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25 Nov 2009 : Column 570

I commend the Government on the fact that, during difficult times for our labour market, we are not allowing any tier 3 people into the country. That is the right policy, and we have supported it from the start. However, what smart immigration policy should seek to achieve is a sensible balance between economic needs and pressures on public services.

Keith Vaz: This is, in a sense, a false debate. We cannot prevent people from the European Union from coming into this country, and there can be no limit to their number. The trouble with the arguments advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and others is that they contradict our obligations to the EU. Those people have an absolute right to come here, and we are talking about an uncontrolled number. They can come and work here just as British citizens can go to any other European country and work there.

Chris Grayling: I have two responses to that intervention. First, I think that it was a great mistake for the Government not to introduce transition controls when the countries of eastern Europe joined the EU five years ago-a great mistake that should not have been made. Secondly, we all hope that as those countries continue to bed into the European Union, living standards will rise across Europe and the migration flows that we have seen in recent years will balance themselves. I am confident that we are already seeing flows of people who have come to this country returning to the countries from which they came, and I am not convinced as others may be that this is still a long-term problem. Nevertheless, we should have had transition controls at the start.

The Gracious Speech offers us virtually none of the things that the country needs in order to deal with the challenges that we face, and the bits that it does offer have been lifted from Opposition policy documents. I must say that it is nice to know that when a Government are as weak as this Government, Opposition politicians can set the agenda; but what the country needs is not a Government who copy their opponents because they have no ideas left, but a fresh start, a fresh sense of direction, and a clear strategy for our country. This is a Government who have nothing left to offer.

Let me end by offering back to the Government some wise words from one of our most prominent public figures:

Those words were spoken by the current Justice Secretary 13 years ago. Never have his words proved more correct than they have today.

2.37 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Alan Johnson): I welcome the opportunity to debate the proposals in Her Majesty's Gracious Speech. I apologise in advance for not being able to be present for the winding-up speeches.

25 Nov 2009 : Column 571

The Crime and Security Bill includes measures to tackle youth crime and antisocial behaviour. It will give greater protection to victims of crime, particularly women and girls. It will prevent wheel-clamping businesses from imposing exorbitant fines, it will cut down police bureaucracy, and it will establish a new legal framework for the retention of DNA records.

Although the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) did not actually say the words, he returned again to the "broken Britain" theme that has been his mantra for some time. However, he now seems to have married that-"married" being the operative word, or so it will seem to those who have read The Sunday Times-to one of the Conservative Party's greatest hits: "back to basics". He wants to convince more couples that they should marry; that, he believes, is essential to solving the social problems to which he has referred. But how would he do that? How is a 21st-century population to be tempted, cajoled or enticed into abandoning their wicked cohabitation in order to get spliced? It is suggested that all official forms must state whether a couple are married or not. That is brilliant, and probably infallible. It will go with the other measures that the hon. Gentleman has announced, such as cutting police numbers this year, abandoning police authorities, and undermining the operational authority of chief constables. That, in the words of the Conservative amendment, is what he believes will

David T.C. Davies: I do not understand the Secretary of State's confusion. Official forms nowadays seem to ask for all sorts of information. They ask whether people are gay, straight, transgender-whatever that is-black, Asian, Chinese or something else. Why should they not ask whether people are married? Surely that is about the only bit of information that the Government are missing nowadays.

Alan Johnson: We have heard the views of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell reiterated in the form of a major policy announcement from the Opposition Benches. We can see what this country would have to look forward to under a Conservative Administration: an age of austerity, with foxhunting reintroduced for our recreation, and with marriage- [Interruption.] Yes, foxhunting and marriage. I am beginning to think the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell might be an undercover agent planted on the Opposition Benches-perhaps by Lord Mandelson-to disrupt and undermine the Conservative party. We all admired his independence when he went straight on to live television and announced how wrong his party was to employ General Dannatt as a defence adviser, but what if that was not another gaffe? What if the hon. Gentleman simply broke cover by forgetting in the heat of the moment what he was supposed to be doing?

Let me remind the House of the response of the Conservative leader-in-waiting, my cousin Boris, to this broken Britain mantra. He said:

he was referring here to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell-

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He also said on a separate occasion:

he is referring here not to us on the Labour Benches, but to the Conservatives, and the hon. Gentleman in particular-

That is what my cousin Boris Johnson says, and I agree.

Chris Grayling: Will the Home Secretary tell the House what he thinks about recent disturbing reports that we are now seeing an increasing number of inter-gang punishment shootings in London, with young people being shot in the legs in gang conflicts to make an inter-gang point? What is his reaction to that? What does he think has caused it, and what does he think we should do about it?

Alan Johnson: I shall come on to that, because specific measures in the Queen's Speech are of relevance to this issue, but first let me mention what I am sure must have been another attempt by the hon. Gentleman to undermine his own side. He has talked about "The Wire" and suggested that Britain, and especially London and Manchester, were becoming like the society depicted in that show. The Baltimore Sun reporter, Justin Fenton, says, however, that British

He also believes that the DNA sampling used in Britain is light years ahead of that in the USA, while saying that Britain's closed circuit television system can track a homicide suspect in real time and protect civil liberties, as it can prove the police wrong if they lie or abuse a suspect. He also says that Baltimore's drug problem could be reduced if the city adopted the British drug testing and counselling services used on all offenders on arrest. In relation to the broken Britain mantra, he says that he was warned about Brixton, but that he found it was being transformed into a nice area. He spoke to people who lived there, who said that it was nice and they liked living there, and he did not get the same sense that he got in Baltimore.

On the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman mentions, Justin Fenton went to see the brilliant Trident operation against gun crime that is run by the police in London. He said that they had 25 detectives on one case, whereas in Baltimore it is more like two per case. The resources are impressive, he said.

I therefore say to the hon. Gentleman that there is a very important debate-he has engaged in it-about knife and gun crime. It is a crucial debate for the House, but his making spurious comparisons with Baltimore adds nothing to it, and that is made even worse by his using the cheap "I'm au fait with popular culture" approach of attaching his argument to a popular television programme.

Chris Grayling: One development seen in North American cities in recent times is the involvement of children as young as 10 and 11 in running drugs. That is now becoming a feature of some estates in the UK. Why does the Home Secretary think that that is happening? What are the causes, and what does he think we can do about it?

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Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman should not denigrate what is happening in Manchester and London and compare it in this way, exaggerate it and use that kind of hyperbole. Of course we have some issues in this country. Incidentally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the murder rate, and the point made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) about the British crime survey was right, because someone cannot be surveyed if they are dead. The murder rate is 1.4 per 100,000. That puts us 46th in the world, below Finland, Portugal and Iceland. It is the lowest rate we have had for many years.

I believe that this broken Britain mantra is actually designed to help us, however, because it reminds the British public what life was like in the '80s and '90s- [Interruption.] Well, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell began his speech by saying that we had been in power for 12 years-soon to be 13 years-and that that was the time to see what a Government had done. There was spiralling crime in the '80s and '90s, and more than 3 million unemployed. There were 24-hour trolley waits in accident and emergency, people waiting years for a simple cataract operation, single parents stigmatised, the gay and lesbian community offended by section 28, mortgage repossessions, poverty pay-when we introduced the minimum wage, we found that a quarter of a million people were on £1.50 an hour-and appalling educational issues. I ask any Conservative Member to tell me what was the level of attainment of five good GCSEs-at A* to C-in inner London, where we are now, in 1997, after 18 years of Tory rule? Does anyone wish to contribute a figure?

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con) rose-

Alan Johnson: Is the hon. Gentleman going to tell me?

Mr. Baron: I thank the Home Secretary for giving way, but I suggest to him that my constituents are more interested in the future than the past. What is of particular interest to them is that, of the 52,000 prisoners who have been released early over the past few years, 10,000 have been violent offenders, and also that more than 1,000 offences have been committed by prisoners who have been released early. What message does the Home Secretary think that sends to the law-abiding majority, other than that our prisons are overcrowded?

Alan Johnson: The message is-

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Alan Johnson: I will do so when I have said something to give way on.

The message is that there are more criminals behind bars now, serving longer sentences. The issue regarding foreign national prisoners began earlier and has carried on. It has been an inherent problem over many years that needed to be tackled. Our record after 12 or 13 years is an extraordinary improvement on the 18 years of the previous Government.

Mr. Hepburn: I thank the Home Secretary for giving way. May I remind Opposition Members of the great statement that Nye Bevan made many years ago: we do not need to look in the crystal ball when we read the book? That is all we need to remind the British people of in respect of the Tories.

25 Nov 2009 : Column 574

Alan Johnson: I believe that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is trying to help us achieve that.

There were 2.9 million pensioners in abject poverty-that is £69 a week with income support-and in the previous 18 years they had one real-terms increase in pensions, and that was the year the Conservatives put VAT on fuel.

Chris Huhne: The Home Secretary has not mentioned one crucial factor about the 1980s: output began rising from the end of 1980, but the recovery was so slow that unemployment did not fall until 1986. Can he predict what the effect on crime would be if that were to happen again under a Conservative Government?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are in recession at present, as we were in the 1980s and 1990s-although this is a global recession whereas the previous one was made in Britain-and we find from looking at the record of the '80s and '90s that there was a huge spiral in the crime rate because of precisely the reasons the hon. Gentleman mentions. In particular, there was a 60 per cent. increase in domestic violence at that time, and domestic violence is an important aspect of my remarks.

The amendment moved by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell mentions welfare dependency, and he spoke about his party's determination to get people off incapacity benefit, but this country had about 700,000 people on incapacity benefit until the '80s and '90s when the Conservative Government deliberately and persistently shepherded working people out of the coal mines, the steel works and the shipyards, and on to a life of welfare dependency in order to suppress the unemployment statistics. By the time they left office, the number was 2.6 million, so if Britain was ever broken, it was in those years, when one in four British children were being raised in poverty-the worst record of any European country.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): My right hon. Friend talks about the Government's good record on getting people into work. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) recently provoked headlines such as "Benefits Britain" and "Shameless Labour" when she claimed that the number of households receiving more than £15,000 in benefits had doubled. That might be true, but when one examines the statistics on households with a member working, one finds that the numbers have not increased at all. The reason for the doubling is because the Labour Government have been far more generous to pensioners and it is they, particularly those who are in greater need, who have benefited from the increase in benefits, not those of working age.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which leads me to mention the fact that 1 million of those pensioners who were in abject poverty at the end of the 1990s have now been taken out of poverty. Thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and her predecessors, a combination of pension credit, the winter fuel allowance, good increases in the state pension, free travel and free TV licences has transformed the lives of those pensioners, many of whom were women in their 80s who did not qualify even for the basic state pension because they had not paid enough national insurance contributions.

25 Nov 2009 : Column 575

Ten years ago, this Government made an historic commitment to eradicate child poverty. Was it ambitious? Yes. Was it foolhardy? No. It was a demonstration of how seriously our country took this issue and how determined we were to resolve it. Since 1997, more than 1.7 million children have been lifted out of absolute poverty.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): As the Secretary of State has raised the issue of child poverty, perhaps he would like to tell the House whether this Government are going to reach their target of halving child poverty by 2010. If they were to stay in government, would they be eradicating child poverty by 2020?

Alan Johnson: We are still working towards halving child poverty by 2010. That will be difficult, because there has been a global recession -[Interruption.] We are still hopeful. The right hon. Lady's second question was about reaching the 2020 target, and that is exactly what our Bill is designed to do. Everyone in this House might believe that this is one of the most important objectives that we can set. All the measures necessary will of course be put in place, but we need to send a signal out about how seriously we take the issue.

I was discussing the number of people who have been lifted out of poverty. As I said, since 1997, more than 1.7 million children have been lifted out of absolute poverty, and 500,000 have been lifted out of relative poverty-that is very difficult to do when the living standards of the whole country are rising. However, we need further, decisive action to meet our goal to eradicate child poverty altogether by 2020. That is not an ambition that we intend to abandon during the global downturn; indeed, the recession makes the objective more important, not less.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): On abolishing child poverty by 2020, a lot of outside bodies, such as the Child Poverty Action Group, have said that we need to put in serious extra resources, which did not appear in last year's Budget. Is the Secretary of State indicating that his Government will put in more resources specifically for this?

Alan Johnson: All the measures we are taking in difficult economic circumstances will be important, be they on child tax credit, working tax credit or continuing to increase the national minimum wage. I should point out that on a quiet Friday, eight Conservative Members-to be fair, they were not Front Benchers-tried to move a resolution to freeze the national minimum wage. The measures that we will introduce on housing benefit will also make an enormous contribution.

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