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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, we now come to the concluding part of this debate. We have heard 34 speeches so far with two more to go. Two events of today are worth remembering. The first was the introduction of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, to your Lordships' House. The second was the maiden speech by my noble friend Lord Alliance.

The presence of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, will be a constant reminder of what needs to be done to reform our prisons. As a former Chief Inspector of Prisons, he has a unique insight into one of the most neglected aspects of our criminal justice system.

The contribution of my noble friend Lord Alliance will be a constant reminder of how immigrants and asylum seekers have made a unique contribution to the social, economic and, now, the political life of our country. Those who used emotive arguments during the last general election need to give some thought to the impact that they have on our minorities. Both prisons and immigration debates cry out for our leaders to give a lead. Simply exploiting the issues for political gain has little to commend it except short-term political gains. To a politician immigration is a subject designed to get more votes. To minorities it results in abuse, insult, violence and harassment. It is a question not of what the politician is thinking but more about how it is interpreted by voters in some of the constituencies. To an extent we made racism more
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respectable. I have been in this country for 50 years, but for the first time in my life I felt ashamed to be British.

I endorse what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said about the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. We shall certainly miss him from the Front Bench. I add that I am delighted that the noble Baronesses, Lady Scotland, Lady Ashton and Lady Anelay, are still on the Front Benches. They are the nicest people to work with and long may that continue.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

A noble Lord: You old charmer.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I shall take no notice.

On these Benches we did a good job defending our position and it would be a mistake to compromise on fundamental issues of human rights and civil liberties. We did not do so during the election campaign and we will not do so as far as the forthcoming legislation is concerned.

Let us for a moment look at our criminal justice system, which is at the heart of our democratic process. Regurgitating more of the same is not an answer to tackling social ills. We need to look at good practices at international level to see what works and what is appropriate.

I accept that international comparisons are notoriously difficult—how crimes are defined and categorised; how we conduct police investigations; how we prosecute; what discretion the court has in determining the sentence; and how effective are penal institutions in the rehabilitative process. Those are the issues at the heart of all criminal justice systems. Surely there is merit in examining what works elsewhere.

The starting point is to look at the relative use which various countries make of imprisonment. Why does our prison population top the league in western Europe? Of course there is a need to look at the whole issue of respect and bad behaviour. Those issues have blighted our communities across the land. The incidence and, to a lesser extent, the nature of crime varies from place to place; we should add to that the variation from generation to generation.

It is, however, clear that no matter where you live, here or abroad, all societies must come to terms with crime in their own way. The pattern of crime may be different but it is perfectly possible to look at good practices before looking at simplistic solutions such as building more prisons.

We have frequently debated the underlying causes of crime, but almost all research tends to refute rather than confirm our assumptions of the causes of crime and the effectiveness of punishment and treatments. The sound bites, the focus groups and the tabloids continue to condition the public mood by wanting tough short-term measures rather than adequate research leading to lasting solutions.

There is far too much over-reliance on prisons as a way of dealing with offenders instead of assisting with reform. How else can we explain the over 100 per cent
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increase in the number of women prisoners in the past 10 years; that on average two people a week commit suicide in our prisons; or that over 65 per cent of young people leaving prison reoffend within two years? Are we re-enforcing criminal behaviour by forcing offenders into each other's company?

The previous Home Secretary, David Blunkett, often had an adversarial contact with our judiciary. He felt that it had gone soft on crime and that things would change if politicians and judges were to prescribe tougher and longer sentences.

We fail to realise that the ability of the criminal justice system to influence crime is very limited. We must recognise that save for a couple of dozen inmates almost all prisoners will be released into the community one day. We need to look at how to achieve progress by more far-reaching changes looking at, among other things, the economic and social nature of crime and the level of personal motivation. Stopgap measures can be effective in the short term, but we now see that, despite the effectiveness of ASBOs, at least 10 orders a week are breached, with the result that custody seems to be the only alternative in such cases.

Internationally, and to some extent here, we are now placing renewed emphasis on trying to tackle crime in a way that does not involve the courts and prisons. We should examine the heavy use of custodial sentences by courts and the non-reforming nature of our prison work.

The Government have gone some way in developing a crime prevention strategy; for example, reducing the incidence of domestic burglary, initiatives such as alcohol and drug awareness programmes, designing safer homes, better lighting of rural streets and estates, and introducing checks on those working with children. With the establishment of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the emphasis on the very positive work of the Youth Justice Board, there is still hope that the tide will turn.

Priority must be given to schemes for directing as many young offenders as possible from the criminal justice system. The image of community sentences as a soft option is often cited by the public. Dressing up of young offenders in identifiable uniforms, or naming or shaming them, is a recipe for disaster. Community sentences can be tough but they can also be effective. The public should be made aware of that; they should also be told that, at best, courts and prisons can make only a limited contribution. The fundamental matter in the appraisals available to us, and which the public have a right to know, is that the effectiveness of the criminal justice system and the fight against crime is important but of limited value.

The package of proposals set out in the Queen's Speech is better balanced than the ragbag of pre-election measures that the Government put before us last year. Some of the measures are welcome, and a number of noble Lords have commented on them. For example, the proposals in the violent crime reduction Bill to tackle the sale of replica firearms, to ban the sale
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of knives to juveniles and to provide stronger powers against pubs and clubs that sell alcohol to minors will command widespread support.

The long-overdue corporate manslaughter Bill will help to bring to book companies whose failure to meet health and safety obligations results in the death of employees, customers or members of the public. At present, unless an individual senior manager can be found guilty of gross negligence, the company cannot be found guilty of manslaughter, even if wider collective management failings within the organisation have put lives at risk. The Bill will rectify that gap in the law and provide justice for relatives of those who have died because of such failings. It is regrettable that it has taken the Government so long to bring forward that measure, but we welcome it none the less.

However, other parts of the programme for the Session are far from welcome. We particularly regret the Government's determination to press ahead with their misguided proposal for a compulsory identity card scheme. Despite their protestations, compulsory identity cards will do little to fight crime and terrorism. However, the scheme will encroach significantly on civil liberties by prescribing penalties for refusal to register, refusing access to public services without a card and requiring citizens to have their fingerprints, facial scans and iris scans included in a national register. The scheme will absorb resources that could be far better deployed on practical measures to prevent crime, to increase intelligence efforts against terrorism and to rehabilitate offenders. More importantly, money could be well spent in employing more police officers.

The introduction of an offence of incitement to religious hatred runs the risk of excessively restricting free speech. It is also likely to worsen relations between adherents of different religious faiths if it is used against members of minority religions when they advance views that may be objectionable, but which our democratic tradition demands should be countered by reasoned argument rather than by restricting freedom of speech.

I accept the Government's argument that the present position is illogical because it makes it an offence to incite hatred against people because they are black, Asian or Jewish, but not because they are Muslim. Instead of bringing forward legislation as flawed as this, the Government should set up an independent, judicially led inquiry to examine and make recommendations on that whole area of the law.

The inquiry should be asked to recommend whether further legislation is required to protect individuals from racial and religious harassment and, if so, how that can be achieved without undesirably restricting freedom of expression. A starting point would be to look at the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill during the previous Parliament. No, we do not object to the Bill on incitement to racial hatred. The question is: what sort of legislation is appropriate?
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In principle, there is also much to be said about the Government's aim of creating a new National Offender Management Service. Caution has to be exercised. It has the potential to increase the effectiveness of plans to reduce reoffending by integrating offenders in prison and offenders under supervision on release. The current pilot project in integrated offender management in the north-west has produced some promising early results which show that real benefits can result from the improved planning of sentences from the pre-sentence report stage through to post-release supervision.

NOMS can provide effective custodial regimes only if prisons are not overstretched and overcrowded. It is of great importance that the Government should strongly and publicly support that approach. It means that the Home Secretary and his Ministers must adopt a high profile strategy to "talk down" the prison population, to explain the benefits of rigorous community sentences and to explain the impossibility of effectively rehabilitating offenders if prisons are suffering from gross overcrowding.

There are two regrettable omissions from the Queen's Speech which would have done a great deal to improve the administration of justice and the treatment of offenders. The first is the youth justice Bill which the Government recently published in draft form but which was not mentioned in the speech. It contains greater restrictions on the use of custody and measures to increase the credibility of community sentences for young offenders. I hope that the Government will rectify that omission in the speech.

A second regrettable omission is legislation to reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act on the lines of the recommendations of the Home Office review group on the Act that the Government accepted in principle two years ago. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act provides that after specified "rehabilitation periods" ex-offenders do not have to declare "spent" convictions when applying for jobs, except for certain sensitive occupations. This reform would greatly reduce the scope for unfair discrimination against former offenders and would increase public safety by reducing reoffending. I urge the Government to bring this measure forward as soon as possible.

In conclusion, we now have legislative time on our side. Your Lordships' House has unique talents, as demonstrated today, on all Benches. For our part, the Government will receive our support if they do not tamper with human rights and civil liberties, if they allow much of the new legislation to bed down and if they give a clear lead on matters such as immigration and asylum.

9.24 pm

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