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Baroness Henig: My Lords, I add my congratulations to those already offered to the noble Lord, Lord Alliance, on his most endearing maiden speech. He is rich in life's experiences and clearly in entrepreneurial talent. As a first-generation immigrant whose parents came to this country as penniless refugees on a Dutch lifeboat, I welcome him warmly
 
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from these Benches. He will clearly be a great asset to this House, and I look forward to the many contributions that I am sure he will make to our future deliberations.

I shall speak this afternoon on home affairs and focus on some of the Bills that we have been promised by the Home Office. That great department of state will be extremely busy during the next 18 months, so it is fortunate that the Ministers in it and their senior civil servants are so full of energy and resolve.

One of the early measures will be the return of the identity cards Bill. I am not going to dwell on that measure now, except to say that I warmly welcome the Bill in principle, as did a large majority of the people whom I had the pleasure of canvassing during the recent election campaign. I look forward to debating what, for me, will be the most important aspects of that Bill: what is the most appropriate and advanced technology that can be embedded in the cards; how to ensure that this major national investment is managed in the most cost-effective way; and how to ensure that the citizens of this country get the maximum benefit from the cards at the most reasonable cost.

I welcome the Government's continuing commitment to creating safe and secure communities. As we have seen again during the past two months, issues of community safety and anti-social behaviour are very high on the everyday agendas of the people of this country. As the long-standing chair of my local community safety partnership, I was appalled by the indiscriminate and completely uncontextualised use during the recent elections of violent crime statistics in crude advertisements and election leaflets from the Conservative Party. I was not alone in my reaction. That reaction was not based on party political considerations, but on the danger of undermining a lot of hard work which had been undertaken across the country by people of all parties and none to make our streets safer and to ensure that our older residents did not feel they had become prisoners in their homes but could venture out confidently.

I was interested to see that senior police officers in particular shared my concerns and made both public and private protests. There were several reasons for our reaction. The first, as I have already mentioned, was the likely effect of crude statistics on the more elderly members of our community, increasing their concerns and making them even more fearful of venturing out on to the streets of apparently dangerous neighbourhoods. Yet your Lordships know that our streets are pretty safe and that older people constitute the group that is least likely to be the victims of violent crime. It is young people who are most at risk, particularly young men, but that is the group that is least worried about the threat to its safety.

The second reason for our reaction is that around a quarter of violent crime is committed in the home as domestic violence, which we want to be more widely reported. So increased levels of violent crime are actually concealing good news—that more victims of domestic violence are being helped and their offending partners are being brought to court and sentenced.
 
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Thirdly, our town-centre cameras are picking up scuffles and drunken brawls which would not always have been reported in the past. Crime is now being reported on a different basis, where individuals rather than the police are deciding whether a crime has been committed. However, I have been very interested in the conclusions of the extensive research that has been carried out by Professor Jonathan Shepherd of the University of Wales College of Medicine. His violence research group looked at a number of accident and emergency departments of hospitals across the country. That research has revealed that admissions to accident and emergency departments of victims of violent crime, especially on weekend evenings, have gone down.

It was a shame that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, deplored the apparent rise of around 80 per cent in violent crime without any qualification or attempt to explain that figure.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, since the noble Baroness has named me, I was quoting from Home Office figures and agreeing with the Government's own declared need to bring forward a violent crime reduction Bill. The noble Baroness cannot have it both ways.

Baroness Henig: My Lords, I was trying to explain the reasons why that figure is as it is. It is important for all of us to try to explain to people what those reasons are so that their fear should not be as great as it often is, on grounds which are not that strong.

I therefore urge the Government—because of the figures that we have heard—at the earliest opportunity to disaggregate this wide-ranging category of violent crime. Most crime at the lower end does not entail violence at all. The public would define the sorts of crime we are talking about as very minor crimes, as most of them are. If they were disaggregated you would undoubtedly increase people's overall sense of security.

The reality is that overall levels of crime are falling and have been for some time. The chances of being the victim of a house burglary or a car crime are considerably lower than they were five years ago. Of course that fact is obscured by how the media seize on individual incidents.

The reasons for the fall are many, but the initiatives that the Government have set up over the past eight years across the country have played an important part—targeting prolific and priority offenders in every neighbourhood, putting offenders who have a drugs habit on treatment programmes and meeting discharged prisoners at the prison gates and finding them accommodation and a job. Those things do not find their way into newspaper columns but they make a real difference to levels of crime.

There remain serious, if often localised, problems, such as the carrying of knives and replica guns by some groups of young people and gun crime related to drug dealing. That is why I welcome the introduction of a Bill to give the police and local communities new powers to tackle people carrying knives and guns.
 
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Alcohol-related violence remains a problem in many town and city centres, as does the night-time economy in general. I welcome the promise of more powers for the police, local authorities and community safety partnerships to act forcefully to tackle the crime and disorder which results, and to close down bars and clubs which fuel the violence or make them contribute to its associated costs.

Strong partnerships in some of our major cities have already made a real difference in this area. Far more needs to be done to challenge some of the cultural and social trends around alcohol consumption to deal with the health risks and to minimise the criminal damage which often results.

Improving the management of offenders and helping the probation service, prison authorities and police to work more constructively and effectively together will certainly help to reduce re-offending. So I welcome the promised legislation in that area, although I hope it will be accompanied by measures to increase the capacity of the hard-pressed probation and prison services.

So the Government's legislative proposals are very welcome and have the potential to make a real difference to people's lives. But delivery rests not just on good legislation but on good partnerships between central and local government and on active local community groups, such as crime and disorder reduction partnerships, working closely with divisional commanders, local beat bobbies and community support officers.

All Members of this House will have a community safety partnership in their area. Many noble Lords may well be members. I urge noble Lords not so engaged to go along and find out what their local partnership is doing, and to join it. I know that they will be welcomed and probably put to work as advocates for local initiatives and as experienced practitioners who can help to overcome obstacles to the effective delivery of local services.

If we all really want to combat crime and to make successful the Home Office legislation that we will be considering in this Session, we need to build on the partnerships out there which are doing so much good work already. Certainly, as I consider the proposals which will come before us, I shall aim to ensure that they build on and utilise the expertise that has been developed over the past few years, both at central and at local level, and that they will enable us all to make a practical and effective contribution to increasing safety and security in our own communities and neighbourhoods.

5.14 pm

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I suppose it was too much to hope, but I was hoping that the gracious Speech would start with a ringing declaration that the Government would dedicate their efforts to the restoration of the integrity of government and the influence of Parliament. That has not happened, but I hope that the Government, even if they cannot recognise all their other manifest failings, will
 
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recognise what an unmitigated disaster has been their determined effort to neuter the House of Commons. Perhaps now with a smaller government majority the Commons will be more difficult to ignore, and we may see some resurgence in its authority. However, unless some of the changes in procedures and working practices brought about in the previous two Parliaments are reversed—for example, the draconian timetabling of Bills, a matter referred to by my noble friend Lord Higgins—there will continue to be wholly inadequate consideration of legislation in the Commons. That means that ill considered and half-considered Bills will continue to arrive here.

That is not a figment of my imagination. Every one of us who has taken an interest in proceedings in this place knows perfectly well that the unvarnished truth is that the House of Commons has not been doing its job. It has not been doing its job because it has not been allowed to do so by the absurd routine timetabling of Bills.

Yet the Government, with no intention of putting things right in the Commons, intend to set about interfering with the working practices of this place and to restrict debate by placing limits on the time that Bills spend here. The Government's numbers in this place have been increased, no doubt in the hope that the beneficiaries of Mr Blair's patronage will be so grateful for the favour bestowed on them that they will dutifully vote to make this place as pointless as possible; but perhaps, like so many sent here by new Labour, they will find more profitable things to do on-shore or off-shore. We will wait and see.

On the composition of this place, we are told by the Sunday Times, quoting a government spokesman, that the Government are going to "finish off" the Weatherill Peers. I want a clear answer to this question: is that right or wrong? Is the future of the Weatherill Peers one of the matters to be discussed under the general heading of "composition"? I have to remind the Minister that if the Government are going to finish off the Weatherill Peers they will be in clear breach of the undertaking given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, when he accepted the Weatherill amendment in 1999. There is no doubt about it: the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, could not have been clearer. He stated:

I hope that the Minister will make the position absolutely plain in her closing speech and that there will not be a breach of that plain undertaking.

It would be scandalous if the Government, while keeping a nominated House, were to make it even more dependent on the patronage of government by removing the Weatherill Peers. It is scandalous that the Government should be bent on taking revenge on this changed House for its new assertiveness by limiting its power, when the House we have today is the Government's own creation.

Immediately, there are more pressing constitutional issues to be addressed. Top of the list is the enormity of MPs elected to Scottish seats who cannot vote on
 
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devolved matters in Scotland voting on purely English matters at Westminster. That point was raised by my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking.

That is not the only grievance that the English voter has. The Barnett formula remains an affront, with MSPs boasting of a level of public service in Scotland that, they well know, is reached only at the expense of those living south of the border. Add to that the fact that the electoral system this time around has hardly produced justice for England and I reckon that failure to address the West Lothian question will create a grievance too far, which could in time provoke a major constitutional crisis. There is no obvious difficulty in changing Commons procedures so as to stop MPs elected for Scottish seats voting on purely English matters; it could be left to the Speaker, as it is on matters of finance, to certify that a Bill comes within that category.

Then there is postal voting. The Government are clearly bent on continuing to allow postal votes on demand to, to quote from the gracious Speech,

I wonder whether it has ever occurred to the Government that the decline in turnout may be due not to the hardship of having to go to a polling station but to a decline in respect for the Government and our leaders and that the best way to restore the people's interest in elections and arrest the decline in the number of people voting is to restore the integrity of government and the importance of Parliament, which brings me back to what I was saying at the beginning.

If the Government are determined to press on with postal votes on demand, they have a duty to use all possible means to try to prevent fraud and certainly no right to discard the Electoral Commission's call for individual voter registration. It is absolutely plain that, as long as postal votes are given on demand, there will be a far bigger risk of fraud than there was when they were given only in fairly limited circumstances. Therefore, the best way to contain fraud is to reduce the circumstances in which people can vote by post. The sure way to increase fraud is to defy the commission and ignore its other recommendation that there should be a ban on all-postal ballots.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Owen, I should like to say a few words about the European constitution, which, to my mind, is far more appropriately discussed in today's debate than in the context of foreign affairs. The gracious Speech refers to,

I must remind your Lordships that that is not the correct title. Its correct title is a,

It suits the Government to refer to it as if it were a treaty like any other, but it is not. If and when the treaty is ratified, a constitution will come into force. From that moment forward, that constitution and not the previous treaties will be the source of authority of the EU. That cannot be said too often.
 
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The European Union established by the constitution will owe its being to the constitution and, according to Article 1.6, the constitution—not just such laws as may be agreed by the Council of Ministers—will have primacy over the law of member states. The constitution will be open to interpretation by the court. We know, as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, knows well enough, what that means. The court will do its best to give meaning to the preamble, which states that the people of Europe are determined to be united ever more closely, and to Article 1.1, which refers to the states of Europe building a common future.

So much for the assertion in a letter to the Times last October by a group of leading Europhiles headed by a former Commissioner that the treaty would protect the sovereignty of Europe's nation states and set limits on what the EU can and cannot do. That is about as far from the truth as one could possibly get, save for the other assertion in the letter that the treaty gives a bigger role to Parliament. The truth there, of course, is that, although there is a token nod in the direction of national parliaments, one third of which can ask the Commission to reconsider a proposal before it goes ahead and does what it originally intended, the constitution cedes more power to the EU over, for example, criminal law, social security, immigration and asylum, trade and competition and energy, and the veto is abolished in about 40 areas, which means that more and more powers are being taken from Parliament.

The other week, a member of the Commission talked of the risk of another Holocaust if we did not accept the constitution and referred to opponents of the constitution as those who want to scrap the supranational idea. She obviously does not think that the EU has been engaged in a tidying-up exercise. The German Europe Minister calls the constitution the birth certificate of the United States of Europe. I do not think that that is all that far from the mark.

It is a matter of great regret that so little was said about that issue during the general election. To me, it is bizarre that, when the people were being asked to elect a new House of Commons, it was thought inappropriate to discuss whether that House should continue to have any meaningful powers and whether we should keep our independence as a nation or share more and more power with others to the point where parliamentary sovereignty will have become a meaningless concept.

5.25 pm


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