effectiveness of the incapability procedure.

We must also touch on the subject of prostitution. I am sure that every hon. Member wants to protect women from exploitation, but the sort of proposals that the Government have made for a Finnish system of criminalising clients indirectly has a very poor record of successful prosecutions, and I do not believe that that is the way forward.

Overall, there will be elements that we welcome and others that we criticise. I hope increasingly that we can find some consensus about what works in criminal justice, rather than finding ourselves locked in populist
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battles about retribution and vengeance—which the Secretary of State for Justice is quite keen on, as a political theme. Surely, the key issue for any hon. Member who is concerned about cutting crime should be what works. In that context, we are a very long way from taking on board the evidence from the United States—nor do we spend as much as we should on research to find out what works here. If we did, the Government would be much less disposed to be a threat to our civil liberties than they have proved to be since they were first elected in 1997, and the essential conflicts that inevitably exist between the use of state power in going after criminal activity and the defence of our civil liberties would be less acute if we could anchor the criminal justice debate rather more firmly in real evidence of which interventions work, and at what stage.

2.8 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): For what I fear will be the first of many years to come, the Queen’s Speech unashamedly focuses first and foremost on economic issues. Long before the nation was firmly awoken from its slumber to the magnitude of our collective debt crisis by the frightening figures contained in the Chancellor’s pre-Budget report last week, some of us had repeatedly warned in the House that, instead of building a secure future, we have been borrowing from it. In truth, the state of the public finances has been a national disgrace for some time. Now, already unsustainable debt levels look set to soar for years to come.

I make few apologies, as the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, for focusing on economic matters, but they will inevitably have an impact on home affairs and justice going forward. Over 11 years of Labour administration, too much Government borrowing has been funding current consumption. Now, in this time of economic crisis, we seem intent on continuing that approach; but as a strategy, it is neither prudent nor sustainable.

Our nation stands at a crossroads. I fear that by blindly following the Government’s path, with the many bits of legislation that have been announced in the Gracious Speech and in the past 24 hours, we are condemning future generations of Britons, including those still to be born, to pick up the bill for current welfare, health care and pensions provision, as well as for all the other expenditure on various Home Office experiments in the past decade or so and in years to come. In that way, we risk our nation’s permanent demotion from being a global economic player as the financial crisis allows commercial and financial power to move firmly eastwards, particularly to the emerging economic superpowers of India and China.

Far from encouraging the unchecked growth of the state in these times of trouble, for the electorate, we must tell it as it is: the apparently limitless era of cheap and easy money is firmly behind us. An increase in state intervention, as we have seen in recent weeks, may soften the financial blow in the immediate term, but the looming level of interest payments alone on our rising debt risks lowering living standards for decades to come. That will have quite an impact on a range of social issues and social divisions within our society.

Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed what many of us have long suspected: this year’s overspend will far exceed the £43 billion that was predicted as
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recently as the March Budget, and will rise to £78 billion. It will then reach a colossal £118 billion in 2009-10, always assuming that the Government can, for the first time this century, not overshoot their projected public sector deficit. By 2012-13, the nation will be battling with a net debt that will account for 57 per cent. of gross domestic product, with £350 million being spent in excess of tax receipts every day of the year. That prediction is based on the Government’s own figures, which have been shown to be selective and perhaps hopelessly optimistic in the past. It takes no account of expenditure on Network Rail, the cost of bailing out Northern Rock, Bradford & Bingley, Halifax Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland, or of the off-balance sheet financing of public infrastructure projects.

The figures are now so unfeasibly vast that I fear the general public remain blissfully unaware of the seismic implications of the unprecedented level of Government debt that is now locked into the system. The recent banking bail-out, following the credit crisis, has provided the Government with an alibi for the exorbitant levels of public debt, which were already spiralling dangerously out of control. We must ring-fence the billions accrued for the bail-out and the Government’s recently announced £20 billion fiscal stimulus plan from the enormous sums that were already on and, indeed, off the public balance sheet.

If this Queen’s Speech is to mark a departure from the past, the new spirit of the age should be for value for money out of the public purse. I fear instead, however, that the idea of big Government as an ever-benevolent cash cow is entrenching even further. The notion that however bad things get financially for the individual, the state will move to soften the blow, has only been increased by the Government’s intervention to protect depositors in Northern Rock, Icesave and others, as well as by the Prime Minister’s latest announcement, only yesterday, of a two-year benefit, in relation to mortgage payments, to families with children and to pensioners. The Government are returning to their comfort zone, with an economic narrative of interference in the name of protecting the public through continued high spending.

For sure, no Government can sit idly by; I accept that current events are epoch-changing, and that in decades to come people will look back on these months when they consider economic history and important decisions that have to be made. We should not be immune to the pleadings of those who bear the economic brunt of these hard times. In many ways, those pleadings will become ever stronger in the next year, as we all know, as the apparent economic crisis becomes much more evident to many of our electors. Equally, however, it is important that any action that is taken to soothe our financial troubles is taken responsibly—I might even say prudently—and with a firm eye on our long-term economic future.

It is imperative that the public are given a reality check. The servicing of the colossal debt that we have already racked up, let alone the somewhat irresponsible spending that is still to come, risks lowering living standards for many years to come. Above all, it will soon dawn on a new generation of younger voters that the unspoken message of the political class, across political parties, to anyone under 30 is that their generation
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will need not only to fund the cost of pensions for those who are older now, but to lower significantly their own financial expectations when the time comes for them to retire.

The availability of cheap goods such as clothes, technology and alcohol has created a false sense of material wealth in the young. The longer-term prospect of paying off huge student debts is something that, I am thankful to say, my generation—I am only 20 years out of university—has never had to be concerned about. The rosy future that is envisaged of enjoying a standard of living as good as one’s parents, experiencing a decent pension in a retirement that is likely to last for decades and expecting the generous range of state benefits that those in retirement currently take for granted will be unsustainable for the younger generation that is growing up.

Any failure by the Government rapidly to grasp that nettle risks bringing about serious social unrest in the years ahead. Our society will become economically divided as never before between old and young, as I have pointed out, between those who work in the comparatively secure and well-pensioned public sector and those in the private sector who are reliant on private wealth creation, and between those with globally transferable opportunities and skills, such as Members of the House, and those in an increasingly large tail of low-skilled, chaotic lifestyles.

I have seen such divides even in my constituency. Labour Members are often sceptical about what life must be like in Westminster, but the community is very polarised. Of course, there are tremendous pockets of wealth in places such as Belgravia, Knightsbridge, Mayfair and Marylebone, but in parts of my constituency, in Pimlico and Bayswater, many people live chaotic lifestyles. They live the sort of lifestyles that probably horrified people when they heard about what happened to baby P only a few miles to the north in Haringey. I, as a Member of Parliament, and my local councillors, can understand that although that sort of thing is not exactly a norm, it is not entirely out of the ordinary. Such events are worrying signs of the polarised society in which we live. That level of polarisation has always been fairly apparent in our capital city, certainly in central London, but I fear that it is becoming even stronger in many other parts of the country, and that it will have profound impacts on the whole issue of justice and the way in which we tackle law and order in the years ahead.

In addition, we must ensure that the public understand the international implications of our country’s continued indebtedness and severely weakened economic clout. We are witnessing the first signs of a seismic and rapid shift of power from the United States and Europe to China, India, Russia and even the Gulf states. The near collapse of the global banking industry is not just an issue of restoring confidence, important though that is, and the Government have tried to take important steps in that direction; it is also about the trust of our electors and of those who use the financial services industry. However, those issues will only accelerate trends that are already in play. The US economy may never recover its dominant position in global markets, and we have to accept that the City of London’s position as a leader in the provision of financial and business services will be sorely tested in the years ahead.

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