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4.3 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I shall not keep the House for too long, but I would like to comment on a number of aspects relating to this afternoon’s theme and the Gracious Speech.

I estimate that 55 to 60 per cent. of my casework relates to asylum, refugee and immigration issues. That is quite a heavy burden. My assistant, who has been with me since I was elected to this House nearly 17 years ago, has worked miracles with the Home Office on behalf of many constituents. I pay tribute to him, because it has been a big burden and our successes in breaking through red tape and so on are often rewarding. Like so many other hon. Members’ assistants, my assistant Carl Morris does much of the nitty-gritty work, and I acknowledge that now in the House.

It frustrates those of us with a high ratio of such work when we still see the bureaucracy, inertia and inefficiency of the Border and Immigration Agency on a number of issues. For balance, I want to say that things have improved. I welcome the fact that for some time now we have had a uniformed border and immigration service. That has had an enormous impact. I still think that we should beef it up into a proper border police force, but I am grateful for the current position, which is a marked improvement.

However, there is still a long way to go. I urge the Justice Secretary to use his good offices to put pressure on Whitehall for better performance, because there is room for enormous improvement in several respects. Earlier today, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) put in a bid, which I would like to endorse, in relation to one particular group—Zimbabwean refugees. It is plain common sense and in the interests of
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everyone that this group should be allowed to work—I would go on to say that other groups should be given that right—and I would have thought that that could be done with the stroke of a pen. No doubt somebody in Whitehall would find 1,000 reasons why it should not be done, but the Justice Secretary has been in office for long enough to say, “Thank you very much, Sir Humphrey. I hear what you say—now this is what we’re going to do.”

Mr. Drew: My hon. Friend suggests that other pleas could be made, so may I make a plea for Darfuri asylum seekers? They also face a difficult time in this country, particularly because until recently it has not been unknown for them to be interviewed with members of the Sudanese embassy present, which, with the best will in the world, is not necessarily what they would like to happen.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that and pleased that I gave way to him, because my theme is that the situation needs to be continually monitored by Ministers and that common sense should prevail. The Zimbabwean case is overwhelming. However, there are other groups of people who have no realistic prospect of being able to return to their countries but face enormous emotional strain in trying to maintain themselves. I do not want to do any injustice to those very vulnerable groups, but the potential for their carrying out petty crime therefore increases, because they have to survive. I urge the Justice Secretary to tell the House that he will revisit this matter and do what he can to ensure that common sense prevails. It would be in the interests of the United Kingdom, as regards our economy and given the pressures on our social services and welfare expenditure, if they were allowed to work.

I hope that the Justice Secretary will speak to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about some of the arrangements that are in place. In an overwhelming majority of United Kingdom high commissions and embassies, the quality of the method by which people are processed is very high. However, in one or two instances there are locally engaged companies—private firms of security guards and so on—who do not treat people who have gone to consulates appropriately. In some exceptional circumstances, I have deep anxiety about their propriety and conduct. Our high commissioners and ambassadors should be reminded to probe and test that which often happens outside the precincts of their offices, where people are queuing up, to ensure that there are no irregularities and that United Kingdom citizens who are not white are nevertheless treated as United Kingdom citizens. People are sometimes treated in a discriminatory way, not by FCO officials but by those who are employed to marshal the people queuing up to go in. I make these comments in the context of the borders, immigration and citizenship Bill and the draft immigration simplification Bill.

The Justice Secretary knows that when he was Foreign Secretary I repeatedly pleaded for the United Kingdom to have a mission in Kyrgyzstan. That is relevant because the United Kingdom was recently substantially embarrassed by the fact that its officials in Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan, failed to process an application for visas by musicians and performers who had been invited to
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the United Kingdom by the ambassador of Kyrgyzstan. That was disgraceful and is indicative of the fact that we do not have a proper mission in the capital of Kyrgyzstan. We should have, for a whole variety of reasons, and when we become clumsy in that way, the point I have repeatedly made is underscored.

The Justice Secretary might reflect on one thing when these Bills are being drafted and prepared. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) was Home Secretary, he introduced legislation that dignified the award of United Kingdom citizenship, which was an extremely good thing. Provision was made largely for civic dignitaries, such as the mayor of a council, to award citizenship at a ceremony. I am somewhat jealous about that. Hon. Members—perhaps including you, Madam Deputy Speaker—have actually sponsored, counselled and encouraged people to get British citizenship. I would like the honour of administering or presiding over such a ceremony, and perhaps legislation could be amended, if that is necessary, to include hon. Members in the list of people who can do that. It is with immense pride that we have achieved this outcome, and why should some here today, gone tomorrow mayor—although some are very good—have the right to make the award when some of us have seen the process through to that point?

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): The hon. Gentleman may need to talk to his local authority about that because I certainly have officiated at a large number of those ceremonies in my constituency. He talks about providing asylum seekers with a right to work, which is an important point. Will he also consider whether they should be allowed to volunteer as well?

Andrew Mackinlay: Of course. I totally endorse what the hon. Gentleman says.

I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) in her place. I listened carefully to what she said about the madrassahs and clearance checks. I want to say how right she is, and I think that most hon. Members would agree. It is an act of appalling discrimination that these centres are somehow exempt—they are not exempt in law, but nobody is homing in on the problem. That takes place against a backdrop of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and many other ministries being very conscious of the issue. The Church of England has a new code dealing with vicarages and rectories. There has to be separate meeting room space, and it refers to the question of propriety and how people are dealt with or accompanied, plus the checks to which my hon. Friend referred. It is intolerable—in the sense that days shall pass from now—that there is no use of the existing law in respect of those madrassahs. The overriding issue is that children are vulnerable, but the situation is also grossly unfair to the boy scouts and the various churches and organisations that have addressed the problem. I hope that the Justice Secretary will take that matter on.

On political parties and elections, the Labour Government have tried, with a lot of good intent, to improve our electoral administration, but in many cases we have made things more complicated. Some of us are very disappointed in the performance of the Electoral Commission, and I notice that in the remaining orders and notices, there is a motion to pay the chairman of
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the Electoral Commission £100,000 a year. I am waiting for that motion to come up—I have watched out for it every day—because I intend to divide the House on the matter. Frankly, I think that £100,000 a year is far too much money. Even if it is a full-time job, that is too much, but I suspect that if we looked at the small print, we would find that it is one of these jobs that take two or three days a week. I would like the Government to reflect on the fact that £100,000 is far too much. I do not want to labour the point, but it is too much, and I am saying, so that everyone knows, that I will divide the House on the matter if I get the opportunity, and I hope that I command some support.

The list of draft Bills contains a measure on floods and water. I represent Tilbury, which is part of the Thames Gateway, where the Government are properly hoping for and looking to regeneration, quality places for people to live and work, and the creation of skills, especially in my borough of Thurrock. I fully endorse that, but not at any price.

Anybody who is familiar with the terrain knows that Tilbury was built on the marshes of the Thames. Irish labourers in the 19th century cut the docks and I would describe Tilbury town as Lowry-esque. It has great attraction—we are proud of its traditional docks, which have provided work for more than 120 years. However, between the town and Chadwell St. Mary lies part of the Thames marsh, which fulfils traditional green belt policy. It is a lung and it is attractive against the Lowry-esque landscape. People covet that land and I want to make it clear that Andrew Mackinlay does not support its development. It is vital to the people of Tilbury and Chadwell St. Mary in my borough. Although I support the broad programme of development, I will not support building on that land for a variety of reasons—the green belt, questions of flooding and irrigation, and compelling water engineering issues. I hope that I would get the Secretary of State’s support if there were an appeal.

I note that there is also a draft communications data Bill. It appears to be primarily designed to regularise matters or provide for the state to marshal information. [Interruption.] I am told that it is dead. That is disappointing. In any event, my point is that the Justice Secretary, who has overall responsibility for data protection and freedom of information, needs to revisit that in the context of Whitehall. I sent data protection applications across Whitehall—to every Ministry—in the summer for good reasons. In my applications, I asked for disclosure of anything held on me in relation to my work as a Member of Parliament. That is important—I would not raise the matter if it were purely personal. I wanted to know what the Ministries held.

Conduct and stewardship of those applications by Ministries was patchy. Some were good and diligent, but others wrote back saying, “I don’t know who you are.” Although I applied on House of Commons headed paper and included a photostat of my passport, some insisted that they did not know who I was.

There is also a disparity between Departments on charging. There is a power to charge a nominal amount—I do not mind that, but the disparity is not good. There should be consistency across government. In some cases, getting the information was like extracting teeth from a whale.

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The worst performer to date is the Cabinet Secretary—I think that his name is Macdonald. He has not replied, despite the 40-day limit. If the Cabinet Secretary cannot get it right, how can we expect proper action down the pyramid and across Whitehall?

I raise the matter not for myself but for all the others who have submitted applications under the Data Protection Act 1998, which the Justice Secretary piloted through the House when he was Home Secretary, and of which he can justifiably be proud. It is inconsistently applied and needs beefing up. All I ask today is that he examine the matter because amending legislation might be required, but I think that people need a rocket put under them, starting with the Cabinet Secretary.

4.19 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Yesterday we saw the Lord Chancellor, in all his finery, skilfully walking backwards, which he did most expertly. That was entirely appropriate, because retreat has been the story of the Prime Minister’s programme on constitutional renewal.

Back in July last year, when the new Prime Minister made his first statement to the House, he promised a

Constitutional change was not peripheral to the Government’s agenda; it was central to their programme—“founded on...conviction”. That conviction cannot have been very profound, because just 18 months later, the constitutional agenda has all but disappeared. It has become clear that the Prime Minister had no great vision of a new settlement, just the immediate political challenge of dissociating himself from his predecessor.

The Prime Minister soon discovered that just repeating the word “renewal” did not renew anything, least of all his reputation. The work of change did not work, so spin doctors were fired and a new purpose was sought. Now the Prime Minister has found a different posture, on the global stage—“Never mind British democratic renewal; it’s time to save the world.” A supposed programme for long-term constitutional change has now been cast aside in a second, desperate attempt to establish a new narrative.

What we are left with is neither reform nor renewal, just tinkering. Eighteen months on from the grand promise, we do not even have a proper constitutional renewal Bill, just an ongoing draft Bill, with an indication that the real thing will be introduced when time allows, and we all know what that means. The Prime Minister said:

Now we know what he meant. At this rate, we will not see a constitutional renewal Bill until the next Parliament. We are left with a few draft measures that are worthy enough in their own right, but completely inadequate to address the real problems of public disengagement and imbalance in our political system.

Last year, the Justice Secretary told us:

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However, he cannot even find consensus among those on his own Benches. His predecessor, Lord Falconer, said that the Bill was not so much constitutional renewal as constitutional retreat. The Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which was chaired by the right hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster), said:

which is a polite way of saying, “It’s a dog’s breakfast.” More than one commentator has described the Bill as a miscellaneous provisions Bill. Professor Adam Tomkins of the university of Glasgow told the Joint Committee that

The Bill contains some worthwhile measures, among them the repeal of sections of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which has seen people arrested for reading out the names of the dead at the Cenotaph, but which can apparently do nothing about the permanent encampment that has taken root in Parliament square. Citizens should not have to petition the police for the right to make themselves heard by Parliament. After all, it was the Prime Minister who said last October:

which included

With the constitutional renewal Bill still only in draft form, will the Government consider including the provision to deal with the issue of protests in Parliament square in the policing and crime Bill instead, which is at least a real Bill and will be introduced in this Session? Perhaps the Metropolitan police do, after all, have enough to do at Westminster.

The Justice Secretary is in full constitutional retreat. Last year, he promised to publish a Bill of rights and responsibilities. He travelled round the world talking about it. He delivered learned speeches to academic audiences. He even flew to Washington to tell the new world that he was going to modernise the Magna Carta. Only new Labour could utter that phrase with no sense of irony or endorse its revolting suggestion that all our ancient rights need is a makeover from a spin doctor.

What has happened to the Bill of Rights? The Justice Secretary’s constitutional adviser, Lord Lester, has resigned, saying that the Government’s proposals are unworkable. Since none of us has seen the proposals, it is hard to know. Where is the statement of British values? When does the Justice Secretary plan to publish it—on the new British day, perhaps? Last March, the Prime Minister said, “Today”—I emphasise the word “today”—the

After nine months, will the Justice Secretary say how his consultation throughout the country is going? He cannot, of course, because it has not happened.

The Prime Minister said last year that the consultation would begin “in the autumn”. In October last year, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), told the House
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that he would “shortly be announcing” it. In November, he said that work was “still under way”. By February this year, he claimed that the Government were “about to launch” it; then he said it was launching “before Easter”. After Easter, they were still “finalising the process”. In May this year, the Justice Secretary said he would be making an announcement “before the summer recess”. The build-up to the statement of values is acquiring a tantric quality. The question must be asked how much value the Government believe this statement of values still has. [Interruption.] I am glad the Home Secretary understood the reference.

During the debate on last year’s Queen’s Speech, the Justice Secretary promised us

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