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This is a change in direction that I very much welcome. It is vital to the health of our political system that Parliament’s role is recognised and bolstered. To what extent do the Government’s proposals strengthen Parliament? For the answer, we have to look as much at what has been announced independently of the Queen’s Speech as at what is in the gracious Speech. There have been speeches and consultation documents that complement what is in the Speech. How are we to evaluate these various proposals? There are essentially two criteria that we may employ for the purpose of assessment. The first is the extent to which the changes are formally constitutionally significant. The second is the extent to which they impact on Parliament in its day-to-day activity in calling the Government to account. Arguably, the changes are more important in fulfilling the first of the two criteria than the second.

In terms of constitutional significance, transferring to Parliament certain prerogative powers, such as the power to commit troops abroad and to vote prior to the ratification of treaties, is clearly of great importance. Some commentators have argued that this constitutes giving power back to Parliament; in fact, it constitutes giving powers to Parliament that it has never had. These proposals are generally out for consultation and in part will be addressed in the draft Bill expected in January. There is still much to be resolved, as the consultation paper on war powers and treaties recognises, if the transfer of powers is to be effective. None the less, on the face of it, on the criterion of constitutional significance, the Government’s proposals are clearly important.

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What about the second of the two criteria? To what extent will the Government’s proposals actually affect the day-to-day working of Parliament? Here the picture is somewhat hazy. The war-making power is clearly of constitutional significance, but it is not a power that one expects Parliament to exercise on a frequent basis and, in any event, is dependent on adequate information. The power to vote before treaty ratification is important, but relatively few treaties are contentious. Those relating to the European Union are already debated, as we shall see this Session. When there are proposals that affect what Parliament does on a day-to-day basis, many are essentially for discussion or referred to committees in the other place.

The proposals are welcome, but they are in many respects tentative and partial. It is not clear that all of them, such as the creation of regional select committees, will be carried through. In any event, they go only part of the way and do not really get to the heart of what is necessary, especially in terms of the basic task of legislative scrutiny. Here, the two essential changes that are needed are in respect of pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny. The programme for this Session includes seven Bills to be published in draft, and five of the Bills listed in the draft legislative programme were published in draft. I very much welcome this, but it still falls short of the position taken by the Government only a few years ago, to work towards most Bills being published in draft. There are still Ministers who cannot see the point of publishing Bills in draft.

Can the Minister answer two questions? First, what was the process employed to determine which Bills would be published in draft? Was it a systematic process or an ad hoc one? Secondly, which of the draft Bills are expected to be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny? The draft legislative programme envisages that this will largely be a matter for Parliament but the reality is that much depends on the Government. Will sufficient time be made available for pre-legislative scrutiny?

I wish to see pre-legislative scrutiny taken further, but I welcome the number of Bills published in draft and the comments embodied in the Green Paper. However, the Green Paper, the draft legislative programme and the Queen’s Speech are silent on the one thing that would enhance dramatically Parliament’s impact on the quality of legislation in this country, and that is post-legislative scrutiny. Post-legislative scrutiny is hardly ever undertaken, yet is fundamentally necessary. As the Minister knows only too well, the Law Commission published a report on post-legislative scrutiny in October of last year. It was an important report; the Government seek to respond to Law Commission reports within six months; but it is now over a year since the report was published and still there is no government response. Yet it is precisely this sort of change that will enhance Parliament’s day-to-day capacity to call government to account. The Government’s response will demonstrate whether they are really committed to strengthening Parliament. My final question to the Minister is simple: when will the Government publish their response to the Law Commission report? If Government are not prepared to act, it is up to Parliament to take the initiative.

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7.25 pm

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, my comments will be on penal policy. It is encouraging that the Government continue to pursue their aspirational if somewhat elusive target of moving an increasing number of families out of poverty and, of even greater importance, increasing ways in which children from deprived and dysfunctional backgrounds can be helped to realise their full potential. All this is important not just because to be competitive in today’s global world requires everybody to be trained and educated to their potential and, at a personal level, to feel and be valued and involved in their own community, important though that is; it is also because, to put it bluntly, the financial cost of each failure is a ludicrous misuse of public funds.

The figure bandied about over recent weeks is that it costs more to keep a prisoner in a police cell overnight than at the Ritz. Think of the financial cost to us all of a child taken into care who goes through that whole system, followed by a life of repeated offending and prison sentences. Somebody has put the figure on it of £50,000 a year per offender. I hope that somewhere in the Ministry of Justice there will be a figure, which the Minister may be able to give the House, of what the cost of such a wasted life would be.

Against that background, it is clear that the effects of prison overcrowding, and the juggling that the Government have had to undertake in letting prisoners out early, have reinforced a growing view that, for most offenders, prison is not working. That realisation must actually be a step in the right direction. I say that because rehabilitation within prison—a lot of it has been done in the past—has become increasingly difficult. For the majority of offenders, though not, of course, the dangerous and violent, a range of localised community sentences are, thankfully, beginning to be seen as the sensible alternative. I emphasise the word “localised”. In this way, a combination of relevant education and training, restorative justice schemes and an effective range of medical treatment provided for addictions or mental health problems is what is needed.

The key to whether this is, in practice, the answer lies in what priority the Government give to the whole issue. Do the Government intend to provide adequate resources to support those essential partnerships between state, private sector and voluntary organisations? They will work only with that degree of backing. Throughout the country, there are already successful schemes of this kind, operating both inside and outside prison. It would be particularly helpful if there could be gathered together a bible of successful best practices, which could well inspire similar innovation elsewhere—not copycat innovation but what suits individual areas. For example, we have recently heard of two proposals that I can remember, including training by the National Grid for all sorts of things—something that got a fair degree of panning in the national press, which totally took it the wrong way—and training in the laying of rail tracks. That sort of thing inspires individual offenders, because they know that they will get a job when they get out. That is crucial.

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Above all, within prisons, and particularly for young offenders, we must target and break the high level of “churn” in reoffending. That has been highlighted in debates in your Lordships' House in recent months. I am very glad to see present noble Lords who took part in those debates. By providing that extra support with housing and jobs and, above all, with mentoring on their release from prison, there really is hope. Many of us remain convinced that quite apart from reclaiming individual lives and self-esteem, considerable sums of taxpayers’ money would be saved by giving this approach a much higher priority. Effective action with current offenders is important, but of even greater importance is to find the most effective way of reducing the number of children who ultimately land up in prison, and that means much greater emphasis on preventive action. As the main support for children, the primary carer within the family, is the mother, how successfully does the criminal justice system meet the needs of women offenders? I am afraid that my answer to that—and I suspect that of many others—is that it does so pretty unsuccessfully.

In this context I have to confess to finding it quite astonishing—indeed, quite unacceptable—that there has been no debate in your Lordships' House on the Corston report on vulnerable women in the criminal justice service, and that was published no fewer than eight months ago, in March this year. It is not as if concern about this issue is new. The report of the Fawcett Commission on women in the criminal justice system, published in 2004, pointed to many of the essentially male-designed system's failings when applied to women. Well before that my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham, when Chief Inspector of Prisons, called for real change in the way in which female offenders were treated and, in particular, for one person within the Prison Service to be responsible for all women in custody wherever they were. Yet I am afraid that the situation for women in prisons has undoubtedly worsened over the past 10 years. Male prison overcrowding has meant that women are more likely to be placed in prisons even further from their homes. As most jailed women are mothers and as one-third of these have children under five, visiting is even more difficult and family break-up all the more likely.

Undoubtedly, some of the Government's 37 Criminal Justice Bills in the past 10 years—for example, that concerned with custody for a second offence—have contributed to doubling the number of women prisoners. The number has risen from something like 2,600 when Labour took office to nearly 5,000 today and although the overall proportion of women to men in custody remains small, over the 10 years the female total is up by over 126 per cent compared to a male increase of something like 46 per cent. Women's length of sentences, too, are believed to be disproportionately high despite the fact that a third of the women—twice as large a percentage as the figure for men—had no previous convictions. I have to say that I was deeply concerned, when visiting Downview women's prison earlier this year, to be asked repeatedly by the women themselves why many of their sentences were so much longer than

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men's for similar offences. I confess that I continue to worry about this. A question I should very much like to ask the Minister is whether any comparative study has been done of the reasons for this, particularly perhaps because of the number of offences which involve drug smuggling. Have we any idea of the extent to which these women are so convicted because they are the unlucky pawns or enslaved mules paying the price of offences for which their gangmasters or pimps should be paying?

But by far the most worrying aspect of gender difference is the high percentage of women in custody—something like 80 per cent—with mental health problems. I believe that at one point 70 per cent in Holloway were drug addicts, and 36 per cent of all women sentenced in 2004 had committed drug offences.

Another concern which I hope might be helped if mothers were in Corston-style units nearer their homes is the tendency to self-harm. The Prison Reform Trust says that some 40 per cent of women prisoners have attempted suicide at some time. That is a truly horrendous figure and perhaps unsurprising—as Fawcett tells us—as most of these women had experienced violence and/or childhood abuse.

Very much following that point, like many other noble Lords I have been concerned by the long delay before bereaved relatives of those who die in custody have any real background as to why their particular tragedy took place. So I join other noble Lords who have expressed their concern that the much heralded coroners Bill does not feature in the gracious Speech, for the second time. For by such delay the Government are acting directly against those whose cause they claim to champion; namely, victims, and in this case their own victims—the relatives of those who have died in custody.

For those families who have lost a loved one through a death in custody these delays can be very distressing. Families can wait three years or more for an inquest to be held. There are also problems with funding and legal representation for families which need to be put right and the system for following up recommendations made by coroners in their Rule 43 reports—so as to prevent further deaths—is seriously defective. Can the Minister tell us what is happening to the coroners Bill, and when the Government intend to bring in the necessary reforms to the system?

I close with a final response to the Government's treatment of the Corston report that I have tried to summarise. It seems to me extraordinary that a Government who have been so committed to pursuing equal opportunities for women in so many other respects, and who have been so effective in that regard, should not by now have embraced at least some of the Corston proposals. We were, of course, all delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, was chosen to open the debate on the Queen's Speech, but would it not have been far more gratifying to all of us and not just to her if the Government had responded much more positively to her report itself? Can the Minister respond now not just with an explanation of why the report is not mentioned in the gracious Speech but with a clear commitment to the date on which a Bill implementing its recommendations will be introduced?

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7.37 pm

Baroness Goudie: My Lords, the theme of the gracious Speech is to protect the public while at the same time preserving essential rights and liberties. We are all in favour of both these aims. Happily, to a large extent they are compatible but an unprotected public would not enjoy these essential rights and liberties and infringements of those liberties may jeopardise public protection. None the less, there is at times a potential for tension between these two necessary objectives and at such times a judgment has to be made on how the balance is to be struck.

We can all agree on two general propositions. First, no one should be in prison for a lengthy period unless they have been convicted, and convicted by a jury who are satisfied on the evidence of their guilt. Secondly, there are circumstances when some must be kept in prison before they are convicted and before the evidence has gone before a jury. There are many cases where bail pending trial is appropriate. There are some cases where it is not. A ground for refusal of bail is the concern that offences would be committed if the defendant was at liberty. None of this is novel or controversial. It may, however, result in a remand in custody for many months, triggered by nothing more and nothing less than a charge culminating potentially in an acquittal. This is regrettable but, on occasions, unavoidable.

If there has not yet been and indeed never may be a charge, plainly any question of a period in custody has to be even more vigorously circumscribed. It cannot, however, always be ruled out. I believe that we all agree that it is sometimes necessary, but it is also essential both that the period should be short and that there should be the strongest safeguards and appropriate judicial scrutiny.

The issues are the nature and the extent of the safeguards, the judicial involvement and especially the maximum period that is to be permitted. I trust that we will be able to achieve a consensus on these matters, guided by the principles of ensuring security to all in the context, particularly, of the very real threat of terrorism that we face, while at the same time upholding the rights and liberties that the terrorists completely disregard.

We must above all preserve the liberties and rights of the most vulnerable in society, which pre-eminently includes human beings who are trafficked. I trust that the other measures that the gracious Speech promises will at last introduce the legislation necessary to implement the Council of Europe’s Convention on Trafficking in Human Beings.

I wish to declare an interest as vice-chairman of the All-Party Group on Identity Fraud. Identity fraud is a growing problem, as has been highlighted by the Prime Minister in his recent speech on liberty. In recent years, the Government have introduced several legislative measures which, I understand, have been welcomed by law enforcement authorities and will be effective in tackling identity fraud. Yet other areas must be addressed to tackle this growing problem. In particular, our recent report highlighted the need to build awareness among the public and businesses in the UK of the danger of identity fraud. Initiatives, including the

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annual identity fraud prevention week and the Get Safe Online campaign, which launched this morning, have been effective in raising awareness among those groups. The Home Office’s involvement in the former campaign should be noted.

However, there remain too many incidences of consumers placing themselves at risk and businesses being careless with personal information for such work to stop. This year alone, the Information Commissioner has launched investigations into Barclays Bank, TK Maxx and Littlewoods for breaches of the Data Protection Act. The Information Commissioner’s office has found 11 further banks to be in breach of the Act after investigating complaints about the disposal of customer information. The Information Commissioner stated:

I look forward to further proposals that will lead to greater understanding of this problem and help to combat the menace of identity fraud.

7.43 pm

Lord Tyler: My Lords, like other Members of your Lordships’ House, I take my text from the gracious Speech, which said,

How? Is there anything in the Government’s legislative programme that can reverse the growing disengagement of the British people from their representative political institutions?

Last week, one Minister said:

He was talking, quite rightly, about Pakistan; but we have a democratic crisis in this country as well. It is now arithmetically likely that the day after the next general election one party will have gained the plurality of the popular vote while another will have secured the largest number of seats, or even an overall majority in the House of Commons. It could happen like this. According to Sir Robert Worcester, the founder of MORI and doyen of serious opinion research, some 800,000 voters in about 100 constituencies decide UK general elections and choose the Government, and all the other 44 million might as well stay at home.

Naturally, all three parties concentrate on those few floating voters in those few marginal constituencies. The result is that there are huge variations in turnout. The top 10 constituencies in 2005, many of them Conservative/Liberal Democrat marginals, saw some three-quarters of those entitled to vote doing so, because everyone realised that their vote would count. The bottom 10, most of them very safe Labour seats, scarcely scored half that figure, and the variations in electoral registration follow the same pattern.

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I will provide a personal illustration. When I was first elected to the Commons in 1974, the shrewd Cornish electors knew that it would be very close; they gave me a majority of just nine, and the turnout was 83 per cent. In the last election I contested there they were equally farsighted, giving me a majority of nearly 10,000, and the turnout dropped to 63 per cent. A perceived foregone conclusion is a major turn-off to turnout. For the vast majority of our fellow citizens, under our present system elections seem to be, literally, a waste of their time.

Where the votes count, political parties campaign hard at vast expense, and voters respond by turning out. But the funding for these campaigns is opaque. In Gillingham and Rainham, Britain’s most marginal seat under the new boundaries, the Conservative candidate recently boasted that “the funding is there” for his election campaign. How odd, then, that not a single donation to the local Conservative Party has been declared since June 2005. Where is the money coming from?

One man has perfected the art of tactical targeting. The noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, bankrolled Conservative candidates in selected seats in the years leading up to the 2005 general election. His huge investment paid off. Peter Bradley, former Labour MP for The Wrekin, has established that 24 of the 36 Conservative gains were paid for with the Ashcroft millions. This country has not seen such deliberate and successful vote-buying since the rotten boroughs were swept away in 1832. Expenditure during election campaigns has been rightly and rigorously controlled for generations, but this huge pre-campaign funding from outside target constituencies is totally unregulated.

Apologists for this state of affairs have, in recent days, claimed that it is simply intended to offset the new £10,000 a year “communications allowance” for incumbent MPs. What humbug! For a start, that allowance did not exist in the run-up to the last general election and, if that is now the public-spirited purpose of that exercise, why is it confined to a select few Conservative candidates? Surely, every parliamentary candidate in every constituency should expect a cheque. Surely, it should be the standard £10,000 each year. The noble Lord should put his money where his mouth is.

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