Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the ACPO guidelines on child prostitution were prepared in order to provide a structure in which these children are recognised as being the victims of abuse. The emphasis of the criminal justice system should be to deal more effectively with abusers rather than the children involved. The guidelines were piloted in Wolverhampton and Nottinghamshire. They were successful.

The Government have welcomed the development of the guidelines. They will provide an important contribution to the joint Home Office/Department of Health inter-agency guidance on children in prostitution which is now being prepared. We have said we will consult on our guidance later this year. We shall also conduct a separate, longer-term evaluation of those two pilots.

Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that encouraging reply. What is the timetable for the Home Office/Department of Health guidelines? I understand that my noble friend says they are to be consulted upon. What is the timetable for their consultative process and for the final publication of the guidelines? Many of the voluntary organisations feel there is a need for greater urgency on this matter than there has been in the past.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the matter that my noble friend identifies is extremely important, but it is also important that we get this right. In specific answer to her question, I expect that the guidance will be issued for consultation in the middle of next month.

Lord Henley: My Lords, the Minister will remember that as long ago as the end of March we debated an amendment on this very issue, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, to the Crime and Disorder Bill. I believe that at that time the Minister rightly dismissed the noble Lord's suggestions because he said that further work needed to be done. He rightly promised that the report from his department and the Department of Health would appear sometime in the autumn. Are we now being told that merely a draft of that report will appear in the autumn and that further guidance will then have to be issued following consultation on that report? When will we get the final version?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, what I said in March I repeat today to your Lordships: guidance will be issued in the autumn--that is, the middle of next month. When the guidance has been issued, we want as wide a response as possible. A large number of voluntary organisations have already been notified that we would welcome their contributions. We want to produce the final guidelines in as perfect a form as possible and as soon as possible. However, in the nature of things, that will depend on who responds and in what

14 Oct 1998 : Column 919

timescale. There is no doubt in my mind that these matters must be attended to as quickly as possible for the protection of the children involved.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, can the Minister say whether the work done since March indicates that there is a real willingness to work together on the part of all the statutory agencies in co-operation with the voluntary bodies which have pioneered work in this area?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Yes, my Lords, I can confirm that. The pilots have been remarkably successful. In Wolverhampton, in the 12 months of 1996, 23 children under the age of 18 came to police notice. In the 12 months to 31st July 1998, when the pilots were active, 66 such children were identified and 15 men and three women have been charged with serious criminal offences. A similar pattern emerged in Nottinghamshire. Those were the results of a good deal of co-operation.

However, I take the noble Lord's point. In August we asked a large number of voluntary organisations, including Barnardo's, ChildLine, Christian Aid, NCH Action For Children, the NSPCC and many other similar bodies to be ready to offer their thoughts on the guidance that, as I said earlier, we intend to publish next month.

Baroness David: My Lords, if the proposed guidance and guidelines are accepted, will that mean that there will be legislation and that children under 16 will no longer be prosecuted?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, legislation is not a necessary or inevitable consequence of guidance. I have already indicated--I believe that this is a persuasive argument--that decriminalising such activity will simply engender a perverse and perverted market in preying on young girls of 15, 16 and 17 because an appalling signal will be given that that is no longer a criminal activity. I repeat that the point is that we must prosecute and deal firmly with offenders. I believe that we have let children down over the past years.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that local authority associations will be consulted? Can my noble friend tell us what activity has taken place in pursuance of the sex offenders order which was considered by this House and which is now in operation? Can my noble friend say to what extent the order has been used and how successful it has been?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it is very early days to deal with my noble friend's second point. On his first point, we have to work closely with local authorities. Having been present during our debates, my noble friend will recognise that an important theme of the Crime and Disorder Act is that one has to deal with specific crimes on the basis of local knowledge. That is why the partnership between the police and the local authorities is so important and is defined in that Act.

14 Oct 1998 : Column 920

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, perhaps I may follow the question asked by my noble friend Lady David. Can my noble friend the Minister say how many children under the age of 16 have been charged with a criminal offence under the Sex Offenders Act and what steps have been taken to rehabilitate those children?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not have those figures available, but I shall research such figures as are available and write to my noble friend about them. I shall, of course, place in the Library a copy of such research as there is.

Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, can my noble friend tell me how far the good practice arising from the ACPO code of practice and the pilot schemes is being disseminated throughout the country?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, there are two specific areas. As it is a joint consultative body of chief officers of police, ACPO circulates its own memoranda and details among its members. However, one needs wider dissemination than simply to police forces. That is why the Probation Service and, as my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton pointed out, the local government associations are closely involved, together with relevant departments across the whole spectrum of government. In the past, one of the problems has been that the effort has been too fragmented, with not all the relevant organisations being fully engaged.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, following the question asked by my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, will my noble friend the Minister make it clear to local authorities that they should be extremely careful about the people they recruit to deal with children, bearing in mind the recent surfeit of prosecutions on this subject?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I know from my own experience that the local government authorities are well aware of the danger and of the need to have careful checks of prospective employees if they are to have any contact with those who are vulnerable, particularly young children.

Hereditary Peerage (Election) Bill [H.L.]

3.16 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to amend the composition of the House of Lords by providing for the election to that House of holders of hereditary peerages from an electoral college consisting of Peers and certain other Lords; and for connected purposes. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.--(Lord Pearson of Rannoch.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

14 Oct 1998 : Column 921

House of Lords Reform

3.17 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington) rose to move, That this House take note of Her Majesty's Government's proposals for reform of the House of Lords, as set out in the Labour Party Manifesto.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, and do so with great expectations of the debate that lies ahead. For our part, the Government welcome the opportunity to restate our policies, but we also look forward to listening to the views which will be expressed today and tomorrow from every part of the House. The list of speakers is impressive. Some we hear regularly, others less often, but I am sure that the debate will be authoritative and informed by a variety of personal experience.

It has been said that there are as many ideas about the reform of your Lordships' House as there are people prepared to discuss it. Today--and, indeed, tomorrow--we have, at the last count, 114 prepared to discuss it. I cannot predict that every one of those 114 will have a different view, but my enthusiasm for making the opening speech in this debate is outweighed only by my appreciation of the fact that my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn will, with his customary analytic skill and capacity to precis, be drawing the threads together tomorrow evening.

Perhaps I may emphasise again that the purpose of this debate is to take stock and to listen to your Lordships. It may not be possible to respond immediately to each and every argument but the Government will listen carefully and with consideration to noble Lords who are, after all, the experts on this House: experts on its role, its customs, its strengths and of course, its weaknesses. It is right that those most affected by proposals for change should have a proper opportunity to contribute.

The Government's position is clear. It has been clear and unequivocal since the 1997 general election when the Labour Party won a large majority on the basis of our manifesto. As today's Motion asks noble Lords to take note of that election manifesto, I think it entirely appropriate to quote from it directly. The relevant passage states:

    "As an initial self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered. The system of appointment of life peers to the House of Lords will be reviewed. Our objective will be to ensure that over time party appointees as life peers more accurately reflect the proportion of votes cast at the previous general election. We are committed to maintaining an independent cross-bench presence of life peers. No one political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords.

    A committee of both Houses of Parliament will be appointed to undertake a wide-ranging review of possible further change and then to bring forward proposals for reform."
That is a succinct and accurate summary of our policy. I am tempted to add that I could say at this point, without discourtesy, that that is our case, and sit down.

14 Oct 1998 : Column 922

However, let me try to expand some of the arguments which lie behind the manifesto commitment and respond to some of the points already made in anticipation of today's debate. Perhaps the most easy to answer, and yet very often repeated, is that the removal of the hereditary Peers from Parliament is an act of political spite, a throw-back to the battles of the old class war, a policy based on a bitter mixture of personal malice and envy. My Lords, it is much more straightforward, much more objective than that.

The Government believe that modernising the constitution is vital to modernising our country's democracy. Legislating to stop hereditary Peers being Members of Parliament removes a profoundly undemocratic element. It is an element which is so significant that it disturbs the whole nature of the second Chamber. After all, over half the Members of this House have inherited their seats from their forebears. In the revised, and indeed revived, second Chamber that we want to create for the 21st century, the hereditary principle of selection is anomalous and cannot continue.

I think it is relevant that although many countries around the world have built their political institutions on the Westminster Mother of Parliaments, none has a membership based on birth. In the past, Britain has led the world in creating much of the modern democratic process, but we must now take note of the success of other second chambers and not allow the unique anachronism of the hereditary peerage to continue.

Last week I had an important meeting with hereditary Peers who sit on these Benches. They gracefully acknowledged that their role, in its present form, was over. I am glad that we will hear several speeches from them. I am sure they will explain their position very well. Although small in number, the Labour hereditary Peers have given great service to this House, and some have served with great distinction in government. Indeed many hereditary Peers, from every part of the House, have given impressive public service. No one decries that service, or seeks to re-write history by denigrating individuals. I am glad to take this opportunity to recognise and acknowledge the personal contribution of members of the hereditary peerage.

In conversation with my party colleagues, it was clear that they themselves recognised that accident of birth gave them no claim to be Members of Parliament at the end of the 20th century. It is my belief that the most thoughtful among the hereditary Peers, of all political persuasions, know that the time has come to say, "Thank you and goodbye".

The enormous, undemocratic problem is that so many hereditary Peers are of one political persuasion. The overwhelming bias in favour of one party--the Conservative Party--means that the House as a whole is unrepresentative and unresponsive to changes in public opinion. Your Lordships should recognise that the whole country could vote one way in a general election and it would make no difference to who formed the largest party in this House, which is one of the Houses of Parliament. Bias on this scale would be unacceptable whichever party it favoured. Of course, in this Parliament, as in 1945 and 1966, the Labour Party finds

14 Oct 1998 : Column 923

it particularly unacceptable. There is nothing disreputable about that. After all, today, in the democratically elected House of Commons, the governing Labour Party has 417 Members and the Conservatives have 162. In this House there is almost a mirror image. Labour has 168 Peers; the Tories' 472, of whom 300 are hereditaries. I should emphasise that the removal of the hereditaries will, at the most recent count, still leave a Conservative majority over Labour of 22. Nonetheless, any change which produces a fairer balance--as our proposals will--must make this House more democratic.

Some people have suggested that the party political democratic balance may not be particularly important because the hereditary peerage is in itself representative of different strands in our population. The noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition once suggested to your Lordships' House that these Peers were "well on the way to being a cross-section of society." Now, I was not in the House to hear the remark. Therefore, I am not sure if the noble Viscount was speaking with his familiar pleasant irony. However, it is hard to believe it was a serious assessment. After all, we know that 60 per cent. of hereditary Peers claim a background in land owning and farming and 42 per cent. have had careers in the Armed Forces. Only 1.4 per cent. describe themselves as workers--not exactly a cross-section of society that we recognise today. Today's Britain is multicultural and multi-ethnic but, for obvious reasons, that is nowhere reflected in the hereditary peerage.

Today, all political parties want to increase equal opportunities by improving equality in education. Some progress is being made but, among hereditary Peers, 45 per cent. were educated at Eton and 37 per cent. at Oxbridge. As an Oxbridge graduate myself, I must be careful not to insist that that alone represents outdated exclusivity. But, as a woman, I feel on extremely strong ground. The male dominance of the hereditary peerage is glaringly unrepresentative and glaringly outdated. This month we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the appointment of women life Peers. I am delighted that I have so many distinguished female colleagues in all parts of the House today. Indeed, there are eight women members of the Government on our Front Bench. But even in 1998 there are only 16 women hereditary Peers out of a total of 750.

As recently as 1994 your Lordships were given the opportunity to change the position. But the House voted against a proposal which would have allowed the eldest child of either gender to inherit a peerage. Four years ago the peerage would not reform itself. So today 50 per cent. of the population are represented by just 2 per cent. of the hereditary peerage. These kinds of facts make a mockery of the claim that hereditary Peers are a representative body and therefore can claim legitimate seats in Parliament.

I hope that the underlying case for what the Government intend is now apparent. The manifesto makes clear that ending the right of the hereditary Peers to sit and vote is a stand-alone reform. We believe that the reform is an initial self-contained step and that it is

14 Oct 1998 : Column 924

sufficiently important and necessary to our policies of modernising our constitution and democracy to be worth doing in its own right. That is what we intend.

To those who argue that somehow this major constitutional change is insufficient and that they want more radical reform now, I say, with respect, that they underestimate both the significance of the immediate proposals and our step-by-step approach to the longer term, to which I shall return later. However, I must say something about the political tactics of delay, about what I call a "pick and mix" approach to policies made clear in the Government's election manifesto. I have been disturbed by recent reports of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, of a Conservative Front Bench spokesman in another place, and of Back Benchers in your Lordships' House, suggesting they will deliberately obstruct the Government's legislative programme because they disagree with our manifesto proposals on reform. The noble Viscount has spoken of a "noble fight" and Dr. Liam Fox, MP, of "guerrilla warfare". One noble Earl has told me personally that he will behave like a football hooligan.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page