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Business

3.23 pm

Lord Grocott: My Lords, first, an updated version of our Forthcoming Business is now available in the Printed Paper Office. It contains details of the dates of Second Readings which have now been established.

Secondly, I want to advise noble Lords that today's debate is scheduled to finish by ten o'clock at the latest. We shall achieve that objective provided that Back-Bench speakers, of whom there are 36, confine their remarks to around nine minutes. We shall then achieve what we all want, which is to finish by 10 pm.

Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

3.24 pm

Debate resumed on the Motion moved on Tuesday last by the Lord Dubs—namely, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:

"Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."

The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, I am delighted to be opening today's debate on Her Majesty's gracious Speech. Today we discuss the Government's proposals for legislative and other change in the areas of legal, home and constitutional affairs for this longer-than-usual Parliamentary Session.

I am also delighted that I am supported today by my noble friend Lady Scotland of Asthal, and pleased to note that the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland, Lord Goodhart and Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, are either opening or closing today's debate. They have all made major contributions to the work of this House. I should like also to thank my noble friend Lady Ashton of Upholland who, along with my noble friend Lady
 
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Scotland and I, will be taking through the House some of the legislation that I am going to talk about this afternoon.

Some of the material about which we will be talking today involves legislation in which my noble friend Lord Filkin has played a part in preparation behind the scenes. My noble friend was a very valued and effective ministerial colleague. He served this House well in the time and trouble he took to ensure that there were clear and proper answers to legitimate questions. As a Minister he will be missed both for his effectiveness in discharging his ministerial role and for his determination to ensure proper accountability to this House.

The general election reduced our majority in the other place, but it indicated a clear preference for the continuation of a Labour Government. We must deliver for all of the people of this country on their priorities. We must be careful to deliver for them, and not either to ignore the meaning of the result of the election or to ride our own hobby-horses. We face a big agenda in fighting crime and terrorism. My noble friend Lady Scotland will later speak on this in more detail, and will be taking much of our proposed legislation through this House. Let me outline our proposals.

We will reintroduce an identity cards Bill. The Bill will provide all United Kingdom citizens with a reliable and secure way of proving and protecting their identity. Biometric identity cards will help to prevent the use of false and multiple identities, will help to safeguard national security, will prevent and detect crime, enforce immigration controls and secure the more effective delivery of public services. Public support for ID cards remains high; around 80 per cent of people are in favour of them.

We remain in a period where there is a significant terrorist threat. The public rightly look to the state to protect them from that threat, but within the parameters of the law, including the human rights convention and consistent with the values that define us as a nation: tolerance, fair play, patriotism and an utter determination to ensure that terrorism will not succeed or determine our politics. As promised during the debates on the Prevention of Terrorism Act, we intend to bring forward for pre-legislative scrutiny new legislation designed to ensure that our police, security agencies and courts have all the tools they need to tackle the threat effectively.

The election showed that people are concerned about immigration. It also showed that they recognise its potential to be a dangerously divisive issue. We must debate the solutions. We must not do so in a way which exacerbates tensions. We will legislate to ensure that our migration systems work for the UK to enrich our society and our economy. The immigration and asylum Bill builds on previous legislation, ensuring a migration system that is geared to the needs of the labour market and is easily understood and enforced.

The justice system must be independent and effective. The rule of law must be upheld. People fear the consequences of a lack of respect for others and for
 
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authority. They want safe and secure communities. The violent crime reduction Bill will crack down on imitation firearms and the misuse of air guns. It will target knife crime, especially involving young people. It will establish a legislative framework to combat the culture of binge drinking, yobbish behaviour and low-level disorder which is fuelled by alcohol. That culture undermines respect and costs the country more than £7 billion a year.

We will bring forward an incitement to religious hatred Bill which will make such behaviour a criminal offence. It will provide equal protection to all religious groups and will deter those who stir up religious hatred. It will not curb freedom of speech. Inciting religious hatred destroys lives. The law is able to distinguish between illegitimately curbing freedom and criminalising corrosive hatred. It has succeeded in the area of incitement of racial hatred. It can do so in the area of inciting religious hatred.

We have already published a draft corporate manslaughter Bill. Companies and other organisations should be properly accountable under the criminal law for serious failures which cause death. The Bill, which will be the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny, provides a fair basis for the application of the criminal law in this area.

Fraud moves with the times, and so should the laws designed to combat it. We will introduce a fraud Bill which will modernise the law and equip the authorities with an appropriate legal framework to fight fraud in the 21st century. Fraud fuels so many other crimes. Fighting fraud reduces funding for other crimes.

We will reintroduce the Management of Offenders and Sentencing Bill. Communities want sentencing to protect them from crime. This Bill seeks to deliver an effective integrated prison and probation service, able to bring to bear on offenders, inside and outside custody, the most effective means of reducing re-offending.

In all of the reforms that we introduce to the justice system we must recognise the critical importance of legal aid. It ensures access to justice. To be effective it must be focused on those who need it most. It is a necessary part of a fair criminal justice system.

We have today introduced into this place the Criminal Defence Service Bill. This Bill contributes to bringing criminal legal aid expenditure under better control by allowing for means-testing to ensure that those who can pay for their criminal defence do so; also providing, however, that they will normally be reimbursed where acquitted.

We must continue to ensure that in criminal trials the defendant gets proper representation. Over the past four years, expenditure on advocates in criminal trials has gone up by 79 per cent, with only a 14 per cent increase in the number of cases and a 16 per cent increase in their length. One per cent of cases account for 49 per cent of the spend on criminal legal aid in the Crown Court. Expenditure on criminal legal aid should encourage early preparation and the early identification of the real issues so that the trial focuses
 
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on the real issues. Unnecessarily long trials do not do justice and drain, disproportionately, legal aid resources.

Our expenditure on criminal legal aid drains resources away from civil legal aid. Over the past seven years, expenditure on criminal legal aid overall has increased by 39 per cent, while civil legal aid has gone down by 22 per cent. It is a priority to address this disparity.

People need to have confidence that the regulation of lawyers is adequate to ensure that lawyers are as much driven by the public interest as their own legitimate interest. We will introduce in draft this Session a Bill for the better regulation of the legal profession and those who provide legal services, reflecting in large measure the conclusions of Sir David Clementi's review published at the end of last year.

There are too many areas in life where productive activity is stifled and distorted by the fear of accidents and mistakes leading to disproportionate claims; for example, the school trip which does not go ahead, the leisure activities curtailed by the local authority, the voluntary sector bodies finding it difficult to recruit volunteers or run activities, the medical services practising defensive medicine.

The right to claim compensation where, for example, the employer or the professional is guilty of negligent behaviour is a good and salutary process which improves health, safety and professional standards. But we need to combat the culture which leads too many people to believe that where there is an injury there must be a claim. We will introduce a compensation Bill to combat that culture by clarifying that there should be claims only where there is blame and by regulating claims farmers to ensure they uphold high standards.

I move from those legislative proposals to a series of other Bills and measures which affect our constitution, the first of which is electoral administration.

Postal voting on demand was introduced into this country with the support of all political parties in 2000. The number of people applying for a postal vote in general elections has gone up steadily over the past three general elections. In 1997, before the change, it was 2 per cent—that is, around 900,000 people; in 2001 it was around 4 per cent—that is, around 1.75 million people; and, finally, in the election just gone by it was 15 per cent—that is, around 6.5 million people.

The increase in postal voting has not endangered the essential fairness and accuracy of our electoral process. The Government believe that the general election this month was safe and secure and produced a result which was fair and accurate. But there were a number of issues and allegations which arose during the course of the election which may have raised issues of public confidence.

No one would claim that it is possible to have an electoral process which absolutely prevents malpractice, but no one would claim either that any electoral process was incapable of improvement. We need to see what steps can be taken to improve
 
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security. We have committed to doing so. The electoral administration Bill will establish new measures to increase security and improve public confidence. It will also introduce measures to make elections more accessible to all members of our society and give new powers to returning officers, enabling them to deliver elections and electoral services more efficiently and effectively. While we must do all what is sensible to combat fraud, we must not so construct our system that access becomes too difficult.

I will seek to engage with the other political parties to produce as wide a consensus as possible so that there is, if it is possible, cross-party agreement—as there was on the introduction of postal voting on demand—on the contents of this important Bill.

We have no plans to introduce legislation on changing the current electoral system. I had the temerity modestly to express the view on the radio on Friday of last week that there was no groundswell for such change. I have been roundly traduced by people who have a much better connection than I with democratic politics. Perhaps I may quote one such person who said:

Noble Lords will recognise that as a quote of the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott. I yield to no one in my admiration for the noble Lord as a fund manager. I wonder whether he is in the best position to lecture the nation on what particular electoral voting system it should have.

Finally, perhaps I may say a few words on reform of your Lordships' House. The Government have achieved a great deal already to reform our constitutional arrangements. This includes reducing the number of hereditary Peers who sit in the House; legislation to establish a Supreme Court; a Judicial Appointments Commission; and reform of the office of Lord Chancellor.

The gracious Speech confirmed that we will bring forward proposals to continue the reform of your Lordships' House. In doing so, we want to ensure that there is a proper opportunity for deliberation and consensus building. That is central to our approach. We set out clearly during the course of the election the Government's objective: an upper Chamber that is effective, legitimate and more representative, without challenging the primacy of the Commons. That involves a debate about the purpose and powers of the upper Chamber and not just about its composition.

The Government will bring forward measures to address four key elements in the reforms. These include a committee of both Houses to identify and set out the key conventions of this House and a reasonable time limit for Bills to proceed through the second Chamber. That limit—60 sitting days—would not be less than the period which this House has taken to consider Bills in the past. It would not prevent this House amending or deleting parts of legislation in accordance with its current powers and conventions.
 
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The key elements also include removal of the remaining hereditary Peers and a free vote on the composition of the House. That vote must be properly informed. We hope that there will be agreement in both Houses.

The Government are keen for there to be a proper process of deliberation and debate on all of these elements. Once that deliberation is complete, a Bill will be brought forward to give effect to the conclusions reached.


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