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6.17 pm

Lord Bach: My Lords, we have enjoyed a valuable debate on several critical issues that face the country-constitutional reform, crime and justice and local government. Some major themes emerged. To try to get some easy popularity, let me tell noble Lords that I intend to be fairly short in my response tonight. I am sure the House will want rather more to hear what a new Minister has to say than to hear from an ex-Minister whose voice it may have heard rather too much over the last few years.

Noble Lords: Never!

Lord Bach: That is precisely the response that I was looking for. I am tempted to sit down now but I cannot before saying how much I enjoyed, as did the House, the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord

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Bichard. He was and still is an outstanding public servant. I first knew him-I do not think he knew who I was-when he was Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Employment. More recently, he left his position as chairman of the Legal Services Commission at almost precisely the moment that I became the Minister for Legal Aid. I do not think that was anything other than coincidental.

I welcome the two Ministers, as have all other noble Lords on all sides, and congratulate them on their appointment. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, is in a great department of state and has inherited the best private office in Whitehall-I mean the personnel rather than the building. He is much admired in this House for his wit, his intelligence and, not least, his experience. He is much appreciated, not least by me, who, alongside the former Leader of the House, my noble friend Lady Ashton, worked very closely with the noble Lord on the Lisbon treaty Bill, ensuring that the Conservatives made no amendments to it. How well we pro-Europeans work together; how well we resisted the Conservatives who were out, as the noble Lord will well recall, to wreck the Bill. A little more seriously, I remember how politically brave the noble Lord was within the confines of his own party. I think he will know what I mean by that.

Now, less than two years on, the scene is very different and the noble Lord-I hope that he will forgive me for describing him as always having been a politician of the centre left-now sits on the government Front Bench. He is surrounded-that was certainly the case earlier this week-some might say smothered, by the Conservatives. There he is, Tories to the left of him, Tories to the right of him, into the valley of Tory scepticism, the noble Lord-I am afraid for the moment, at least-charges on. Where are his Lib-Dem colleagues? They are certainly not within his sights. They have remarkably said rather less in this debate than they normally do in debates of this kind and I think that they have looked a little glum. Does the noble Lord sometimes in the watches of the night-perhaps not yet, but soon-think to himself, "What have I and my party got ourselves into?"? Even the thought of seeing his beloved Blackpool football club playing in the premiership for at least one season cannot be a complete panacea to the noble Lord for the position in which he finds himself, or soon will find himself.

I am sure there is nothing in all this that causes any concern to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones. As a true Conservative, she knows where she stands, and that is certainly not shoulder to shoulder with the Liberal Democrats. Her job as Security Minister is, as the House recognises, a crucial one for all of us and for all the citizens outside and we wish her the very best of luck with it. She will have to face-I am sure that she has already in her few weeks in the job-the real dilemma that anyone holding that post has of reconciling security with civil liberties. We hope that she will be every bit as robust in the way in which she approaches her job as was her predecessor, my noble friend Lord West.

I wish to deal briefly with two or three major issues that have arisen. The first is security. It is central to what people expect from their Government. That is why the Labour Government's achievement in reducing

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the crime rate is so important a part of our record. It was down by 36 per cent and violent crime by more. We were the first Government since World War Two to achieve this. In the past few years, there was less chance of being a victim than there had been for many years previously. There were many factors in this, a number of which came up in the debate. Of course, one of them was policing policy, about which the noble Baroness will speak in this House. Others included giving extra money and resources to poorer parts of our country. It should not be forgotten how many communities have been completely restored by the efforts that have been made, led by the previous Government. Even during the recent recession there has been up till now no evidence of an increase in acquisitive crime, as there was in the previous recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. But there is another reason too and although it is sometimes hard to say it, I will do so. The fact that more serious criminals are in prison for longer is another factor in the crime rate going down. Although we must of course look carefully at the relationship between prison sentences and community sentences-we expect the new Government to look carefully at that-there will always be people who are bad, who have to serve prison sentences. Everyone has to accept that. We look forward very much to hearing the new Government's policy on that matter.

CCTV and DNA are two different ways in which a great deal of crime has been stopped. I say to the noble Baroness, please be careful how you approach the whole issue of DNA. This has actually caught many very serious criminals, and also some who were not prosecuted at the time but whose DNA was taken and kept for a period. It proved later to be absolutely crucial in putting them where they belong-behind bars. Perhaps I may advise the new Government to walk cautiously in that field.

As far as constitutional and House of Lords reform is concerned, the House will be pleased that I shall say very little now. The House felt that my noble friend Lord Hunt set out the Labour Opposition's views with great clarity and power. Many noble Lords on all sides have commented; not least my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton. I agree with everything that he said.

We can place on one side the absurdly overhyped announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister a few weeks ago, and his lack of graciousness-if I may use that phrase-in not accepting, as the Prime Minister himself did, that the Labour Government left behind a more open society. Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister was a little carried away by his new and perhaps unexpected position. This side will look carefully, but fairly, at proposals when they emerge in legislative form. However, any quick fixes will be resisted with all the powers available to us.

I shall give one example which may seem small, but we think that it is important-the intended outrageous, anti-local Bill to stop Norwich and Exeter becoming unitary authorities. I say from this Dispatch Box that we will fight that Bill with all the powers that we have.

On the police, it is extraordinary that the coalition is pushing through the idea of elected police commissioners in the face of practically near-universal

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opposition. It is even more extraordinary that the Liberal Democrats are going along with this, because they forcefully spoke out against it in the past. Very effective on this was the right honourable Chris Huhne, who only last year said:

"The last thing the British police need is an elected sheriff leading the shootout at the OK Corall. Accountability must come from a broad-based police authority elected to represent all strands of the local community".

The Government should listen to the president of the Police Superintendents' Association. He said:

"We, the professionals, know about policing. There is no support for directly elected Commissioners within the Police Service. Make consultation your priority; do not adopt an entrenched and predetermined position and above all do not recklessly abandon the British model of Policing that is admired and respected across the world for short term political dogma and theory".

I implore the Government to think again and I strongly advise the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition to stand by what it stood for so recently.

The Labour Government had much to be proud of in the fields that we have discussed. It included a more open society at home-for example, gender equality, sexual orientation equality and race equality. I have to say that much of the legislation was opposed by the Conservatives. There was the dramatic fall in crime, including violent crime. From comprehensively tackling domestic violence, which has not been spoken about enough, to many constitutional changes-many made with the help of the Liberal Democrats-we have tried, not always successfully, to look for political consensus, rather than trying to ram through constitutional change, which, taken in the face of great opposition, will never succeed.

We will suspend judgment on the new Government, of course, but their opening moves have not been entirely auspicious. First, there is complete confusion about their policy on the building of prison places and on allowing prisoners the right to vote. On that, I have two questions to ask the noble Baroness. What is the Government's policy on the prison building programme? What is the Government's policy on prisoners' right to vote? Secondly, the coalition has also agreed to push ahead with elected police commissioners in the face of almost universal opposition, including from the Liberal Democrats. Thirdly, the cap on non-EU immigration is to be implemented, supported by the Liberal Democrats, even though, during the recent general election, their leader was more than eloquent in his total opposition to that policy. Is that a sacrifice that the Liberal Democrats are prepared to make for a cap policy on immigration, crude as it is, which they opposed so thoroughly at the last election? Let us be fair and see what comes next.

On this side of the House, our concern is that those who will suffer will be the poor and the vulnerable, who are the people who are always the main victims of crime and are always the ones to pay when the public sector contracts too quickly or too much. This side of the House, along with many other Members all around the House, will see it as our duty and our imperative to protect those people against the ravages that seem certain to come.

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6.30 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Neville-Jones): My Lords, this debate on Her Majesty's gracious Speech has been extremely wide ranging and very stimulating. We do credit to ourselves in the quality and imagination that has been injected into a great deal of the interventions, and there have been 49 speakers. Before I do anything else, I join noble Lords in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, to our House and congratulate him on his excellent speech.

It is very gratifying that the work of the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Communities and Local Government should attract such a long list of speakers, but it makes for a difficult task in winding up. We will undoubtedly return to all these topics in due course, which will give the Government an opportunity for fuller replies, so I hope that I may be forgiven if I do not tonight cover all the points that have been raised. I will endeavour to write on any substantive points that I miss.

Before I go to the substance, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the contribution not only of those who took part in today's discussion but of the Ministers in the previous Government who were involved in the affairs that we have discussed today, particularly the noble Lords, Lord West, Lord Hunt and Lord Bach. While in some areas of policy there will be changes of direction under this Government, in others it is clear that we shall be building on what our predecessors have done.

This Government have a strap line: freedom, fairness and responsibility. These themes run through the Government's programme, and they have run through today's debate with a strong focus on the citizen: the individual's relationship with the state, the individual's right to participate actively in the running of the society to which he belongs and the importance of people taking time and trouble to exercise those rights responsibly.

Before I turn to some of the more detailed points, I want to underline what my noble friend Lord McNally said when he opened this debate: this Government will be steadfast in their defence of civil liberties, and I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that anybody who knows me knows that I am entirely comfortable sitting next door to my noble friend Lord McNally.

Protecting the public and safeguarding our liberties are not mutually exclusive. They are not a zero-sum game; the more of one, the less of the other. Indeed, one might ask: what is the point of security in a society if it is not free, if not to preserve the values that we believe in and stand for? We will not compromise our national security in the face of a serious and continuing threat. As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, rightly said, that is my particular responsibility. For me, the first duty of government is to protect a free society.

In this debate, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have been brigaded together. Hearing the remarks made by some noble Lords, I hope that they do not think that with this brigading, somehow the Home Office will not always act proportionately. I stress that it is very important that the Home Office, in carrying

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out the duties that are particular to it, does so always with proportion. We should not be solely in the business of protecting the state, since in the 21st century security, and national security, are about maintaining the prosperity and way of life of society as a whole. We come back to the theme that has run through our debate; the centrality of the citizen.

Before I go into more detail about the Home Office and the Government's programme, I will address the questions raised by noble Lords about constitutional and electoral reform. I am in danger of wading into deep water here. It is clear that the prospect of change raises mixed emotions in this House, and a considerable degree of excitement. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that a great opportunity for reform was being missed. Perhaps I might ask what the previous Government were doing for the past 13 years. Their enthusiasm for electoral reform was reserved for very near the election.

I turn to the substance of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and many other noble Lords, asked about legislation on AV and the referendum. He inquired about the timetable for both. The referendum is a priority for this Government and we plan to hold the poll as soon as possible. The precise timing will depend on the passage of the Bill through the two Houses. More information on timing will come with the introduction of the Bill in another place. The question to be put will be submitted to the Electoral Commission for comment on its intelligibility, to ensure that we get a good question. The choice will be between the current system and AV. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, also asked about threshold and turnout, and a number of other more detailed questions. I am afraid that I cannot give him more information at present.

A number of questions were also asked about electoral issues that largely affect the other place. I do not propose to go into detail on those. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others, suggested that speed in redrawing electoral boundaries might come at the expense of consultation. I entirely agree that consultation is important. However, many people might consider that the present system has created a situation in which the boundaries are out of date before they are ever used, as in the case of the last election, and that we need to improve the speed at which these things are done. We do not accept the thesis that larger constituencies lead to less accountability-there is not going to be such a radical change-nor that more equal-sized constituencies are a bad idea. We will allow small variations to accommodate local conditions.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and many other noble Lords also raised the issue of reform of your Lordships' House. Indeed, I suppose that if there were a single issue on which we focused most, not surprisingly it was that. As the noble Lord noted, a committee is being set up but not, I think, on this occasion located in the long grass. Its composition is currently under consideration and the aim is that the committee should make recommendations by the end of the year.

My noble friend Lord McNally has already given some indications of the Government's broad direction of march on some of the important issues. The committee will look at the detail of these issues and such matters

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as the choice of the electoral system, the proportion of Members to be elected and the transitional arrangements, including some of the ones that we have discussed, such as grandfathering. These will also be matters for the committee, as indeed will the issue raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester concerning the future position of Bishops in our House.

We on these Benches are well aware of the strength of feeling in this House, including that we should have some say in our own fate. I share it. The noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Armstrong, made characteristically to-the-point speeches about the issues involved, including the question of powers. Ensuring that views expressed in this House are heard properly and are thoroughly considered is important. The Leader of the House has already made clear the possibility of timely discussion at a formative stage and I am sure that we shall want to enable that to happen.

I think that on the Benches opposite there is great excitement-perhaps I may put it that way-about the possible effect of what they see as being new appointments to this House. At the moment, there are no announcements so far as I know, only rumours. If there are new creations, I doubt that they will be only on one side of the House; I am sure that they will be on the other side, too.

There has been a certain amount of questioning about Parliaments being fixed for a term of five years. When I travelled abroad-and I used to do a great deal of that-I found that most countries found it pretty odd that we did not have a fixed term. We are, in our present state, extremely unusual. Many in this country have long thought that it would be a good thing to move to fixed-term Parliaments. A Parliament of five years does not seem to be outside the British tradition, so I feel that it is a perfectly reasonable figure on which to fix.

The question of 55 per cent is a sensitive issue. There were a number of very thoughtful contributions from noble Lords about the 55 per cent threshold, as well as the expression of some anxiety and, indeed, criticism. However, there is no hidden agenda. Such provisions are normal in the context of fixed Parliaments. If you have a fixed Parliament system, you tend to have a provision of this kind, particularly in countries where there are coalitions. Germany, for example, is no exception. Therefore, if we are botching this idea-to use the phrase of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer-I suspect that so are many other countries.

The first point that I want to emphasise is that the Government's proposals on the 55 per cent vote for Dissolution do not affect the conventions relating to a confidence vote in the other place. A Government who lose a confidence Motion, even by a single vote, will have to resign. This is not about stopping Parliament dismissing a Government; it is about stopping a Government being able to dismiss Parliament. This is in the context of fixed terms.

Detailed consideration was also given to the matter in a debate in the other place on Tuesday night. It will receive further detailed scrutiny, first, when the Government publish a Motion in the other place stating the date of the next election and, secondly, when a Bill is introduced. The crucial thing is that

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there is nothing unusual about requiring a percentage of a Chamber to vote for Dissolution. As we know, in Scotland the figure is two-thirds and in other countries there are different percentages. The 55 per cent was the threshold that the Government thought right for the UK. I have no doubt that further contributions will be made by noble Lords on that subject.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said that it was implicit in the coalition's proposal that the 55 per cent could be used by the Government for Dissolution only if there was a vote of no confidence prior to that. Is that correct?

Baroness Neville-Jones: I shall not venture into that territory because I do not think that I know the answer to that question. Clearly this is precisely the kind of issue that needs clarification. I entirely accept that.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: It seems to me that on Tuesday night David Heath was introducing a new institution into the situation, which was the period of 25, 30 or 35 days during which there would either be a failure to put together a Government, in which case there would be sudden death, or the whole matter would be prolonged. Was he speaking ex cathedra or not?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, I am certainly beyond my area of knowledge. These are matters of detail and we ought to allow-

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Neville-Jones: Excuse me, they are. They are the details that surround the general principle and we need to formulate them. The House is absolutely right to wish to know these answers and we will bring them forward as soon as we can.

I want to refer to two other points of constitutional significance that were raised during the debate. The first concerned Scotland. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, who served on the Calman commission, asked about the timing of a Bill to implement the commission's recommendations. It is hoped that a Bill will be introduced in the autumn. Obviously, given its importance both Houses will want to give it careful consideration and it would be premature at this stage to anticipate when it will reach the statute book. However, the noble and learned Lord can be reassured that we want the Bill to make steady progress through Parliament. That is one of the things that we want to get through. I also confirm that on this issue the respect agenda goes across the political spectrum. Already this week, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, met the leader of Labour MSPs, at Mr Iain Gray's request, so the matter is under way.

My second point is the question of the Bill of Rights, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. He asked whether the Bill would be UK-wide. The remit of the commission, which will consider many of the issues that he raised, is UK-wide but we

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will ensure-another point that he underlined-that the commitments made in the Good Friday agreement are respected.

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