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As regards counter-terrorism and legislation on counter-terrorism, I remain concerned about the erosion of civil liberties. Our democracy, which we have treasured over the past 400 years, has made this country what it is today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) pointed out. We remain one of the richest economies in the world, despite the current difficulties in the financial markets. We have wonderful things that have been brought about by democracy. We have, still, a thriving trade union movement. We have an NHS. We have wealth creation. We have vibrant and open debate. Those things, collectively, have made this country what it is.

I am concerned that over the past few years we have taken many of our traditions for granted and cast some of them aside. We have put aside trial by jury in certain cases—complex cases, admittedly, but our legal system should be capable of rising to the challenge of being put to the test through complex cases. We have seen the introduction of double jeopardy, whereby someone can be tried twice for the same crime. Those sorts of powers have been used by dictatorships through the ages and across the world in order finally to find a jury or judge who will give them the result that they want. Double jeopardy has been used to restrict people’s liberties and to corrupt the legal system.

There have been restrictions on our free speech. This is a well worn example, but it is still highly relevant. A few years ago, a woman stood at the Cenotaph and read out, very gently and quietly, the names of our war dead—the young men and women who had fallen in Iraq and, I believe, Afghanistan, serving their country. She was arrested and detained. That is not a Great British thing to do. It is not the British way, and we should rightly remain concerned about it.

We talk continually, still, about the merits of ID cards. I am implacably opposed to ID cards, as I believe many of my constituents are. This country belongs to me. I was born here. I have a right to be here. I do not have to prove myself to anyone, nor should I have to. Yes, there are problems with the immigration system, problems that I feel the Government are largely responsible for, but the citizens of this country should not pay for the Government’s failings by sacrificing more of their freedoms.

Mr. Mark Field: My hon. Friend referred to the British way, something which many of us feel strongly in our hearts. It has been the tradition in this country that we have an unwritten constitution. Does he now feel that the time is ripe for a codified constitution to be put in place to protect the liberties that all of us have perhaps taken for granted, but feel at this stage— [ Interruption. ] I am not passing a judgment either way on this matter, but given the concerns that my hon. Friend expressed, does he feel that it would be the right way forward?

Mr. Walker: I hope that we have not yet reached that stage, but if we are to avoid reaching it, now is the time for Members of Parliament to be big, to stand up and be counted and to fight for the freedoms that we treasure. It does not matter whether we are in the Labour party, the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrat party.
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We love this country, we love our democracy and it is up to us to stand up and fight for it and to challenge those forces that would diminish and traduce it.

Today, we have had some welcome news on the DNA database. I cannot believe that the records of perhaps 6 million innocent people are kept on that database. They are people arrested or detained by the police who are not guilty of any crime beyond perhaps being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but their records are retained on the database. We hear this rubbish, this Orwellian nonsense: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” That is something we would expect to hear from the Stasi in eastern Europe. It is a nonsensical statement.

I have a constituent who has committed not a single crime in his life, but on his advanced Criminal Records Bureau check he carries details of a wicked and violent crime committed against a member of his family by a totally unconnected third party. He has nothing to hide, but he has everything to fear. I have taken up his case with the Information Commissioner, the Home Office and the police, and nobody will act to right this wrong. It is an act that would be more at home in Stalinist Russia than in this country.

Mr. Field: My hon. Friend makes his point with great passion. I very much agree with it, and the contribution made earlier on the matter of the DNA database by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). Does my hon. Friend accept—and I hope that the Minister will take this point on board—that DNA technology is important, but that in 40 or 50 years’ time we will have DNA mark 2 or mark 3 technology that will be considerably superior to what we have now? It will show up many of the deficiencies that my right hon. and hon. Friends have pointed out.

Mr. Walker: My hon. Friend is right; we are in the early stages of this technology. My concerns about the DNA database rest on the fact that the details of people who have not committed any crime are retained on that database. Whether it is a database operating today or in 30 years’ time, that is wrong, and it must be stopped.

Finally, as we are talking about Home Office Bills, I return to the role of Parliament in scrutinising Bills. Parliament has undoubtedly been diminished over the past decade. We have less time for debate. We have less time to discuss Bills on Second Reading, and to consider them on Report and in Committee. It is important that we get that time back; so often a brief Second Reading debate is truncated because we have one or two statements beforehand. The Bill then goes into Committee, which may meet for six or eight sittings, where whole areas of the Bill remain undiscussed. Then it comes back to this place on Report, and the Government table a raft of new clauses and amendments that no one has had a chance to consider beforehand. So the Bill goes through almost unscrutinised, and again we are left to rely on those in the other place to make up for our deficiencies.

Of course, Members of Parliament are not blameless. A few committed Members of Parliament are in the Chamber, taking part in and listening to the debate. However, too many of us perceive a one-line Whip as an opportunity to go home—yes, to do worthy things, such as spending time in our constituencies on constituency engagements, but our constituents send us here to make
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their concerns known in this place and to give them a voice in the mother of Parliaments and the cockpit of the country. We must take that responsibility seriously. I hope that I am not getting too many dirty looks from colleagues—they are excluded from my criticisms because they are here and should be congratulated on that. If they would like me to name them for the benefit of Hansard, I am happy to do that.

Our freedoms are important and we need to protect them. Last week, a Conservative Member of Parliament was arrested and his House of Commons office was searched. Next week, that could happen to a Labour Member of Parliament—we hope to God that it will not. Let us remember that only a few months ago the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) had his conversations and private discussions with a constituent who was in prison recorded. The police have form and we need to ensure that proper safeguards are in place so that our constituents, wherever they are, have confidence when they talk to us that those discussions are private.

I will not detain the House any longer. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make a short contribution.

2.51 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I want to consider the Gracious Speech from the standpoint of the Justice Committee and its predecessor, the Constitutional Affairs Committee. Some of its contents relate to our work.

I am not one to complain when a Queen’s Speech is short and there is less legislation. The Government may be beginning to recognise that the ills of the world and the country sometimes require action in forms other than legislation. The thirst for legislation, especially on justice and home affairs, has produced legislative indigestion and many Bills that are not fully implemented, not capable of being implemented or should never have been introduced.

I welcome the Bill that was first regarded as the coroners Bill, but has become a combination of that draft measure and other justice provisions. In 2005-06, the Constitutional Affairs Committee severely criticised the Government’s original coroners Bill and we need to ascertain the extent to which the clauses of the new Bill tackle our concerns, those of families and those of people experienced in the system, as well as the anxieties that were expressed in the two inquiries that followed the appalling Harold Shipman case. I should say “cases” because he murdered more than 200 people and the system failed to identify him, despite his certifying numerous deaths, which he caused.

Let me outline the key points about the coroner’s element of the coroners and justice Bill. First, death certification must be effectively reformed and I am glad that it will be included in the measure. However, we want to be satisfied that the reform is sufficient to achieve its purpose. Secondly, medical examiners, which the Bill will introduce, should not be part of the same NHS trust that runs the hospital where a death has occurred. The medical examiner certification should not be done by an employee of the very NHS trust about which relatives are concerned.

Thirdly, funding for coroners, their staff and training needs to be more consistent. If people had not read our report or did not know the system they would be
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amazed by the extent of its diversity. In some areas, the local authority pays for coroners’ offices; in others, the police pay for them; and in others, coroners are serving police officers—an arrangement that is sometimes pragmatically convenient—and there is no real consistency. There is also little consistency about providing and paying for training so that coroners’ officers and other staff can fulfil the needs of the families with whom they deal. Some of them do a superb job—indeed, I have heard much testimony to the quality of the work that some coroner’s officers do—but the system is inconsistent and sporadic.

Having a chief coroner is a good thing, but we do not want over-centralisation. The Committee pointed out that there will still be a need for some part-time coroners, if remote areas are not to be completely cut off from the coroner service and if relatives are not going to have to travel long distances even to discuss with the coroner’s office how their inquest will be handled. In that context, the other key point in the Bill is how far the rights of the bereaved will be dealt with.

Mr. Bellingham: The right hon. Gentleman accepted that the coroners in this country do a superb job. However, we do not want to centralise the system and thereby get rid of a good example of localism working well.

Sir Alan Beith: I agree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent: we do not want an over-centralised system, but we need some central management of the system. Whereas many coroners do a good job, some have not managed their work very well at all. There are examples in some parts of the country of terrible delays in holding inquests. I am not thinking of the serious delays in inquests relating to service in Iraq or Afghanistan, which have raised separate problems; I am thinking of areas where inquests have built up because the service was not properly managed or resourced. It is therefore necessary, as the Government maintain, to have a chief coroner, who will need the power to ensure a certain level of approved standards. At the same time, however, we do not want areas to be dependent on a distant service that does not recognise, for example, that life in rural communities is different from life in urban communities.

I have referred to that part of the coroners and justice Bill that relates to coroners, but it is not yet clear what else will be in the Bill. There will be data protection provisions, which I hope will include strengthening the Information Commissioner’s independence and giving him the powers necessary to fine organisations that breach data protection provisions. The commissioner has been left with only the nuclear button to press. He needs wider powers, as we have argued, and the Government seem to recognise that.

In the longer term, it would be better if the commissioner had the independence that comes from being a creature of Parliament, not of the Government. That is the position for the Scottish Information Commissioner, our Comptroller and Auditor General, the parliamentary ombudsman and the chairman of the Electoral Commission, who all relate to Parliament, not to the Government. We understand that there will also be provisions in the Bill relating to homicide and the Sentencing Guidelines Council. We intend to look into those carefully.

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The Queen’s Speech prompts the question whether, as a result of the coroners and justice Bill and the Government’s other activities, there will be, in the words of the Government’s declared objective, an

There will not be an effective justice system if money continues to be spent without regard to the effectiveness with which it is spent. The background to that point is the Carter report on prisons, which had no evidential base at all, but which led to far-reaching conclusions, including the plan to create massive, Titan prisons, into which no cost-benefit analysis has been conducted.

Interestingly, having reported that the consultation was over, the Government have now told our Committee that it is not really over, as they intend to do some further work, owing to the fact that so many of the people who were consulted pointed to the lack of a cost-benefit analysis. I am glad that the Government have changed tack, at least to the extent of giving the issue some further thought, and I would be the last person to complain if they changed their mind. I hope that they will now look much more carefully into the cost-effectiveness of the proposal, which has never been examined on any research or evidence base at all.

If we spend lots of money on creating more prisons, but at the same time send out unrehabilitated, unsupervised or unsupported prisoners, there will be more crimes and more victims of crime. If we spend on prisons money that is needed for early-years intervention, youth work or community sentences, there will be more criminals and more victims. We therefore need to look at all the money that we spend in the criminal justice system and at whether it is being spent effectively.

Our report “Towards Effective Sentencing”, from the 2007-08 Session, deals with some of those issues and demonstrates the ways in which money was wasted when sentences were introduced without any proper mechanism for carrying them out and without any certainty that they would meet the requirements of the justice system. We are now doing further work on the much wider concept of justice reinvestment: are we spending the money in the right places; if we spent it differently, would there be fewer crimes and fewer victims?

We are very conscious of the need for an informed public and media debate that is not just based around a few cases. The Front Benchers of all parties need to help in bringing about such a debate. Instead of chasing “tough on crime” headlines, we should ensure that the public are able to debate in an informed way what methods will ensure that they are least likely to be the victims of crime. We should not be misleading the public into thinking that we have a solution if all we propose is simply putting more people in prison and keeping them there for longer.

There are many public misconceptions about crime. All the evidence shows that the public believe that crimes are more frequent than they actually are and that sentences are more lenient than they actually are. As long as that is the case, the public will be prey to both newspaper headlines and populist rhetoric suggesting that there is an easy solution to a massive problem of
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increasing crime in the form of opening more prisons and cramming more people into them—when that is clearly not the case.

We have the highest prison rate among any of the major countries of western Europe—and not just marginally higher, but by far. Yet that has not enabled us to have a different and more successful record on crime and the prevention of crime than those countries have had. We see a strong need for a much more informed public debate and we look to the leaders of all the parties to contribute to it and to resist the temptation to grab a current case and the public fears generated by it and say, “Ah, this proves that we must have more prisons or longer sentences.” Although long sentences are necessary and appropriate in a few cases, they are not the answer to general crime problems.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Is the justice reinvestment inquiry that the Select Committee is undertaking, in which I take a particular interest, relevant not just to an informed debate among politicians but to the lack of local community involvement and ownership of issues such as youth justice and, indeed, financial decision-making, not least in the area of commissioning of prison places?

Sir Alan Beith: The hon. Gentleman is on to a very important point. Our system does not locate in one place, either nationally or locally, decisions about how money is spent. The decisions are taken by different people: some take decisions that result in more prisons, but others are taking decisions on where the money is spent—on youth work, early intervention or community sentences in particular areas, for example. The structure of financial decision making is an absolutely essential issue and the Committee is taking a close interest in it.

Some things are, of course, missing from the Queen’s Speech: some I am sorry are not in it; others I am pleased are not in it. I shall take an example of each. The Queen’s Speech lacks the announcement of an effective Bill on party funding. What we have instead is a trundling on with the wholly inadequate Bill that we started considering in the previous Session. What we need is a Bill based on the lines of the Hayden Phillips report and the work of the Select Committee in bringing Members of all parties together to reach a common conclusion that we must get the big money out of politics and accept that all parties would have to make some sacrifices to reach that point. We would then need to create a system to incentivise the giving of money to political parties in small amounts by larger numbers of people as part of their ownership of the political system. That is, of course, precisely what Barack Obama succeeded in doing in the United States. Much of the vast amount of money raised for his campaign came in small donations from very large numbers of people. Unless we do that, we will not be able to deliver what we said was necessary: to offer the taxpayer visibly cleaner and healthier politics. That will not even be begun by the Government’s proposed legislation. The Government have surrendered to a veto by one party, and the Bill that was reintroduced this week will do nothing to change the dependence of the system on big donors.

Mr. Walker: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about party fundraising. Why does politics excite people in the United States of America in a way that it is simply not exciting people in this country?

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Sir Alan Beith: It is probably mainly to do with a perception that there was a need for change and a means to bring it about. We must all hope that the election of Barack Obama and his Administration satisfies some of those aspirations, which led people to take part. It may not so fully do so, as that is difficult to achieve. In our system, many people assume that nothing they do will make any difference. They have seen the two main parties grow rather more similar in recent years in the ideas and prescriptions that they put forward. That might change again—who knows?

People have seen a system in which their votes do not seem to count—that point was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne)—because of the electoral system that we have, but the crucial difference is that when people see that their votes make a difference, they are more likely to vote.

I was elected to the House in a by-election 35 years ago last month. The turnout was 84 per cent. and the poll took place well on in the year, when the register was quite old. My majority was 57 votes. People knew that the by-election was close. They could see that their vote was crucial to achieving change. Unless we can get more of our electorate to feel that their vote will change not just perhaps the personnel but the direction of government, we will continue to have low participation.

The next thing that is missing but might have been expected in the Gracious Speech is any reference to legislation on the Bill of Rights and responsibilities. Instead, we have, in that time-honoured phrase, the Government taking a step back from what they originally intended to do:

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