Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, may I intervene? The noble Lord has been most generous. When he says I was spectacularly wrong about the Child Support Bill he has forgotten that he and I were in agreement over that; and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, as well.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I thought rather that the noble and learned Lord was in agreement with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who was certainly spectacularly wrong about the Child Support Bill. However, if I am wrong I apologise to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon. I was going on to refer to the number of occasions on which he has been spectacularly right, and that is the most important thing one has to say about the noble and learned Lord. He has been spectacularly right in particular about delegated legislation. He has taught us about Henry VIII clauses, and in many respects the Business of this House can never be the same again because of the contribution he has made.

There are many aspects of the debate today which do not in fact refer to the Queen's Speech but to social policy in the wider sense. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, in opening the debate, referred to a number of aspects of policy which, although they are important because he referred to them, do not actually feature in the gracious Speech at all. He referred to the creation of a crime prevention agency. It sounds a good idea except that here we have another quango where Opposition pleas for crime prevention to be a basic task of the police and to be carried out successfully in collaboration with local authorities--as we know it can be--were turned down by the Government when we considered matters two years ago.

The noble and learned Lord spoke at some length about organised crime and related it to the security services. I rather agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, when he described it as being more the danger of a secret police. If the security services have much to contribute to dealing with organised crime, let them do it within the context and the constraints of the police services as we already have them, rather than as a separate body, confusing the issue and providing powers

20 Nov 1995 : Column 214

for non-uniformed services which would be difficult to control. I find the idea deeply offensive of security services personnel having, for example, the right to burgle, as they would have.

There was little reference to the provisions of the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill apart from one from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. I am glad that he welcomes it; we too welcome it and look forward to it succeeding.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, referred to the training of probation officers. I hope that their warnings will be listened to and that we shall hear no more of the offensive and damaging proposal which was comprehensively rubbished by your Lordships when the matter was debated earlier this year. I should not refer to the noble Lord, Lord Prentice, since he is not in his seat, but he mentioned the need for a Royal Commission on social security and argued for a non-partisan approach. The noble Lord has peculiar experience of his own version of a bi-partisan approach, having been in both parties. I do not think that many of us would agree that it is possible to take such matters out of party politics.

The same applies to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, who looked for a consensus on pensions. That comes rather strangely from a member of the party which destroyed the Crossman pension Bill of 1970, when it won that election and proceeded, after agreeing with the Castle pension Bill, with SERPS, then to reduce its value substantially on the unilateral one-party basis. If there is any argument for a non-party, above-party policy on pensions, then it is the Conservative Party that has attempted to destroy it.

My noble friend Lord Longford and the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, rightly referred to the problems of prison policy and in particular to the manifesto of the Prison Governors' Association, for which I add my words of thanks and appreciation. It does not seem that the Government have learnt any of the lessons available to them from the debacles in present policy. I am not talking particularly about escapes but about much more fundamental matters. Despite the evidence available, they have not learnt that their so-called policy of secure training centres--which has resulted in not a single place since the legislation was passed--is vastly inferior to the promises they made in 1991 for increased local authority secure places. Not a single new place has been provided as a result of that promise. So by changing the policy and an insistence on a centralising policy as always, nothing has been done on either policy.

Again, I do not believe there is much evidence that the Government have learnt the lessons of next-steps status for the prison service. The degree of interference with the day-to-day running of the prison service will perhaps be revealed in the report which will come out early next year, but in view of the comments which the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, rightly made, perhaps it will not come out.

I do not have time to refer to the valuable contributions on health policy from the noble Lords, Lord Ironside and Lord Harmsworth, and on Northern

20 Nov 1995 : Column 215

Ireland from my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. I rather think that they would not agree with each other about much of the Northern Ireland policy.

I suppose what we ought to be glad about is how much is not in the gracious Speech, how much in particular of the conclusions from the Conservative Party conference this year is not there. I shall pass rapidly over the horrible speeches of Dr. Mawhinney and Mr Portillo and refer only to the speech of the Home Secretary. Noble Lords may recall that he said that there would be new policies about release from prison: those serving less than 12 months would have no earned early release, there would be no supervision after release. Those serving 12 months or more would have a small period of earned early release, but clearly there would be a severe restriction on the amount of early release that there would be. The Home Secretary then went on, even more controversially, to talk about sentences. In his speech he proposed mandatory life sentences for serious, violent and sexual offenders on second conviction. He proposed stiff minimum sentences for burglars and dealers in hard drugs who offend again and again.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, eloquently denounced those proposed measures which do not appear--thank goodness!--in the legislation. He talked about the comparison with Turkey and reference was also made to the effective letter from the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, who compared the Home Secretary's proposals with the disaster which has occurred from similar proposals, similar enactments in California.

If the Home Secretary means what he said at Blackpool in early October, then he is in for a great shock when he comes to this House. Those measures would not only be wrong in themselves but would be wildly expensive, would increase the prison population from the present 50,000 to at least 70,000 and probably more than that. I do not believe that such measures could get through this House. Even if a whipped majority in another place insisted on them, I do not believe that they would survive the considered view of your Lordships.

On all those issues of penal policy, the Home Secretary chooses to use the Conservative Party conference to say things that he dare not say in Parliament. He does so, to my mind--I shall choose my words carefully--for less than admirable reasons.

I turn now to the two major Bills on home policy which appear in the gracious Speech and which have been debated at considerable length, rightly, today. I shall not dare to refer to the Family Law Bill; my noble friend Lord Irvine has covered it comprehensively and extremely effectively. At least what has happened today is that the extent of the opposition has been smoked out. I do not believe it is enough to deter the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I hope it is not and that he will persist with the Bills as he originally proposed them, rather than as modified during the past week.

I wish to say something about the Asylum and Immigration Bill, although my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis effectively demolished the intellectual,

20 Nov 1995 : Column 216

statistical and moral base of the proposals. I was involved in the 1993 Bill, after all, which was supposed to be the solution to all those problems. We were told that if the 1993 Bill were passed, with all the reductions in civil liberties which it involved, we would not have to hear from the Government again, because the problems would be solved. What actually happened after the 1993 Bill? We are now told that the backlog of appeals outstanding is 70,000 or 75,000, but a year or two ago it was only 55,000. What happened to all the speeding up procedures that were included in the 1993 Act? Why is it that, despite increases in staff, the number of outstanding appeals is so great? It is a very serious matter. Those who receive benefits while appealing against a judgment cost, according to the Government's figures, £200 million a year. It is not acceptable for the Government to turn their back on promises they made only two years ago.

In reference to the numbers of decisions that have taken place, in the Commons this afternoon the Home Secretary boasted about the fact that 25,000 decisions are now taken in a year as compared to 15,000 in the previous 12 months. But the fact is that in 1992, before the Bill, there were 35,000 decisions. In 1994 there were 21,000 and the figure is going up again slightly. But the number of decisions is not what it was before the 1993 Bill was passed.

Reference was rightly made to the "white list". I accept the Home Secretary's assurance that Nigeria is not on the proposed white list--although I wonder whether Nigeria was included in the pilot list prepared in May this year. The idea that employers should be deemed guilty of a criminal offence if they fail to report the employment of illegal immigrants is a little remarkable. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made effective reference to that and to the disagreement expressed by Mrs. Shephard. I wonder whether the Government have thought through the implications in relation to benefits. If benefits, including child benefits, are indeed to be cut, what will happen? Are these four-and-a-half thousand children to be taken into care? What will the cost be?

Returning to the speech of my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis, what about the claim that the 1951 convention is being observed in the proposed legislation? I did not read it that way. I understood the Home Secretary to say this afternoon that the rights of "those who presently qualify" are being preserved. I understand that to mean only 4 per cent. of applicants. That appears to me to mean that for 96 per cent. of applicants the 1951 convention is not being observed. At the end of this, the Home Secretary has the nerve to say that he invites the Opposition to take this issue out of party politics, in almost the very same breath as he refuses the special Public Bill procedure in another place. It beggars belief.

Seeing the time, I turn very briefly to the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill, which we can debate at length only a week from now. However, I remind the Government that in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill 1994 and in the context of the right to silence we proposed amendments that would enforce defence disclosures, and we spoke about pre-trial reviews. So

20 Nov 1995 : Column 217

many of the ideas in this Bill are ideas that follow from the Runciman Royal Commission on Criminal Justice and indeed unfortunately go beyond it.

In so far as the Bill--and it is very difficult to read--follows Runciman, then it will receive our support. We want to support this Bill. But in so far as it goes beyond, and in particular when we examine issues such as the limits on police disclosure to the prosecution, on the lack of a schedule of unused material, on the details that the defence would have to provide, including the identification of witnesses, and above all on the ability of the prosecution to decide what is relevant to the defence, I have no doubt that there will be hard argued amendments in Committee and at later stages.

There are other aspects of the Bill, such as preliminary hearings, the judge's ruling on admissibility of evidence, the plea before decision on a mode of trial, jury nobbling and the collection of fines where we shall probably, subject to certain amendments, agree with much of what is in the Bill.

I added a last little page headed "social policy" because I thought that that was what this was supposed to be about. But when I look carefully at the Queen's Speech and try to parse it as generously as I can, I do not find much reference to social policy either in the Queen's Speech or in government policy as a whole. Despite isolated, thoughtful speeches such as that of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, I find very little reference to social policy in its broader sense and the necessity for us in this House and in politics generally to recognise the differences in our society and how they can avoid being destructive. In a recent essay in the Observer, John Kenneth Galbraith returned to the theme that he had followed for a long time about the danger of the selfishness of the comfortable majority in the United States but also in this country. He said:

    "The comfortable may well be a majority now. Those who depend on support from the State ... and those who share compassionately in their needs"--

I hope that that includes all of us--

    "are now a minority".

It is essential for us to understand the need for the minority of those who are themselves in need or who understand the damaging effects of differences in our society to let that understanding and compassion permeate our politics. I do not see that in the thinking of this Government.

8.46 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, today's debate has been interesting and, not surprisingly, wide-ranging. Many noble Lords have spoken on a large number of subjects. As always, I was impressed by the knowledge and understanding demonstrated by those who spoke of the subjects raised.

I wish to add my congratulations to those already expressed around the Chamber to my noble friend Lord Cuckney on his maiden speech. It was a strong and important speech. It brought to bear his great experience on his chosen subject. I wish my noble friend well for

20 Nov 1995 : Column 218

future debates in this House. On the evidence of his contribution today, I know that he will prove a great asset.

There is no way in which I can cover all the points raised during this debate; nor will it be possible to do justice to so wide-ranging a debate. Therefore, topics not covered in my response I shall follow up by writing to the relevant noble Lords, and I shall place copies of all my letters in the Library for all to see. I shall race through what I can in the time allotted.

Much was said today about the Asylum and Immigration Bill. As some noble Lords will doubtless be aware, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary made a Statement today in another place about the detail of the Bill's provisions. Your Lordships chose not to request that Statement to be repeated. I shall therefore respond to the points made this afternoon. But before doing so I should like to reiterate some of the remarks made by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor in opening this debate.

The United Kingdom has a long and honourable tradition of aiding those who are being persecuted or who need protection. It cannot be over-stated though that our procedures for providing that assistance and protection are being abused by people who have no genuine need of them. This cannot go on in view of the damage that is done by such abuse to immigration control and to the interests of genuine refugees, as well as the cost to taxpayers and the burden on public services. That is why my right honourable friend the Home Secretary today announced measures to deal with that abuse.

Much disquiet was expressed during the course of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, referred to the so-called white list and thought that it would lead to conflict with United Nations obligations. Designation powers would be fully consistent with our obligations under the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. We will not refuse to consider applications from certain countries. All claims will still be considered. But there will be a rebuttable assumption against claims from designated countries. Similar arrangements already apply in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. The noble Lord also referred to the possible reference of the Bill to a Standing Committee. I just wish to repeat the comment of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to the Leader of the Opposition when he wrote:

    "the purpose of Special Standing Committees is to consider Bills that are uncontroversial--indeed that is what the mechanism was designed for. This was set out by the Leader of the House in 1980 and repeated again most clearly in 1993 when he made it clear that the procedure was appropriate, 'only for relatively non-controversial measures with a degree of cross-Party support'".

The letter goes on to say,

    "This Bill does not seem to the Government to fall into that category since many controversial observations have already been made about it."

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, raised a number of points. Our obligation under the 1951 United Nations Convention is not to remove people who have a well-founded fear of persecution. We will honour that. Claims from designated countries will still be

20 Nov 1995 : Column 219

considered. There is no question of blanket bans and I cannot say at this stage whether Turkey will be included on the so-called "white list".

The noble Lord asked whether the Home Secretary would declare Nigeria as a country in upheaval. We are monitoring the position in Nigeria. On visa regulations I can say that the European Union common visa list will require us to impose a number of additional visa regimes when it comes into force next April. There are no other plans for further visa regimes but we will keep the position under review.

The noble Lord asked whether most, if not all, claims will have to be made at the ports. We are not removing the right to apply for asylum after entry to the United Kingdom, but those who apply will do so on the basis that they will not normally be eligible for benefit. On confidentiality, I can say that claims are treated in confidence unless it is necessary for the Home Office to confirm asylum seeker status for the purpose of benefit.

In relation to the right of oral appeal, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor will issue proposals as soon as possible for consultation on the matter. Finally, it is true that the overwhelming majority of asylum claims are bogus. Only 4 per cent. of claims are granted and only 4 per cent. of appeals are allowed. All applications and subsequent appeals are considered independently and fully in accordance with our international obligations.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page