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So no Bill on rights and responsibilities. I am quite pleased about that, because there is a deal of confusion around that subject in Government circles, and some other circles as well.

There is the idea that we can somehow change our corpus of rights by introducing a separate British Bill of Rights. I am very sceptical of that notion. We are signatories to the European convention on human rights, and even if we repealed the Human Rights Act 1998 and stopped our access to it in our own courts, we would still be signatories to that convention and the process involving the DNA database case—which everybody, certainly on the Opposition Benches, is celebrating today and which has led to a decision that the Government’s position is not lawful—would still be available to us. Although it is advantageous that we can access the convention in the British courts, the European convention will determine our rights for many years to come. I see danger in any pretence that we can subtract from those rights. Some Conservatives seem to think that we can do so—although we cannot unless we withdraw from the convention—or that we can usefully start tinkering around, adding a few extra rights and giving them the same force. I am not even comfortable with that, either.

At the same time, the Government confuse the notion of responsibilities with rights. In making what is, on the face of it, a reasonable proposition that people should care about their responsibilities as well as their rights—a proposition that we could all agree to—they go on to imply that all of that could be put into a piece of
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legislation or a charter so that rights and responsibilities had the same status. That is nonsense, and quite dangerous nonsense too.

There are certain responsibilities to keep the law, which if we do not carry out we lose rights. We may be sent to prison because we have broken the criminal law, but we cannot have a process whereby we start taking people’s rights away if they do not exercise as much social responsibility as is desirable or because, on some subjective measure, they are not behaving as responsibly as we would like.

I want people to do socially responsible things—not just in the negative sense of not doing bad things, but in the positive sense of taking an active part in their community, helping community organisations and being involved in all sorts of good things such as charitable work. I am absolutely delighted that so much of that goes on in our country, but I simply cannot get my head around the idea that if people do not behave to the fullest extent of responsibility that they could achieve, we may somehow treat that as a rights issue, saying, “You haven’t helped with the scout troop, so you will lose a bit of freedom of speech. You haven’t stood for the parish council, so you will lose some of your freedom of association.” Those two things are very different. Social responsibility is something that we can encourage and try to develop in society. Rights are something that we make subject to a framework of law and justiciable, and one cannot mix up the two concepts as the Government are doing. I am quite pleased that we will not see that in the Queen’s Speech.

Instead we have a vague and, from this Government, unlikely notion of “strengthening Parliament.” There is one specific measure that the Government can cite as likely to achieve that: the powers in relation to war and peace—the parliamentary process when this country goes to war. That is right in principle and, in the case of Iraq, actually happened. As one of those who voted against the Iraq war, I must recognise that we did have a vote in this House about it, but the idea that that will strengthen Parliament is a bit fanciful. As we all know from that and other experiences, many Members feel pressured by the fact that our troops are stationed and ready to take action into not voting against what the Government are doing. Others feel that if they vote against their Government in those circumstances they are effectively calling on them to resign at the most difficult period for the country for any Government to resign. The measure is right in principle but it does not really add to the corpus of real parliamentary power.

Among the things that would change Parliament is a reformed electoral system that did not give Governments automatic majorities and made it much less likely that Governments had the kind of majority that enabled them to ignore Parliament, and that stopped the Government’s stranglehold on the House. We now have more Ministers than ever before. We have lots of unpaid Ministers. We used to talk about the payroll but we now have Ministers who are prepared to take on the loyalty and limitations of being in government without even being paid a ministerial salary for doing so. There are now quite a lot of them, but the total effect is to add to the number of people on the Government side of the House who are automatically committed to supporting the Government unless they resign their office.

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Mr. Walker: The right hon. Gentleman has been in the House for 35 years. Was it not the case that, 35 years ago, being a Parliamentary Private Secretary did not put a Member on the payroll vote, and there were occasions when PPSs from both sides of the House voted against the Government and retained their positions?

Sir Alan Beith: I still think and hope that PPSs will vote against the Government from time to time and might survive in office for doing so, but throughout that 35-year period, the size of Government within the Chamber has increased—an undesirable development. I think it fairly unlikely that the Government will achieve much in the way of strengthening Parliament for the reasons that I have set out.

The Government should also bear in mind the importance of supporting the role of MPs. If the Government are worried about leaks, they have themselves to blame. First, they have failed to bring in a civil service Bill which could strengthen the civil service code, and secondly, they have set the tone with their own leaks. The very Government who complain about leaks are filling the newspapers with things that in my early days in Parliament were practically hanging offences. Revealing the contents of the Queen’s Speech before the Queen uttered it was regarded as a very serious matter indeed in my earlier years. As for the contents of a Budget, for those to be revealed was a resigning matter for the Chancellor.

Mr. Straw: I do not think we can be criticised on the Queen’s Speech because one of the reforms introduced by the Prime Minister was a draft Queen’s Speech, which could be the subject of proper scrutiny.

Sir Alan Beith: I accept that reform and supported it at the time, but we are seeing the playing around with the Gracious Speech itself. Once the Government have made their undisclosed decisions about what they are taking forward and what they are not, following the consultation process that the Prime Minister rightly introduced, the newspapers on Tuesday and Wednesday tell us what the Queen will say, Her Majesty delivers the speech and then, on the middle of Wednesday, the Government set about another kind of leaking: they indicate that what the Queen said was not terribly important, and that what was really important was the repossessions initiative, which was announced to the press before Parliament, and certainly in more detail than it was announced to Parliament by the Prime Minister.

Chris Huhne: My right hon. Friend will remember that when in opposition the Prime Minister was very proud of using leaked documents from the civil service to hold the Government to account. In fact, on “Newsnight” earlier this week there was a rather glorious clip—dating back to July 1985, I think—of a very young Gordon Brown claiming the credit for doing exactly that.

Sir Alan Beith: Yes; what a young figure the Prime Minister cut, but we all remember him in those days.

Clearly, all Governments have to ensure that they can conduct their business, but they now do so within a framework of freedom of information, where they need
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to be a little less sensitive about information, much of which could be claimed as public under the Freedom of Information Act in any case. When situations arise that are to do with the leaking of confidential information, the basis for dealing with them should be the civil service code, buttressed by a civil service Act.

While making no comment on the current case, it is my view that if a Member were to take action that seemed to be designed to extract information from a civil servant by putting pressure on them, that would be a matter for parliamentary standards. That would be the appropriate way to deal with that, rather than through the criminal code. When Douglas Hurd was Home Secretary, he introduced substantial changes so that the criminal code was more properly confined to official secrets in the area of national security, and disciplinary processes other than the criminal law were thought appropriate for the rest of Government business. That was an important change which was enshrined in a revised Official Secrets Act. Having served on the Intelligence and Security Committee for more than a decade, I am well aware of the importance of safeguarding national security and of rigorous protection of the secrecy on which it depends, but that has also reinforced in my mind the importance of distinguishing between that and the protection of the Government’s ability to hold discussions. That is a significant point, and it involves issues such as freedom of information and the sort of processes that have occasionally brought to light matters that needed to be brought to light, embarrassing as they were to the Government.

Let me make one last comment on the current situation, since it is germane to the justice and home affairs section of the Queen’s Speech debate and to the issues that occupied us yesterday and earlier today in relation to the rights of Members of Parliament and their constituents. We will do ourselves a considerable disservice if we politicise the discussion of how we protect the privileges of Members and their constituents, and of Members and those who bring important information to them. I have detected several dangers in that regard. I have seen no evidence suggesting that Ministers did anything more than press the button of complaint that there were too many leaks going on in their Department, and once that button was pressed processes began, leading ultimately to arrest and a search in this place, which are causing us a great deal of anxiety. If there is evidence to the contrary, that may be disproved, but my initial perception is that, despite what some have speculated, Ministers have not engaged in any more detailed involvement than to say, “Can nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?” To concentrate on actions that Ministers probably did not take unwisely politicises the issue.

Similarly, however, the Government must look very carefully at how they are handling the matter, including the motion that the House will debate on Monday, because if they move to the kind of defensive position I have heard in some of the comments from the Labour Benches and seek to narrow the ability of this House to assert, within proper limits, the privileges and rights on which our constituents depend, we will do a great disservice to Parliament. The House needs to find a way of acting together to assert and protect the right of constituents and others to bring before Parliament matters which Parliament needs to know.

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3.19 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I have an agreement to look after grandchildren from 6 o’clock, so I did not prepare a speech for this debate because I did not think I would be able to be present for the wind-ups, which I know we should be. However, it appears likely that the debate might not last the full course, so I will be able to do my duty both to this House and to the grandchildren.

I would like to discuss certain aspects of the Gracious Speech. The borders, immigration and citizenship Bill will touch on changes to nationality law to implement the new paths to citizenship. I noticed that this morning, The Times mentioned that those who did not achieve citizenship might be sent back. I think that the journalist got it wrong, because he does not seem to understand that once someone has obtained indefinite leave to remain, they cannot just be shoved back to wherever they came from.

I am very committed to the need for immigrants, particularly those who have indefinite leave to remain and those who have not yet reached that stage, to have a grasp of, and ability to use, English. As the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), who has now left the Chamber, has said, the best way to provide English for speakers of other languages—ESOL—is through colleges of further education. Unfortunately—I can understand why this happened—various Ministers in the relevant Department decided that the cost of teaching English as a second language was going through the ceiling, and as they were afraid that it might take over the Department, and cuts would have to be made in other areas, they put a cap on ESOL spending.

I accepted that at the time, but I am becoming increasingly anxious about it, because now that people have to have English in order to obtain indefinite leave to remain—and, further down the line, citizenship—there is a growing cottage industry providing certificates so that people can obtain those things. I am not knocking private provision, because some of the private providers of ESOL are perfectly good, charge reasonable amounts and give a good service. Such providers are well organised and give a number of lessons to people, mainly women, who have no English.

Unfortunately, an increasing number of rogue operators are just giving a one-day course. The idea that someone can learn how to use English and obtain knowledge of it in one day is absurd. These rogue operators are charging knock-down prices, and that is putting some of the adequate providers out of business, and putting many of our immigrant communities at risk. People are not learning English on these courses; they are just getting a certificate to say that they have English. That means that young women who live in some communities in my constituency do not know their rights, because they do not know English, and they cannot pass on English to their children before they go to school.

This situation has all sorts of negative aspects, so I am as keen as I always have been for communities to have a good grasp of English. Sadly, many women in my constituency who have been in this country for 30-odd years do not have a word of English. We will never reach any form of integration or cohesion in our northern towns and cities until we have a common language. We should therefore examine the provision of ESOL if we are still going to insist on English for citizenship and indefinite leave to remain.

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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept, because she knows this only too well, that one of the saddest aspects of this is the fact that some effective courses put on by the trade union movement were the ones that were peremptorily cut. Surely they should be reintroduced, because they are an effective way of reaching people when they most need it.

Mrs. Cryer: I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent contribution. As he says, the trade unions were helping a great deal in that respect.

May I touch on the coroners and justice Bill, which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has just discussed in great detail? I want to discuss an idea that I have had. I visited Canada with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association about 18 months ago. We met the chief of police for Toronto, who has a great belief in restorative justice, and I believe that, with our prisons bursting, perhaps we ought to consider that idea.

I know that there are existing systems of restorative justice in this country, but I wonder whether we could extend them, because of what we heard from the Toronto police chief. He is very keen on the idea. Restorative justice does not come cheap—it is expensive—but he said that reoffending rates for those who had gone through the restorative justice system were down to 30 or 35 per cent., which is wonderful. That example can be compared with the reoffending rates for those who go to prison, which I think are at about 80 per cent., although I stand to be corrected.

The policing and crime Bill will protect particularly vulnerable members of our society, including women and children. We must start to look at the provision of madrassahs. Anyone can teach in a madrassah without a criminal records check. I have a personal interest, because about a year ago I was invited to join a trust attached to Keighley Cougars rugby league club. The trust provides out-of-school sporting activities, particularly in rugby league, for children, including girls. It makes money and then spends it on the children. I was invited to be a member of that trust, and because it deals with the provision of facilities for children, I had to have a criminal records vetting—and I had to pay for it—even though I never see those children. The Criminal Records Bureau did a check on me and found that I was perfectly all right, but I had to pay for that.

I never come across those children, yet when it comes to the madrassahs in Keighley—some are perfectly satisfactory, some are less so—the people who work in them, who have day-on-day contact with children, because madrassahs usually run six days a week, do not have to undergo a CRB check. We will have to look into that. The madrassahs are growing in number and influence and we must be careful. At the moment, we, as a Government, are discriminating against Muslim children. They do not have the same level of protection as children who go to Brownies, Cubs or Sunday school—in those cases, the people who look after the children must have CRB checks.

Finally, may I just mention the Political Parties and Elections Bill? I am rather concerned because canvassing by local authorities to put people on to electoral registers seems to be really patchy. In some areas, canvassers go knocking door-to-door, people are asked to fill in the
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form and they are put on the register. Then there are the other areas, such as Bradford. I have never come across a canvasser for the electoral register in the Bradford area. The most basic aspect of our democracy is to get people on to the register. Perhaps the Government ought to encourage local authorities to spend a bit more money on employing canvassers at this time of year, when we are compiling new registers, to ensure that everyone is registered.

The recently introduced system of making postal votes available to everyone is not doing much service for many women in my constituency. Postal votes are obtained for the household and—certainly in my local Pakistani community—Dad fills in the form without reference to his daughters. I have had complaints from such women that they are being excluded from voting because of that system. They have asked me to make the point that the provision of postal votes has become too widespread, and is discriminating against them. We should consider individual registration, which may address many of those problems.

I am sorry that this has been a speech of bits and bobs, but as I said, I had not intended to speak in this debate.

3.30 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) and her concerns about electoral registration. I have the same problem in my constituency, with postal votes meaning that that ballot is not private in some families, and the people who lose their independence as a result are usually women. In my constituency, we have also seen a corruption of the electoral register, which has been exposed in a legal case and reflects fundamental flaws in the system. The Bill now before Parliament does not take such matters sufficiently seriously.

The main issues that I wish to address have been influenced by what has happened in my constituency in the past 10 days as a series of incidents has shocked the people of Slough. About 100 yds from a poster saying “Slough against knife crime”—the day before I had had my photograph taken in front of it—a woman was murdered and another person seriously wounded with a knife. That was probably related to a domestic incident. A couple of days later, the deputy mayor of Slough was shot, probably with a crossbow. Just a couple of days ago, a woman who was clearing the ice off her car was run over by someone who was trying to steal it.

All those incidents happened within days of each other in my constituency. I can tell my constituents that their chances of being the victim of crime is lower now than at any time in the last 20 years, and that is true—but such incidents make them profoundly fearful about the rarest of crimes. Neighbourhood action groups are an important way for the community to express their concerns about crime to the police, and they are most worried about parking, criminal damage, graffiti and kids hanging about the streets, not the sort of incidents I have described. Those are the issues that get brought up, because they are more common in a community than the more violent ones that I have described, but the latter can create profound fear, and it is important to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to deal with that.

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