|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister a question. He referred to a Conservative Member of Parliament taking a certain view in the House of Commons. Can he remind the House what Mr Straw said when he commented on exactly the same issue? As I recall, he was passionately opposed to the proposal. Can it be explained to us why he is now passionately in favour of it?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, if noble Lords had followed the debates in the Commons yesterday they would have noted that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary was very clear on the matter: he had been persuaded by the arguments. So have we.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the Minister has been running an intriguing argument during the past few minutes. He will remember that after proclaiming our previous position we lost a general election. Noble Lords opposite won one on theirs. We have listened very carefully to what has been said of our proposals and have changed our mind. Why have the Government changed theirs?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I believe that I have made the position plain. We believe this proposal to be in the best interests of our criminal justice system. It is a more efficient, effective and speedier way to bring people to justice. I would have thought that noble Lords opposite would have shared that common approach to justice. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, will be familiar with the criminal justice system in Scotland where, effectively, the place to which criminal cases are referred is determined by magistrates' courts.
There is overwhelming evidence that the process has been abused in the past and causes further distress to victims and wasted time and resources to both the police and courts. Research shows that about three in five defendants who elect Crown Court trial against the wishes of magistrates change their plea when the case reaches the higher court. I believe that to be a very important consideration in this matter.
The Government have embarked on major reforms of the way in which this country is governed. The measures that we are introducing will continue that process of modernisation. First, as to party funding, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill follows the recommendations of the Neill Committee and will implement my party's manifesto commitment to ensure that foreign donations to political parties are banned and that large donations are publicly disclosed. The stories over the past few days remind us of exactly why we need to clean up our political system to ensure that the public have confidence in those who represent them. The previous Conservative government fought tooth and nail to prevent the issue of political party funding even being considered by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, never mind
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am happy to confirm that it was set up by the leader of the party opposite when in government. That is an important and valuable contribution. We are furthering, improving and continuing that work. I am sure that the noble Lord is more than willing to accept that point.
This Bill will at last make the changes needed. There will be spending limits at elections, shareholder approval of company donations and a new electoral commission to regulate the system. We hope that this Bill will be supported, as it ought to be, by all who want to see an end to the previous doubts and suspicions in this area of public policy. When in office the Conservative Party persistently dragged its feet over obvious abuses relating to foreign donations. As a government they persistently refused our suggestion that the Neill Committee should be asked to look into party funding. Now is their chance to draw a line under the past and restore public confidence in their approach.
The Representation of the People Bill will modernise our outdated voting procedures, which have remained largely unchanged since the last century. For too long the electorate has been going to vote at times which are perhaps not convenient and in locations that are unsuitable. There have also been too many barriers put in the way of those who simply want to exercise their democratic right to vote. Therefore, to aid the process of voter registration the Government will provide for a system of rolling registration to replace the current system, which has a single annual qualifying date. The Bill will provide for local authorities to pilot alternative voting arrangements, such as changing the times and days when people can vote. They will also be able to pilot mobile polling, alternatives to traditional polling stations and electronic voting. These schemes will be evaluated and, if successful, could be rolled out nationally.
The Bill also proposes some changes to the election rules to make it easier for the disabled to vote. I am sure that that will be a welcome change for many people. Our modernisation programme will also include the first ever Freedom of Information Bill.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Before he leaves the electoral system, can he give any indication of when those of our colleagues who have been removed from this House will be put on the electoral register and allowed to vote?
For the first time every citizen of this country will have a statutory right to information held by public authorities. Public services are already more open than they used to be. Departments publish much more information about their processes than in the past. However, the right to know cannot be entirely unfettered. We must govern in the interests of the country, not pressure groups. We believe that we have secured a proper balance.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On the basis of the right to know, what is the Minister's response to the following? I wrote to the Home Secretary in early August. I wrote a reminder two weeks ago. I am awaiting a reply. What price freedom of information there?
We have listened to the concerns of the Select Committee appointed to consider the draft Bill and those of other noble Lords. We have made changes to the draft Bill on the basis of those concerns. I am sure that we can look forward to debating this issue further over the next few months.
Changes in governmental structures need to bring about changes in culture too, both within society and in the relationship between communities and public authorities. As part of our response to the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence we undertook to amend the Race Relations Act to extend it to all public services. We shall do so through the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill. This will make it unlawful for any specified public authority, including the police, directly to discriminate on racial grounds in carrying out any of its functions. It will also make chief officers of police liable for acts of racial discrimination committed by their police officers. This will remove an anomaly in the law and bring the police's position under the Act into line with employees.
This area of policy is of great importance to the Government and to me personally. It encompasses every piece of work we do and the lives of everyone in this country. In that way it is so much more than an ordinary piece of legislation. It is about the culture of workplaces and the values by which we lead our lives. The Race Relations (Amendment) Bill must be seen in the context of the work that is now being taken forward across society in order to stamp out discrimination and to make equality of opportunity a reality for all. The Government's role is to ensure that the right legislative framework and institutional arrangements are in place in order to achieve this.
We agreed in our response to the Better Regulation Task Force report that there is no need for a major legislative overhaul in this area at this stage. But we believe that action is being taken to tackle discrimination and disadvantage on all fronts.
There will also be a Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, with which noble Lords will be familiar. It is the same as that rejected by this House last April. There will, as previously, be a free vote in both Houses. I hope that this time the House will support the principle of equality before the law and the protection of children measures contained in the Bill. However, should the other place again support the Bill and this House reject it, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made it plain that the Parliament Acts will be used to ensure that the will of the elected House prevails.
It is a demanding programme of work but it is also necessary: necessary to ensure that Britain has a modernised system of government fit to face the challenges of the next century; necessary to ensure that our criminal justice system is effective in delivering a safe, secure and just society.
Before I sit down I have one final challenge I wish to issue, in particular to noble Lords opposite. In examining our proposals which, rightly, are extensive, perhaps they can tell us today which measures, powers and duties they would, if they had the opportunity, seek to reverse. Would they roll back the rights of access to information? Would they drop improvements to race relations legislation? Would they deny to homeless people the right to vote? Would they lift the ban on the receipt of foreign political donations, weaken our tough new anti-drug measures, or narrow our anti-terrorism proposals? Finally, do they share our desire to modernise, improve and reform public services? That is the key question. We believe that our programme is necessary to ensure that there is a new, more open, just and tolerant relationship between individuals and the state.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page