HC Deb 18 November 1994 vol 250 cc238-313 9.34 am
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

I welcome the opportunity of this debate on the Loyal Address to highlight both the Government's achievements on law and order over the past year and our plans for the future.

At the outset of the debate, I want to extend the warmest welcome to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) in his new responsibilities. We have crossed swords in the past on the environment and I look forward to our forthcoming tussles on law and order. I pay this tribute to the hon. Gentleman: his particular political skills are especially suited to the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that he has every opportunity to use them there for many years to come.

This year's legislative programme contains important Bills dealing with criminal justice and the environment. The first is a Bill to create a new criminal cases review body, as the Royal Commission on criminal justice recommended. I hope very much that we can carry through that important measure with all-party support. The new body will be independent of both Government and the courts. It will investigate alleged miscarriages of justice and, when necessary, refer them to the court for review. The Bill will set out the criteria for referral to the court. The new body will have powers to commission investigations by the police and others, and to gain access to relevant material. I should stress that the new body will actively supervise all such investigations. It will keep applicants informed of progress on their cases and provide them with full explanations when it is decided not to refer cases to the court.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I was glad to hear that the new body will have the power to commission investigations by others as well as the police. Will the Home Secretary elaborate on that point?

Mr. Howard

Well, it will depend. We shall publish details as soon as we can. The hon. Gentleman, who has taken a long interest in those matters over a period of years, will have looked carefully at the consultation document that we issued last year. When the investigation was originally conducted by the police, the investigation under the supervision of the new body will be carried out by the police, although not necessarily by the same force that carried out the original investigation. When the original investigation was carried out by customs officers, for instance, it will normally be appropriate for customs officers to carry out any further investigation, again under the supervision of the review body.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will introduce an Environmental Agencies Bill to improve, in particular, the effectiveness of our system of pollution control. As he was intimately involved in working up those proposals when I was Secretary of State for the Environment, I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is now bringing them to fruition.

From the moment when I became Home Secretary, I was determined to challenge the politically correct orthodoxies that too many people in prominent positions have held for far too long: the attitude that criminals are not responsible for what they do; that punishment is a dirty word; and that protection of the public comes a long way down the list of priorities. My task is to provide our country with the system of criminal justice for which it yearns, and to challenge and overcome those deep-seated and deeply entrenched attitudes. It is abundantly clear that those attitudes are deeply entrenched on the Opposition Benches.

When I proposed my 27-point plan in the autumn of last year, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) dismissed it as a "gimmick". But the then chairman of the Police Federation knew better. He described it as "first class" and a tremendous help in the fight against crime". There could be no clearer example of the gulf between the parties than that.

Of course, the Opposition recognised that their views were completely out of tune with the public mood, so they resorted to a shameless attempt to camouflage those views during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. The dilemma was at its most acute for the right hon. Member for Sedgefield, who had adjusted his party's rhetoric on law and order. "Tough on crime" was the new pitch, yet he knew perfectly well that his party simply did not agree with him.

In October, I received a letter from the Norwich Labour party, which makes my point: This General Committee strongly opposes the Criminal Justice Bill. It continued: The Criminal Justice Bill … represents a direct attack on the human and civil rights of working people. It concluded: This General Committee demand that the Criminal Justice Bill be withdrawn. That is the authentic voice of the Labour party.

The right hon. Member for Sedgefield was thus caught on the horns of a dilemma. For months he dithered, then he decided—to abstain. That is the real message from the Labour party on crime—abstain on crime; abstain on the causes of crime.

The moment that the Bill left the Chamber and went into Committee, of course, the true intentions of the Labour party became clear. As usual, the Liberal Democrats were its allies. On issue after issue, both parties sought to obstruct, undermine and wreck the central provisions of what is now the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

I shall take but two examples. First, the Act gives the courts powers to detain persistent juvenile offenders and to give the public the protection that they need. Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour said that they supported that, yet they both attempted to dilute the power drastically in Committee and to remove it altogether in another place, by removing clause 1 of the Bill.

Secondly, on the right of silence—

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Why did the right hon. and learned Gentleman resist the Lords amendments that would have ensured that secure training orders could be put into place straight away, as they could have been applied in local authority facilities before private facilities were set up?

Mr. Howard

That would not have been the effect of the Lords amendment. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. He has come to them relatively recently. Had he been present for our debates on such matters during the past year or so, he would realise that the track record of local authorities in providing that accommodation leaves a great deal to be desired. Local authorities throughout the country—the most recent case was in the north-east and I cited that example when we last debated those matters—absolutely failed to live up to the commitments that they had made to make the accommodation available, so I fear that the right hon. Gentleman's question is based on an entirely false premise.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

The Home Secretary will be aware that about a dozen youngsters under the age of 16 are in Hull prison because there is no secure accommodation for them. Secure accommodation on Humberside, which led the country, is crowded. What extra facilities and money will he give to local authorities so that they can fulfil their statutory duties?

Mr. Howard

As the hon. Gentleman knows, or should know, that was made public some time ago. We set out our plans clearly—Home Office and Department of Health plans—on financing the provision of local authority secure accommodation, but we believe that a separate regime needs to be provided for persistent young offenders. That is why we have provided a secure training order and will provide secure training centres.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

Does the Home Secretary recall that in February 1991 his predecessor responded to campaigns by many people, including many Opposition Members, and promised to provide precisely those places to which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) referred? That would have ended the scandal of youngsters aged 15 and 16 being held in adult prisons because there was nowhere else for them to be held. The Government's failure to provide funds in the intervening years and to support local authority requests has resulted in the continuation of that scandal.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in the way that the Labour party is often wrong. Labour Members say that local authorities—not central Government—should be given certain responsibilities. Then the local authorities, especially those under the control of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, fail to discharge those responsibilities and, with the gall that the hon. Gentleman just displayed, blame the Government.

It is the responsibility of local authorities to provide the accommodation. During the months that we have debated such matters in the House, well-documented examples have been produced. Leicestershire was one example; I cited the local authorities in the north-east and gave the House chapter and verse when we last discussed the matter. Although central Government have made painstaking efforts to encourage local authorities to provide the accommodation, they have persistently failed to do so, especially when under Labour and Liberal Democrat control. That is the truth of the matter and it is about time that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) acknowledged it.

Mr. Michael

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made those assertions in the past. They are as untrue now as when he first made them. Will he examine the record again and admit to the House that what he said was not true, local authorities have not been provided with the resources, their applications have been frustrated by central Government and it is central Government's failure to keep a promise made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's predecessor in 1991 that is the real scandal?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman is talking twaddle. On the last occasion that we looked into the matter, when we discussed the part played by those authorities in the north-east, I gave the House chapter and verse. I gave the dates of meetings on the matter, the precise date of the commitment made by those local authorities and the date of the meeting when they reneged on that commitment. That is all on record in Hansard. Since that debate, we have not heard a peep out of the hon. Gentleman or any of his hon. Friends to challenge those precise facts and details, which were placed on record at that time.

Mr. McNamara

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howard

I must make progress, but I shall give way once more.

Mr. McNamara

I was listening to that interesting exchange. We have done all those things on Humberside and we have all that accommodation, but we still have the same problem and young people under the age of 16 are still going to prison. When will we get the money to expand our facilities, so that we are able to meet our statutory requirements?

Mr. Howard

I answered that question. We made clear the arrangements that are in hand to provide extra finance from the Home Office and the Department of Health to ensure that that accommodation is made available.

The right to silence is the second example. I have lost count of the number of times when ordinary policemen have told me, "Please do something about the right to silence." They are sick and tired of professional criminals smirking in the interview room, secure in the knowledge that the jury will never find out that they refused to answer questions that an innocent person would certainly have answered.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act provides freedom of information for juries. The innocent have nothing to fear from the changes. The guilty may well have cause to regret them—and so they should. I want the guilty to be convicted and I am prepared to take the necessary action to achieve that. The message from the Opposition parties is, "Carry on clamming up."

Mr. Mullin

As I pointed out before, police officers charged with perverting the course of justice are the people who use the right to silence most regularly.

Mr. Howard

If there were any truth in the hon. Gentleman's remarks, I should expect him to be one of the greatest enthusiasts for the change that I am proposing. I look forward to him reflecting on that question and telling the House later, if he catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, that he has changed his position and unreservedly welcomes that measure in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

Those attacks were not the only ones to be made on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. During its passage, demonstrations took place to protest against its provisions. As has become all too common, a violent fringe used those legitimate demonstrations—the cover of peaceful protest—to wage war on the police. Just as predictably, a Labour Member of Parliament blamed the violence on the police. Indeed, when the violent demonstrators laid siege to the House, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) said: Parliament deserves to be laid siege to over this Bill. What an utterly disgraceful remark. Yet we heard not a peep from the Leader of the Opposition. There was no rebuke or disclaimer; only an embarrassed silence.

All the efforts of the Opposition parties have miserably failed. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act is now on the statute book, entire and intact. [Interruption.] Yes, it is. It is as we wanted it to be on the statute book.

I recognise that there is a great deal more to be done. Early in the new year, I shall publish a working paper setting out the framework of our policy on law and order. At its heart will be a resounding reaffirmation of the simple principle that proper punishment should follow crime as surely as night follows day. That is why I have embarked on a fundamental review of the place of punishment in our criminal justice system.

I started with cautions. One of the reasons why criminals were not being brought to justice through the courts was that too many were not reaching the courts at all, even after they had been apprehended. They were receiving only a caution from the police. Of those cautioned or convicted for indictable offences in 1993, more than two fifths—in fact, 41 per cent.—were cautioned. And that, I repeat, was for indictable offences. Sometimes offenders were not brought before the court until they had been caught four or five times. The link between crime and punishment had become attenuated to a totally unacceptable extent.

The new circular on cautioning that I have issued will ensure that serious offenders, and those who ignore a caution and reoffend, can expect to be brought to court. Cautioning continues to have its place. For many first offenders, it works. But fresh guidance was needed, to ensure that discretion was not used in unacceptable ways. In the nine months following the issue of draft guidance, there were 14,000 fewer cautions than in the same period last year.

Inevitably, most offenders who receive punishment are punished in the community. I have been concerned to ensure that the public really do have confidence in the adequacy of community sentences. I have already published new national standards for consultation, and they will be introduced in their final form early in the new year. The public do not want offenders sent on holiday, either at home or abroad, as part of a sentence from the court. They want offenders to repay their debt to society. The new standards reflect the fact that there will and should be a range of different activities for different types of offender. But they make it quite clear that no activities should simply be dressed-up forms of recreation. There is work—hard work—to be done in communities. I want to see offenders doing that work. They should put something back into the community as reparation for the crimes that they have committed.

However, the new national standards will not be enough on their own. Early next year I shall publish a Green Paper that will suggest ways in which the courts can be given far more influence on the implementation of the community sentences that they pass. The first essential is to ensure that local probation services have available a full range of activities so that the court is given as much flexibility as possible. The second is to allow courts to specify in greater detail precisely what offenders should be required to do. Those vital reforms to the system of community punishment will take time to introduce, but I believe that they will do much to re-establish public confidence in the validity of the system.

However successful we are in strengthening community sentences, prison will always play a vital part in the criminal justice system. It is the only punishment suitable for serious offenders and for many repeat offenders. Many victims of serious crimes want reassurance that the perpetrators are safely behind bars for a lengthy period so that those victims can rebuild their shattered lives.

Prison brings other benefits. While inside prison, offenders cannot commit further crimes against the community and many offenders are put off from committing further offences by the threat of prison. So for many reasons, prison can indeed be said to work. I want it to more effective still in the future, and that is why I am proposing far-reaching changes to our prison regime.

First is security. The safety of the public and of prison staff must be paramount. I have always made it clear that what happened at Whitemoor was both extremely serious and totally unacceptable. That is why I appointed Sir John Woodcock, a distinguished former chief inspector of constabulary, to carry out an independent and thorough inquiry into exactly what happened. I want to learn all the lessons which can be learned, so that everything that can be done is done to make sure that nothing like it ever happens again.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Has the Home Secretary received the report on Whitemoor prison, and when will it be made available to the House?

Mr. Howard

I have not yet received the report. I shall make it available to the House as soon as I reasonably can. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the matter is entirely out of my hands. It is an independent inquiry, conducted by Sir John Woodcock. It is important that he has the time that he needs to carry out the thorough and full investigation to which I have just referred.

If prison is to be effective and if public confidence in our prisons is to be restored, action is required in three other areas. The first is temporary prison leave. As the House will know, I have been conducting a thorough review of the system of leave from prisons. In too many cases, the system has been abused. I have come to the conclusion that it needs to be tightened up. I can announce to the House today changes in the system that are likely to lead to a reduction of about 40 per cent. in the amount of leave granted. I have placed full details of the new arrangements in the Library.

The new system will have a number of important features. First, with immediate effect, a much more rigorous risk assessment will be carried out before any temporary release is permitted. The safety of the public must be paramount. Secondly, there will be no automatic right to temporary release, which will be permitted only in certain carefully prescribed circumstances: first, leave on specified compassionate grounds; secondly, leave towards the end of a sentence to assist prisoners in reintegrating into the community; and finally, leave for training, education or work experience designed to help in prisoner rehabilitation. That form of leave will not be available to the most dangerous prisoners—those in category A or B prisons—and will be considered only when suitable courses are not available within the prison. My longer-term objective will be to restrict releases in that category to an absolute minimum by providing more facilities inside prison.

Thirdly, I am very disturbed by the number of occasions on which prisoners abscond when on temporary release. I have therefore decided to introduce a new offence designed to make breaches of licence while on temporary prison leave a criminal offence for the first time.

Prison governors will have an overriding duty, in considering any release, not only to ensure the safety of the public but to maintain public confidence in the prison system. The necessary training for the full introduction of the new arrangements will be completed early next year. I intend to review the new system by the end of next year to see whether any further changes are needed.

The second area for action is prison conditions. As I have said many times, basic conditions in prison should be decent but austere. I attach great importance to both. That is why slopping out has been virtually phased out. That is why there are no prisoners three to a cell designed for one, when just seven years ago there were over 5,000 of them. But austerity matters, too. There has been a great deal of public anger at reports of lax conditions and privileges handed out as a matter of course. I share that anger. So I shall soon announce a new system of privileges and sanctions. Under that new system, privileges will have to be earned by good behaviour and will be removed for bad behaviour. I believe that the new system will be a powerful influence for change for the better in our prisons.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend satisfied that the qualifications required to be a prison officer, and the training that officers receive when they are first employed, are sufficient to achieve the rising standards that we all seek in our prisons? Will he reflect on the fact that, time and again, reports on prisons suggest that they are disgracefully dirty? A work force is there that should surely be given pride in itself and in its accommodation by having much higher standards of cleanliness enjoined upon it.

Mr. Howard

On the first of my hon. Friend's points, it is important that, as we move towards a new regime, the training required to enable that regime to be implemented effectively is given to prison officers. I acknowledge that additional training will be required.

Cleanliness of prisons is always remarked on by the chief inspector of prisons in his reports. Sometimes he commends a prison for its cleanliness; on other occasions, as my hon. Friend rightly says, he will criticise a prison for lack of cleanliness. I very much agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks and I hope that there will be continued improvement in that area.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

All the announcements that my right hon. and learned Friend is making today will be welcomed by my constituents, who want more punishment and less forgiveness for crime. One suspects, however, that many of those ideas do not have the support of many of the people in the services that my right hon. and learned Friend is discussing. For example, the announcement on temporary prison leave was leaked in The Guardian this morning in advance of the announcement to the House. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that there will be an inquiry into the leak, and that he will root out those in the prison service who do not support those reforms?

Mr. Howard

I can confirm that there will be an inquiry into the leak. As for my hon. Friend's general point, I think that there is general understanding in the prison service—[Interruption.] I note that this is a matter for jesting on the Opposition Front Bench—important questions about conditions in our prisons and about the extent to which austere regimes are run there are apparently matters for jest among Opposition Front Benchers. The country will take due note of their reaction.

To answer my hon. Friend again: I am laying down the policy that the prison service will follow, and the prison service accepts that it will follow that policy.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend satisfied that manning levels in the prison service are adequate to cope with the changes? Has he any thoughts about the sort of people who are recruited to the prison service? Could more be done to bring in people who have served in the armed forces, who are likely to bring to the service the new dimension that would give my right hon. and learned Friend the positive reaction that he seeks?

Mr. Howard

I understand and have some sympathy with that point. The ratio of prison officers to prisoners has improved steadily and dramatically in recent years. I do not think that there can be any reasonable concern over general manning levels. I have a good deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's point about the background from which new prison officers could be recruited.

I come finally in this section to drugs and prisons. There is no doubt that there is far too much drug taking in our prisons. I am determined to do all that I can to deal with the problem. That is why I shall shortly be introducing new prison rules, made under the new powers in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which will require prisoners to provide urine samples for drug testing. I hope to announce the introduction of a new regime of drug testing shortly, and I have no doubt that it will make a major contribution to dealing with that serious problem.

Of course, drugs are a problem not just in prisons. They are a problem throughout society, and the Government have always recognised that. That is why we have acted to increase the maximum sentence for trafficking in hard drugs to life imprisonment, and it is why we introduced tough powers to seize drug traffickers' assets. But if we are to tackle the problem effectively, we need a comprehensive approach—in the producer countries, at the ports, in the schools and on the streets. We need education, treatment and tough punishment for pushers. All those are being pursued.

Last month my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House gave that effort fresh impetus with the publication of the Government's new strategy document. I can assure the House that we shall continue the campaign unrelentingly. We know just how destructive drug taking is for our whole society.

There should be no doubt at all about the determination of the Government in one respect: legalisation of drugs is certainly not the answer. It may be the view of the Liberal Democrat party, but it is not the view of the public or of the police, and it is most emphatically not my view.

Mr. Beith

I hope that the Home Secretary will not forget, however, that it was the view of the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury, which means that it must be a matter of legitimate debate.

As to whether cannabis might be legalised, the best solution is probably the one that we have advanced, which is to get a royal commission to consider aspects of drug policy, including whether legalising the possession of cannabis—now decreasingly an act leading to convictions—would be a dangerous signal leading to further drug taking, or would be helpful.

Mr. Howard

Many matters are legitimate subjects for debate. That does not get away from the fact that it was the right hon. Gentleman's party conference that voted to legalise cannabis. I have no doubt that he is deeply embarrassed by that, but such was the view of his party.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)


Mr. Howard

It is also the hon. Gentleman's view, I think.

Mr. Banks

I apologise for missing the earlier part of the Home Secretary's speech, but how does he see the fact that about two thirds of all police forces are handing out large numbers of adult cautions to those found in possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use? In the Metropolitan police area, about 5,800 such cautions were issued last year, so clearly the police feel differently about the issue.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman's conclusion does not remotely follow from his premise. Had he been here earlier, he would have heard me refer to the guidance that I have issued on cautioning. That guidance applies to all offences, in just the same way as it applies to offences of possession of cannabis. The guidance recognises that it will often be appropriate, for a first offence, that a caution be administered. That is what is happening in the Metropolitan police area and elsewhere. It happens for offences of possession of drugs and for other offences. The guidance also makes it clear, however, that repeat offences should not be the subject of cautions, and the police are implementing the guidance. So the possession of drugs is not being treated differently from other offences.

Many criminals start on and persist in a life of crime because they calculate, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously, that the risks of crime are small in relation to the potential rewards. I have taken a number of steps to increase the risks that they run, but I believe that it is right that action should also be taken to reduce the rewards. That is why I propose that the existing powers to confiscate the proceeds of crime should be greatly strengthened, as has already been done for drug trafficking and terrorism.

For criminals who engage in a series of crimes, the courts will be able to assume that all property that has passed through a defendant's hands in the previous six years came from crime and will be able to confiscate its value. It will no longer be possible to avoid paying the confiscation order by serving a term of imprisonment in default. I very much hope that a private Member's Bill can be used this Session to introduce those important measures. We shall give every help in its drafting. I hope and expect that it will receive widespread support so that it can be on the statute book as soon as possible.

However successful we are in combating crime, the victim will always be with us. It is essential that we have a properly funded, efficient method of marking society's concern at injuries to the victims of violent crime. By any standards, we have such a system. It is and will remain the most generous in the world. Indeed, last year more than a third of all compensation paid out by state schemes across the world was made available to British victims of crime.

The new scheme that we have introduced will remain extremely generous by any international comparison. Under its provisions, 60 per cent. of all beneficiaries will get as much as or more than they got under the old scheme. But it is a matter of fact that costs under the old system were likely to have trebled to £500 million a year by the year 2000—double the likely cost at that time of the new scheme. As usual, the Labour party has tried to have it both ways. It attacks the new scheme but refuses to say whether it would restore the old. As the House knows, the procedures that were followed in the introduction of the new scheme have been challenged in the courts. The divisional court ruled in our favour and last week the Court of Appeal ruled by a majority against us. We were given leave to appeal and we await the result of the final judgment of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords.

We have also helped victims in other ways. The Government gave Victim Support funding for the first time, and that funding has grown rapidly to its current level of £10 million. That will enable Victim Support to provide new arrangements in all Crown courts by the end of next year designed to make appearing in court as a witness less of an ordeal. By abolishing old-style committal proceedings, as we have done in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, we shall ensure that victims are spared unnecessary court appearances.

I am also acting to make sure that pre-sentence reports include a section that takes account of the effect of the crime on the victim. For victims of serious crimes, reassurance is best provided by the knowledge that the perpetrator is behind bars and that victims' concerns will be taken into account in any decisions to grant release on temporary licence. That is why I intend to set up a telephone hot line from next month to allow victims to communicate their fears about an inmate to the governor of the prison concerned. In all those ways, the Government are demonstrating by their actions their determination to safeguard the interests of victims, and we shall continue to do that.

Mr. Beith

How will victims know that a release is being considered?

Mr. Howard

They do not need to know that. All that a victim needs to communicate is his concern. The only purpose of the hot line is to enable victims to register their concern with the prison authorities. At the moment, victims complain that when they wish to pass information to prison authorities they do not know which number to ring and are often passed from pillar to post and given a series of telephone numbers. It is difficult for them to get the information to the relevant people. The only purpose, limited but important, of the hot line is to enable victims to transmit concerns to the prison authorities who will take them into account.

Victims can register their concern at the outset, on sentencing. If the governor is later considering the issue of temporary release, he will see that concern and note that it is some years old. That will give him the opportunity to ask for checks to see whether the concern remains and whether the victim still lives in the same place. It is a method of ensuring that information about victims' concerns reaches the relevant authorities.

Of course, the best way of helping victims is by reducing their number. The latest figures clearly show that the police are achieving some success in that direction. There has been a record fall in recorded crime generally; burglaries are down by well over 100,000; and car thefts are down by over 130,000. There are a number of reasons for that, such as the greater use of closed-circuit television and improved car and household security.

I pay tribute to the police for their increasing success in targeting known criminals. Rather than waiting for a crime to be committed, by which time the trail may have gone cold, the police are increasingly pro-active. They are taking the initiative, taking the fight to the criminal and turning the tide, and in that they deserve and need all our support.

In my first speech in the House as Home Secretary I laid great stress on the importance of building the strongest possible partnership between the police and the public. Without that, we cannot hope to achieve what is possible in preventing crime and bringing criminals to justice. In September, I launched a new campaign, "Partners against Crime", which is designed to take matters further. It has three components, the first of which is neighbourhood watch. There are now 130,000 schemes across the country covering 5 million households, and Crime Concern has set a new target of 200,000 covering 7.5 million households by the end of 1996.

The second component of the campaign relates to neighbourhood constables. Special constables have an indispensable role in helping the police, and I have raised the recruitment target to 30,000 by the end of 1996. Until now, they have not always been able to request that they serve in their own communities, but chief police officers have agreed that that restriction should be removed. In future, an increasing number of areas will be served by their own neighbourhood constables who will have all the powers of police constables.

The third component is street watch. At Glenfield near Leicester, where the scheme already exists, it has been found that it not only helps to prevent crime, but directly strengthens the sense of community spirit. As Dr. Ken Russell, a former parish councillor, put it: We found people talking to each other who had never spoken before. There were instances of people who fell out and never spoke to each other who now do. Its achievement in terms of community spirit is tremendous. [Interruption.] We note the attitude of Labour Members to real attempts by the community to deal with crime. Jacqueline Price, the local neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, added: Caring for each other comes naturally once the scheme is set up. The co-ordinator becomes aware of the vulnerable and the elderly in the road. It is typical of the Labour party that it should pour scorn on that initiative by volunteers. But it supports an initiative in Sedgefield involving paid wardens merely because it is controlled by the local council. There could be no clearer evidence of the gulf between our two parties.

During the past year, the Government have successfully piloted on to the statute book what is by any standards one of the most far-reaching pieces of criminal justice legislation since the war. The messages contained in that legislation will enhance the ability of the criminal justice system to redress crime, bring criminals to justice and significantly reduce the fear of crime, so improving the quality of life for many members of society.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

The Home Secretary will be aware that one of the biggest problems in virtually every constituency is that many thousands of people, especially the elderly and women, are afraid to go out at night. Will the Government's actions enable those people to go about their lives in the way that they are entitled to, now and in future?

Mr. Howard

I thought that the words that I used might not be greeted with universal enthusiasm in the Labour party. The words that I have just used were not mine, but those of the Police Federation, in setting out what it thought would be the effect of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. It thinks that by significantly reducing the fear of crime, the Act could improve the quality of life for many people. I hope that it will do so for those to whom the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) referred. It is important to do all that we can to fight the fear of crime, which keeps the elderly as prisoners in their homes.

One of the most important achievements of street watch, which is so derided and mocked by the Opposition, as we saw again a few moments ago, is that members of street watch accept as part of their responsibilities going out at night to escort elderly, vulnerable people who want to visit friends or relatives at the other end of the town but are afraid to do so on their own. They are happy to do so when they are escorted by members of street watch. That is a practical way to reduce the fear of crime among vulnerable people and it will improve the quality of their lives. I hope that the hon. Member for Burnley will support my efforts to achieve that objective.

Mr. Rowe

My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned volunteers. Will he reiterate his view that organisations that have worked with young offenders, many of whom could otherwise be described as children, should continue to use volunteers to create worthwhile occupations for such young people and rehabilitate them? Will he work with us to extend opportunities for such work?

Mr. Howard

There is a role for people in such work and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his long association with the voluntary movement. I agree with him, and the thrust of my earlier remarks, that there is great scope for voluntary effort, confirms that. I know that my hon. Friend shares that view.

The reaction of the Opposition parties to the legislation in the previous Session has shown them up in their true colours. They are soft on crime and they always will be. When they talk endlessly about the causes of crime, they come perilously close to making excuses for it. They will never understand that and that is why they cannot be trusted on law and order. That is why they occupy the Opposition Benches, as they will continue to do for many years.

10.19 am
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

I thank the Home Secretary for the compliments—which I think were full-hearted—that he paid me at the beginning of his speech. I look forward to many debates with him across the Dispatch Box. My only sorrow is that I shall miss the clashes and occasional insights that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) achieved in debate.

One reason that I am happy to be reacquainted with the right hon. and learned Gentleman is because it reminds me of some of his skills; for example, his skill with the scissors and paste in recycling old speeches and announcements. Not a single thing that he said today was new. Indeed, I could point directly to large chunks of his speech that he made in our debate on the Gracious Speech on 23 November last year, and also in his speech at the Conservative party conference last month.

The Home Secretary has made the announcement on home leave three times during the past two weeks. I note from his smirk that he accepts what I say. When I came fresh to the issue, I was astonished to discover the laxity in the conditions for home leave and temporary release, and the way that the matter had been allowed to drift by his Department.

Until six months ago, no proper records were kept of the numbers taking home leave and being granted temporary release. I had always assumed that it would be an offence not to comply with the conditions of home leave, the most significant one of which should surely be to return at the end of it. It is no wonder that a large number of people are absconding when there is no penalty if they do not return. Therefore, we give the proposed measures to deal with that our full support, but they come rather late.

Mr. Howard

If the Opposition have been concerned for so long about laxity in the conditions for home leave and temporary release, will the hon. Gentleman refer me to a single occasion on which the Leader of the Opposition, when he was shadow Home Secretary, asked me to tighten the conditions?

Mr. Straw

I shall do my best to provide the Home Secretary with an answer. I am aware that he is preparing himself for opposition, so I understand that he forgets that it is a Conservative Government who have been in charge for the past 15 years. He also forgets that some of the failures of the system remain buried within it for a long time, and it is difficult to discover negatives. I note that he did not demur for a moment from what I said about the lack of monitoring by his Department and the extraordinary fact that it has not been an offence—and still is not—to break the conditions of home leave.

I hope that there will be some serious debates in the Chamber about important criminal justice matters. The right to silence is one of them. My party supports the majority view of the royal commission. I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman takes a different view. Sometimes, Conservative Members speak with forked tongues on the issue. They want to abandon the right to silence for common criminals, but when serious accusations are made against senior members of the Conservative party, the first thing we hear them cry is that those people are innocent until others have proven them guilty, and that they are entitled to their right to silence.

Has the Home Secretary once complained about the fact that Lady Porter has exercised her right to silence throughout the hearings at Westminster city hall? Has he once complained to the Secretary of State for Employment about standing up and claiming that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) had the right to silence in the face of the accusations made against him? Has he written to the Employment Secretary about that?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman completely misrepresents the position. Of course it is true that someone is innocent until proven guilty. That has always been the position under our law and it remains so. That is not affected in the slightest degree by the changes that we are making to the right to silence. People will, quite rightly, continue to assert that someone is innocent until he is proven guilty, but that has nothing to do with the point that the hon. Gentleman tries to make, or the changes that we are making to the law.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friends will have noted a significant omission in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention. He did not say a word about whether he approved or disapproved of Lady Porter exercising a right to silence. We shall continue to ask him questions about that.

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman said that he hoped for a debate on criminal justice issues, but instead he resorts to throwing muck. That is his policy.

Mr. Straw

I have followed the investigation at Westminster with great care, and I have attended the proceedings twice during the past month. I would not describe that as muck. Very serious allegations have been made, and the Conservative party, at national level, has exercised double standards.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The hon. Gentleman referred to a couple of cases in which people have exercised their right to silence. He then commented on that and drew inferences from it. Does he agree that all the legislation has done is to allow a court to comment on the exercising of the right to silence and to draw inferences from it? He appears to be agreeing with the legislation. Perhaps he should adjust his comments accordingly.

Mr. Straw

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his dexterity. As he knows, the issue is rather more complicated than he suggests. If it were not, the majority of the royal commission recommendations would have to be dismissed, because the Conservative party did not agree with them. There is a serious issue of whether and at what point the right to silence should be abrogated. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) dealt with that point at the time. When I discussed the matter with the Crown Prosecution Service, I was told that it felt that pre-trial disclosure by the defence was much more important. I support that, but I understand that it is not in the legislation.

I want now to deal with the question of a criminal cases review authority. As the House knows, the Gracious Speech contained no specific reference to any criminal justice measure for England and Wales. There was simply a delphic reference to "further measures" relating to law and order. A large number of reports from the Law Commission have not been acted on by the Government. I would have liked to hear the Home Secretary say that some of them would be the subject of legislation during the current Session. One important one concerns the absurd bar on prosecutions for murder when the victim dies more than a year and a day after the attack. That matter has much exercised my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn).

If the Home Secretary is prepared to consult us in advance about the contents of measures that would implement Law Commission reports, we stand ready to co-operate in ensuring their passage through the House. We now know that the words in the Gracious Speech— further measures of law reform"— embrace a Bill to create a criminal cases review authority, as recommended by the royal commission.

By all accounts, the Bill's inclusion in the programme was a close-run thing. Just 10 days ago, the Home Secretary's representative on earth, the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), briefed the press that the Bill might be left out in this Session of Parliament. With that possibility in mind, I wrote last week to the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that we stood ready to agree a timetable for the Bill, provided that there was prior discussion and agreement on its contents. That offer still stands, and I hope that something positive comes from it.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield told the House on Wednesday, we have long urged legislation on a review authority. We backed the Home Affairs Select Committee's 1982 report, and we produced our own detailed report to that effect in 1990.

It is probably accepted across the Chamber that public confidence in the criminal justice system in England and Wales has rarely been lower than today, because the public do not sense that it deals effectively with those who are guilty, or has adequate safeguards for ensuring that those innocent of crimes are not wrongly convicted and spend years behind bars, unable to clear their names.

Notorious miscarriages of justice, such as those involving the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, and less celebrated cases, prompted the establishment of the Runciman royal commission. The common characteristic of almost all miscarriages of justice that were later put right is that the pursuit and investigation of evidence to establish innocence was by journalists or supporters of the prisoners—often in the face of great resistance by those running the system. Without the extraordinary tenacity of, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)—who was outrageously and ignorantly abused for years as some pro-IRA crank—the Birmingham Six might still be in gaol.

There has been almost an inbuilt, institutional reluctance to recognise that our criminal justice system, so often held up as the best in the world, and unquestionably containing many admirable features, could have failed so comprehensively in some cases. The result of those failures was not only the incarceration of people for crimes that they did not commit, but the fact that those guilty of them have continued to walk free.

The establishment of an independent review authority in place of the work of Home Office officials and ministerial discretion is a major step in the right direction. Of itself, it will not be a magic wand. How it operates, whether it will be seen as independent and what powers it exercises will be of critical importance. I am glad that the Home Secretary acknowledged some of those points.

We shall need to examine in detail some aspects of the authority's operation—not least, the system for the supervision and execution of investigations into miscarriages of justice. In our judgment, there will be cases in which it will be essential for public confidence that such investigations be independent of the police.

Of course there are resource issues, and we do not resile from those. The authority is likely to be overrun in its initial stages by a large number of applications—many of which may be without merit. If the system established can command public and professional support from the outset, so that, when the authority says no to an application, everyone understands that that is a fair judgment and means no, that should save resources in the short run and not expend them.

On Wednesday, following the extremely effective speech of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the House witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of the Prime Minister threatening his own colleagues with political extinction if they dared to vote against a Bill to increase Britain's contributions to the European Union. In doing so, the Prime Minister implicitly accepted that his party would suffer ignominious defeat in the event that he called a general election. After all, if the Prime Minister were confident of victory, it would hardly be a threat. He knows that the British public have lost all trust in his Administration and that he cannot regain it. The public were lied to about tax, deceived over crime and cruelly double-crossed over the Government's attitude to the victims of crime.

I am a devil for punishment, so I spent the weekend before last reading every speech made by Conservative Home Secretaries to each Conservative party conference since 1979. It was a numbing experience, but worth it. Virtually every year, there was stomach-churning rhetoric about how the Tory party claimed to be on the side of the victim and of the police, and how Britain's streets would be safer once Conservative policy had worked.

As the years rolled on, there was an increasing sense of desperation, as successive holders of that great office realised that their party had blown it. Overall, crime has doubled since 1979. Crimes of violence, which engender the greatest fear, have risen even faster—in the case of robbery, they have increased by 340 per cent. over 15 years, rising last year as well. Although the rhetoric has remained largely the same, the policies pursued have shown no similar consistency. They lurch from one wheeze to another.

One year, the public are told that prison does not work; the next, that prison does work. When the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) was Home Secretary, he said: Prisons are an expensive way of making bad people worse. The present Home Secretary launched a specific attack on that view on 22 November, and did so again today. When the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) was Home Secretary, his Department issued a press release celebrating a reduction in the number of young people given custodial sentences. The current holder of the office implies that his policies are not to be judged by whether the prison population decreases. That is in total contrast with the views taken by his predecessors.

Is it any wonder that the public are confused, and no longer believe a word that they are told by Conservative Ministers? Why should the public have any confidence, when even the Home Secretary's own colleagues do not? Writing in The Guardian last September, the right hon. Member for Mole Valley said of the current Home Secretary: I do not know what he is doing. He is going to make a lot of bad decisions if he is not careful. Never was the right hon. Member for Mole Valley more prescient. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's one and a half years as Home Secretary have been littered with bad decisions—none more so than in respect of the criminal injuries compensation scheme, on which the right hon. and learned Gentleman was humiliatingly overruled by the Court of Appeal last week.

The Home Secretary's approach to that scheme speaks volumes about the way that the Conservative party has broken the electorate's trust. The House will be aware that the central issue in the court judgment, which found that the Home Secretary behaved unlawfully, was whether he was entitled to use the powers of the royal prerogative to amend the scheme when legislation had been passed in 1988 but not activated meanwhile.

The Master of the Rolls held that the Home Secretary had acted unlawfully and abused his prerogative or common law powers". Revealingly, the legalities of the compensation scheme were not an issue for the Tory party in the 1992 general election. Before any election, the Conservatives publish a campaign guide, such as that which I hold—which was published before the 1994 European elections. In view of the position adopted by the Home Secretary in the Court of Appeal, I wonder whether he has read the guide published for the last general election. It stated that the compensation scheme was one of the most generous in the world and has been placed on a statutory basis, giving victims who suffer significant injuries an automatic right to compensation for the first time". Note the use of the present tense, with no suggestion that the statutory provisions had yet to be activated. If that text is to be believed, those provisions were already giving automatic rights to victims at the time of the guide's publication. But that was wholly untrue.

The Secretary of State has some explaining to do. Why were palpably untrue statements about the scheme, which would have been vetted by Ministers and their advisers, included in that election guide and made by Tory party members then? Why was the scheme's cost simply a matter for self-congratulation in that campaign guide, when criticisms made now about its cost applied then with equal force?

The Home Secretary told the House a few minutes ago that, if the scheme continued unreformed, its cost was likely to rise to £500 million by the year 2000. That is not what the 1994 guide told us. It said that the cost of the scheme would rise from £164 million in 1993–94, not to £500 million, but to £570 million by 2000. I want to know who is telling the truth. Is it the Secretary of State or the Conservative campaign guide, which Conservative leaders keep telling us is an authoritative document?

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)


Mr. Straw

I suspect that my hon. Friend is probably right.

I have had work carried out on the costings contained in the Conservative campaign guide, by the statisticians in the House of Commons Library. They tell me that the Home Office's calculations were based on a straight-line extrapolation of previous trends, and assume that the number of cases resolved in each year rose by 9 per cent. and that the value of each settlement rose by 5 per cent. plus inflation.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman understands how compound interest works, he will know that those assumptions, which amount to about a 17 per cent. compound increase each year, do not remotely produce a three and a half times increase in the cost of the scheme over six years. I can see that he is looking perplexed, and I am not surprised, because the calculations in the guide, and the ones that he has used, do not fit with the assumptions of his own statisticians.

Let us assume for a moment that the figures quoted in the guide are correct—an increase from £164 million to £570 million over six years. Even if we make allowance for a 5 per cent. plus inflation increase in the value of awards, it means that, as a matter of policy, the Secretary of State now expects serious crimes of violence and the applications arising therefrom to continue to rise year in and year out at not less than 15 per cent. each year, because to achieve a rate of increase of three and a half times over six years requires a 23 per cent. compound interest rate.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that he must accept as a matter of policy, for the figures to have any meaning, that violent crime will continue to accelerate at a double-digit rate for the next six years, each year?

Mr. Howard

The answer is no, and I am astonished that, given the amount of work that the hon. Gentleman has clearly put into the matter, he is not aware of this simple point. The remarkable fact is that there is no statistical relationship between the number of applications under the scheme, or the amount paid out under the scheme, and the increase in violent crime.

If we look at what has happened over the 30 years during which the scheme has operated, we find that violent crime has increased by 500 per cent., that the number of applications under the scheme has increased by 3,000 per cent. and that the amount paid out under the scheme has increased by 40,000 per cent. So there is no relationship, as it happens, and as can be clearly and demonstrably established, between the number of violent crimes and the amount paid out under the scheme, which demolishes the assumption on which the whole of the hon. Gentleman's rather rickety edifice was based.

Mr. Straw

It scarcely demolishes the assumption at all. What it shows is that there are virtually no sustainable assumptions of any kind in the Home Secretary's calculations.

Mr. Howard

One can extrapolate.

Mr. Straw

But it depends—if the Home Secretary knows anything about extrapolation—on which period he uses. He is assuming that it is an upward-rising trend. How does he take account of the fact—he claims that awards are going up year by year—that, in fact, awards between 1991–92 and 1992–93 went down by 3,000, not up?

The Home Secretary does not understand the figures. He has no idea how they were arrived at. He failed to explain the difference between the fact that the Conservative party campaign guide quotes £570 million, while he quotes £500 million. Does he wish to intervene on that point? Or are we to say, "Well, it could be £500 million or it could be £570 million. Take your pick." What is the answer? Which one is accurate?

Mr. Jenkin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

No. I want to hear from the Secretary of State, not the organ grinder.

Which one of those two figures is an accurate estimate? The answer is that the Secretary of State does not know. If he wants to restore any credibility to his already tattered reputation when it comes to helping the victims of crime, he must provide details of the assumptions behind his calculations, and at long last own up to the fact that they include an assumption that violent crime will continue to rise by a double-digit element each year for the next six years.

Over the past year, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has achieved the remarkable feat of offending just about everyone involved in the criminal justice system: from the police, prison officers, justices' clerks, probation officers and lawyers, to the victims in whose name he claims to act. A period of quiet reflection would surely have been in order. Instead—we were not laughing at the issue of the victims, but at him and at the way in which he tried to pretend that he was concerned about them—he has cut the most important scheme to help victims by half.

Even some of the Home Secretary's former friends on the right of the Tory party are deserting him. This is what the noble Lord Tebbit said in "Panorama" in discussing the causes of crime, in May this year: I think you have to approach from a direction which some might say is almost a Labour party direction, of saying: What are the causes of crime? Why are there so many people engaged in crime? As well as, What do you do with people when they commit crime? The right hon. and learned Gentleman's big idea of "Partners against Crime" fails to grasp the real meaning of partnership, which should not just place the onus on the individual to prevent crime, but should also involve all the main agencies of the community and the criminal justice system in a common fight against crime. He is happy to steal Labour's language on crime prevention, but not our prescription. He has failed comprehensively to implement the key recommendations of his own Department's report—the Morgan report—which would have placed a statutory duty on local authorities, in conjunction with the police, to develop community safety and crime prevention measures. What is missing from the Gracious Speech and from his speech today is the promise of legislation to create that new statutory duty and partnership.

During the passage of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, Labour highlighted a series of gaps in the law, which have become increasingly problematic as the fear of crime has escalated. In many high-crime areas, new, private security companies have knocked on doors, offering night-time surveillance for the cost of a couple of pounds a week. In some cases, they may be legitimate businesses staffed by highly trained security guards, but one investigation after another has exposed another side to that business.

One senior police officer told us of a firm owned by two partners, one of whom had a long record of fraud, while his partner had a record of violence. In another case, the person knocking on doors hinted that his company could take no responsibility for what happened to a home that was not under his protection. The public have no way of knowing whether what they are being offered is genuine security or whether they are being drawn into a protection racket.

The police, who are very worried about that, have no power to act. I am very sorry that, so far, the Government have rejected our proposals to give interim powers to chief constables to provide some regulation of that area. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, I understand, has rejected the idea of statutory regulation, yet responsible and established companies in the private security industry join us in demanding such regulation to protect the public.

On the issue of walking with a purpose—of vigilantes—I want every member of the community who is able-bodied to recognise his or her responsibilities to other members of the community. I do not want to see anybody walking by on the other side, leaving matters to the police, because the police can work effectively only if they have the full support of the community and of politicians.

Some of the schemes that have been suggested must be examined in careful detail. The Secretary of State should be as aware as we in the Labour party are of the fine line between people who are organised as members of the community and who become vigilantes and of the very serious problems that can be caused by people, who sometimes have no training and may have criminal records, who can go and buy a uniform from a theatrical costumier and set themselves up as security men and offer themselves as parish constables. The Secretary of State is apparently willing to allow that to continue without any regulation at all. It is wholly unsatisfactory. That is why people are very worried indeed about the current situation.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman really must not confuse what are completely separate issues. He should know that we have agreed with the Association of Chief Police Officers a set of guidelines under which every street watch scheme should operate. If the schemes do not operate in conformity with those guidelines and if they do not operate with the co-operation and under the direction of the police in their area, I would not approve what they are doing, and they would not come within the scope of street watch.

Mr. Straw

I notice that, despite my generosity in allowing the Secretary of State to intervene, he never answers the key question. The key question is why is he letting the security industry carry on in a totally unregulated way. He seems content to allow that to happen and to allow cowboys and all sorts of people with criminal records to set themselves up as security firms. There is no regulation at all. It is part of, I gather, rolling back the frontiers of the state. Even the regulation of law and order is ineffective under this Government.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition stated so clearly that we will make a lasting impact on crime in this country only if we are both tough on crime and tough on its causes. We have to move away from the false choice between punishment and prevention. We need a criminal justice system which works and inspires confidence in the public; one which deals with offenders more effectively and ensures that the penalty is appropriate to the crime.

But, at the same time, we need a national strategy to stop crimes being committed in the first place, and such a strategy needs both to tackle the underlying causes of crime and to ensure that action is taken now to reduce offending. There is no excuse for offending, and individuals must be responsible for their own behaviour; but it is a foolish Government who do not see that, if children grow up in a society which offers a poor education, little hope for the future and no prospect of a steady job, they are more likely to drift into offending.

Indeed, after a long period of education, even the Secretary of State has now accepted our analysis of the nature of crime. We congratulate him on this small beginning, for he told the Institute of Directors in April 1994: Failures in the home, at school and in society at large do not cause crime in the sense that sunshine melts snow … but clearly these failures do create conditions in which crime and law breaking can thrive.

Mr. Howard

Of course they do.

Mr. Straw

The Secretary of State says, of course they do. I am very glad to have that on the record. That is exactly what we have been saying for 15 years, and what he has been denying for 14 and a half years.

It is Opposition Members who have the vision and the policies to tackle crime. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has today delivered the tired speech of an already discredited Home Secretary. There can be no grounds for complacency about the appalling levels of crime in our society.

Last year, in the debate on the Gracious Speech, the Prime Minister said that all western countries had experienced a similar rise in crime to England and Wales. This month, the Home Office produced figures which conclusively gave the lie to that claim.

The Secretary of State's own Department's figures show that, in the five years between 1987 and 1992, recorded crime in England and Wales rose by 44 per cent.—the highest increase of any of the countries mentioned in that survey. The only record on crime which the Government can claim is that crime in Britain under the Conservatives has risen further and faster than in any other industrialised country surveyed by the Secretary of State's Department.

We have heard nothing—

Mr. Howard

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

I am just coming to the end of my speech.

Mr. Howard


Mr. Straw

I am just coming to the end of my speech.

Hon. Members

Give way.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman has twice in his speech, at different points, referred approvingly to the recorded crime figures. He did so just a moment ago and he did so much earlier in his speech when he referred to the increase in violent crime. May we then take it that the hon. Gentleman accepts the validity of the recorded crime figures, and will he therefore join me in paying tribute to the police for the fact that the recorded crime figures up to the 12 months at the end of June 1994 show the biggest fall in 40 years?

Mr. Straw

There is a huge debate to be had, as the Secretary of State would know if he had any intelligence, about the underlying validity of the crime figures. [Laughter.] Of course there is, and he knows there is. "The British Crime Survey", which was published on the same day as the figures he has mentioned for the previous two years, told a rather different story about what has happened to crime.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. "The British Crime Survey" indeed gives a different picture. One respect is that it shows a much lower increase in violent crime over the period referred to by the hon. Gentleman than the figures he used earlier. He cannot have it both ways. Either he accepts the recorded crime figures for violent crime, which is why I put the question to him, or he accepts "The British Crime Survey", which shows a very much smaller increase in violent crime over that period. On which does the hon. Gentleman rely?

Mr. Straw

The survey also shows a much larger increase in overall crime. If crime is going down, our party is the first to welcome it. That was made clear by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. If it has gone down by five percentage points in the past year, it will take another 15 years before it approaches anything like the level it was when the Conservatives came to power. I do not believe—

Mr. Jenkin

It was going up.

Mr. Straw

It was going down. If the hon. Gentleman had the sense to read his previous leaders' speeches, he will notice that, at the 1979 general election, a charge was not made with any force that crime was rising—because it was not. That is the truth of it. It will take 15 years of this progress to get back to the level of crime as it was when Labour left office. The Secretary of State must be living in a world inhabited by no one else from this country if he does not believe that there is the deepest anxiety about crime, the fear of crime and the Government's failure to tackle it in each of the past 15 years.

We have heard nothing in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech today to convince us that he has any serious understanding of the nature of crime in society, or any real policies to tackle one of the most serious problems facing this country today. The Government have little strategy for dealing with crime, and few policies to reassure a public who are deeply concerned about a breakdown in law and order. This Government have failed the country, and they have failed the victims of crime. The nation and the victims of crime deserve better, and they will get better from Labour.

10.56 am
Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

I welcome the Gracious Speech, for a number of reasons. Politics in this country at the present time is in a very strange state. Since we do not have masses of legislation going through the House this year, perhaps both main parties and the minority party of the Liberal Democrats may be able to think about their policies and get them right long before the next general election. With the current changes of policy in all the major parties, the debate within those parties over the next year must ensure that we get the policies right and in line with the wishes of the public, which will be good for everybody. I also welcome the fact that, because there is not too much hyperactivity this Session, we may debate the major issues which affect people, of which law and order is obviously one.

I want to make a number of comments on the environment and on other parts of the Gracious Speech. I wish that the Government would produce an edict stating that no playing fields should be wiped out and sold without Government approval, because at the rate playing fields are disappearing in my constituency and around this country, it will take five or 10 years to buy them back, even if the necessary money from the national lottery is available. It is no good talking about competitive sports when local authorities, schools, institutes of higher education and ex-polytechnics in particular are still selling off playing fields.

I have always felt and still feel that planning law in the country is a developers charter. If a developer is turned down by a local authority, in most cases he has the right of appeal to the Department of the Environment, but if the development is approved, people in the region, whose environment will be affected, have no right of appeal to it. I still think that that is wrong and that something should be done about it.

I am glad that the Gracious Speech does not mention local government reorganisation. My experience is that all local government reorganisations that have been undertaken by Governments of all colours have been disastrous. I will vote for no form of local government reorganisation anywhere unless people in the region have an opportunity to agree to it in a referendum; I would mention that to the Whips or anyone else who wishes to hear my views.

I am concerned that there is still the movement of so much policy towards centralisation. That matter overlaps with law and order. In the past five years, 25 per cent. of local magistrates courts have been shut. They are being centralised. I do not want the Government to be a centralising Government. I want local magistrates in place who know the region and have a feel for what is happening. I do not want people from a long way away who have no idea of what is happening.

I should like to compliment Brent local authority, my own borough, which is Conservative controlled. Last year, no one would have believed that it would be one of only five Conservative-controlled boroughs in London—miracles still happen in our society. People there are wise. It is rumoured that recently undertaken research shows that people in Brent, North have the highest IQs in the country. An amateur may have undertaken the survey, but I was impressed when its results were mentioned to me. The high IQ of Brent residents was shown in the results last year. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) is a fair man and would accept that.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

Is my right hon. Friend willing to note that the London borough of Brent, when run by the Labour party, was known to be the worst local authority in the country? Last year, under the control of the Conservatives, the borough won among the largest number of charter marks for the quality of its services, but it was condemned universally, including by Opposition Members, for the fact that its services were the worst known to man.

Sir Rhodes Boyson

I agree with my right hon. Friend. Under Labour control, Brent had to have prayer meetings to ensure that we could live through the days. Now we have hymns of triumph from all the churches and people in the borough.

I should like to mention three things about Brent council. First, it has won the "Best Parks in London" award. Secondly, the Local Government Chronicle said: Brent has transformed itself into an organisation whose slogan `Simply the best' is now justifiable. Thirdly, it gives me great pleasure to say that the average local tax bill of Brent households was reduced by 60 per cent. Between 1900—[Interruption.]I——Sorry, between 1990 and 1994. It would have been even more obvious if I had gone back to 1900. My message to the Government is that one of the big reasons we won in Brent was that we reduced the council tax. If we are to win the next general election, the Government had better start reducing taxes soon instead of waiting for that general election.

On education, I welcome the new Secretary of State for Education, who was appointed last July. She is doing a good job. We are letting schools settle down. After all the revolutions in school arrangements and the curriculum, the Secretary of State should stroke teachers the right way, cut the heavy curriculum and allow, as we are allowing, 20 per cent. of time in primary schools and 40 per cent. of time in secondary schools to be taken up with what schools want to do. I welcome that.

I am concerned about another issue in relation to education. I have always supported voluntary schools and the right of parents to send their children to schools of their religious denomination, whether the schools are Methodist, of which there are still a few in the country, Church of England, Catholic, Muslim or Jewish. Something that is happening will threaten the right of parents to have fares for journeys to the nearest denominational school paid. That threat exists in Brent and that is why I am bringing the matter to the attention of the House.

I have also brought the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State. In the middle of last year, Brent local education authority sent a statement to schools. It said: Because of the broadly-based and comprehensive nature of Brent's religious syllabus, the LEA takes the view that its schools can provide adequately for children of all denominations and are therefore deemed to meet the criteria of suitable schools. It is recognised, however, that there may be exceptional cases where the circumstances are such that children will not be able to benefit from education given in a non-denominational setting, and in those cases, free transport will be provided. An alteration followed which said that, if a sibling was at the school, an automatic factor would be attached.

I remember the Education Act 1980 and the battle over the right of parents to be paid the travel costs, over two or three miles, of their children to their nearest denominational school. The Government overruled what I wanted and introduced a proposal that was not satisfactory, which was taken out in the other place.

Mr. Straw

I was following the right hon. Gentleman's speech with interest. Had he organised the other place to take out the part of the Bill that he objected to as a Minister?

Sir Rhodes Boyson

I claim privilege on that.

Mr. Jenkin

The right to silence.

Sir Rhodes Boyson

Yes, that is rather good. The proposal was taken out in the other place after a great battle. Since then, we in this country have presumed that a parent has a right to have his child's travel costs to the nearest denominational school paid over the two or three-mile limits. The new proposal puts that at risk. The idea that there is a syllabus that will fit Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and Church of England parents drives a horse and cart through the question of parental choice of voluntary school.

Last July, I went to see the previous Secretary of State on this matter. Since last July, I have written a letter to the present Secretary of State. This week, I have been in contact with the religious denominations, particularly the Catholic denomination. The Secretary of State should issue a ruling immediately, before other authorities say the same, that says that Brent's interpretation is wrong. Ordinary parents will not be able to afford to send their children to denominational schools if they have a large family.

I have with me figures from one of the schools that I received this week. I shall give them once I find the right piece of paper. I am not used to having so many pieces of paper. I shall give the figures not through the use of mirrors but from memory. More than 40 children lived beyond the three-mile limit for one secondary Catholic school. Of those, about half were siblings, so they were allowed travel costs immediately. Two children appealed and they are being paid. The rest are paying their own travel costs, as far as we can find out.

In every surgery that I hold, parents come in who cannot afford to pay and may possibly have to withdraw their children from denominational schools. The average cost is about £5 a week. The cost of bus fares is high. That they should have to pay is wrong and something should be done about it.

I have found the figures that I wanted. Forty-four children this year lived more than three miles from the school. Nineteen were siblings, two appealed and, presumably, 23 have to pay their own costs, some of whom come from large families.

The second major issue which I wish to raise is one to which I have referred before and which is mentioned in the Gracious Speech—China and Hong Kong. I declare an interest in that I was in the East Indies fleet when Hong Kong was reoccupied at the end of the second world war—[Interruption.] I had better stress that it was the second world war. I said at the time that as the nationalists, or whoever was in control at the time, were our allies, we should have given Hong Kong back then. The age of colonialism had passed and we should have given Hong Kong hack immediately, but we did not. If China had cut off the water for two days, we would have had to capitulate, and it amazed me that first the nationalists and then "Red" China did not take such action.

For 140 or 150 years we did nothing about democracy in Hong Kong. There were no direct or indirect elections, but in 1984 we signed the joint declaration agreeing to hand over Hong Kong in 13 years. We then immediately started changing Hong Kong's constitution in respect of representation: in 1985 we introduced indirect elections and in 1991 direct elections. If it was not a breach of the letter of the declaration, "Red" China and I interpreted it as a breach of the spirit of that declaration. Since then, there has been aggro between ourselves and China.

China will be a major power. Indeed, the 19th century was the century of Britain's power; the 20th century was that of Europe and America; and the 21st century, into which I intend to survive, will undoubtedly be that of China. We should not endanger our relationship with Red China in any way. I respect the Governor of Hong Kong. We served as Ministers for Northern Ireland—I was the Minister of State when he was an Under-Secretary. I have always had a good relationship with him, but we should reassess our relations with China by saying that we were wrong and that it is up to that country how it proceeds. That would be good for Britain.

Mr. Tony Banks

The right hon. Gentleman has gone from Brent to Hong Kong in one easy move. I am surprised that he should defend the totalitarian regime of Red China which is guilty of appalling abuses of human rights and that he should criticise the Government and the Governor of Hong Kong for introducing a modicum of democracy into that Crown colony, something that has been greatly welcomed by the people there.

Sir Rhodes Boyson

The debate on the Gracious Speech can range widely and I take advantage of that. I am not a nit-picker; nor would I call the hon. Gentleman a nit-picker, but the debate is wide ranging. There are times when hon. Members can range widely instead of being masters of paperclips. I shall take up what the hon. Gentleman said.

We signed a treaty to hand over Hong Kong on a certain date, and it will happen. China could take us over in two days, but it has not because Deng believed that the British kept their treaties. However, Deng then said that we had broken the treaty by introducing changes. If I sign a treaty to buy a house and then do not buy it, I am in the wrong. I believe that the Chinese are morally right in this instance. Perhaps the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and I will go to China to represent different political views.

I hope that democracy will improve in China. I believe that it will, but it will not be helped by tension between us and China. It is far better for us to influence something that will be permanent. As I understand it, China has said that it will not "ride the through train" in this respect because it believes that the British broke the treaty. I have surveyed the world and brought the hon. Member for Newham, North-West to his feet. It is always a privilege to listen to him.

The future of the Government and of this country depends on economic revival. That revival can be achieved only by putting more money into the pockets of the people. That is the difference—possibly not as wide as it once was—between the Conservative party and the Opposition. I hope that, in the two years before the next general election, we all—inside and outside the House—will reassess our policies to ensure that there is a clear choice between the parties. That must be good for democracy. We should spend the intervening period not in legislative hyperactivity but in debating the main issues affecting society.

11.15 am
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

I intervene in the debate only to refer to that part of the Gracious Speech which relates to the Government's pledge to introduce a Bill to tackle discrimination against disabled people". The problems of disabled people involve all Departments of State, but the Prime Minister's reference on Wednesday to the Government's promised Bill talked of it as one only about discrimination in employment, access to goods and services and the establishment of a National Disability Council. There was no mention of any urgent action to improve access for disabled people, whether to issue proceedings or attend a hearing or sit on a jury, to the vast majority of our courts, both civil and criminal, that were designed to exclude them.

Nor did he say a word about the appalling record of the Home Office in employing disabled people. The latest figure I have seen gives the percentage of disabled people employed by the Home Office as 0.3 per cent., one tenth of the 3 per cent. quota called for by the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944, and the worst of any Department of State. There has been no word of criticism of that by the Prime Minister, for which no doubt the reason is that 10 Downing street's record is even more deplorable. There is not one disabled employee there.

So far as is known there will be no plans in the Government's Bill for improving their own performance, whether at the Home Office, the Department of the Environment, in Downing street or anywhere else in Whitehall, yet even at the Department of Health the percentage of disabled people employed is only 0.7 per cent. Nor will the Bill cover transport or education or establish the Disability Rights Commission for which the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill I drafted in January 1992 provides. Instead, there will merely be an advisory council which disabled people are already calling a "talking shop". That is why the "Rights Now!" campaign, so admirably served by Victoria Scott, dismisses the Government's approach to unfair discrimination against disabled people—many of whom, of course, are the victims of serious crime—as "piecemeal, partial and pathetic."

Much the best guide to the provisions we can expect in the Government's Bill is to be found in the consultative document "Disability—On The Agenda", which they published in July. The proposals in that document were a travesty of those put forward in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.

The Government's determination to preserve the status quo by restricting legal protection against discrimination to the maximum possible extent comes through in every page of the document as their main concern. Its negative attitude reflects a total failure to understand the realities of disabled living and the way in which discrimination piles handicap on handicap in disabled people's lives.

Where the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is comprehensive, enforceable and effective, the Government's proposals are none of these things. Their narrow definition of disability excludes many disabled people now experiencing discrimination at its most intense—for example, people with non-symptomatic HIV or those with histories of mental illness. In addition, by excluding firms with less than 20 employees, they would give legal protection to discriminate to employers of one in three of this country's work force.

To make matters worse, the consultative document seemed to make it plain that the Government want now to scrap the 3 per cent. employment quota, thus removing a form of protection which the law already provides. Can the Government's intentions in regard to the quota scheme be clarified in the reply to this debate? The Minister will, I know, appreciate that the future of the scheme is an issue of huge importance to Britain's 6.5 million disabled people, and their concern to hear a clear statement of the Government's policy ought to be met in this debate.

Can we also be informed before this debate concludes to what extent the Home Office and the Department of the Environment have been involved in the drafting and contents of the Government's Bill? How did their voices compare in influence with that of the Treasury? Can we be told today what the Government's estimate is of the cost of the Bill they will very soon be introducing? They must have made an estimate and this House is entitled to know what it is.

The problems of an inaccessible environment were not created by disabled people, but by the societies in which they live. I readily acknowledge that they are problems which cannot be resolved overnight by the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, so ably promoted in the last Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) after winning a place in the private Members' ballot, but that Bill would at least establish a legal framework for the more expensive requirements to be staged in over time.

The crucial purpose of the Bill, as it relates to the environment, is to enshrine in law the need for equal access, and to provide a viably phased programme for its achievement. Even the inadequate "rights" now offered by the Government would be outside the reach of most disabled people, since no legal aid will be available and the Government oppose the establishment of a commission, similar to the Equal Opportunities Commission, with strategic enforcement powers, for which the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill provides. Their consultative document offered disabled people second-class "rights" as compared with those given by this House to women under the Equal Opportunities Act, and to victims of racial discrimination by the Race Relations Act 1976.

Why are the Government still resisting comprehensive civil rights for disabled people? Their consultative document gives four principal reasons for opposing the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. First, they say that, when I drafted the Bill and commended it to Parliament, I did so without consultation. That is not true. I consulted very widely about the Bill, not least with employers; indeed, I consulted just as widely as I did before commending to this House the four new cash benefits I introduced for disabled people and their carers, including the mobility allowance and the invalid care allowance, when I was Minister for the Disabled from 1974 to 1979.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood took the consultative process further when he inherited the Bill from me a year ago. He will, I am sure, agree that it is not for Ministers to accuse us of failing to consult. There were over 1,000 responses to their consultative document, but they are not prepared, as the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) told me in a recent parliamentary reply, to publish a single one of them. Where, after drafting it, I found criticism of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, I discussed their concerns openly with its critics and in several instances, amended the Bill to take account of legitimate criticisms.

By contrast, all of the responses to the Government's consultative document have been brushed under the carpet at Richmond house. Is it not disgraceful that the taxpayers, more especially disabled taxpayers, who paid for the Government's glossy consultative document, are not allowed to see any of the responses made to it?

Were any of the responses in favour of the Government's extremely shabby tactics in opposing the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill? In 30 years in the House of Commons, I have witnessed only four personal statements of unreserved apology for misleading the House, three of them concerning that Bill, the first being when Robert Hayward, then the Member for Kingswood, talked it out on 31 January 1992 after explicitly promising not to do so. I doubt very much whether any of the public responses to the Government's consultative document approved of that or whether the Government had much, if any, support for their proposals.

My point today, however, is to ask why the Government cannot publish the responses to their consultative document so that Parliament and the people we represent will know what the respondents have said about them. In particular, why cannot they be straight with disabled people? Everyone knows that they and their organisations, without exception, back the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and it must be very unlikely that any of the other respondents, with the possible exception of the Institute of Directors, gave their approval to the Government's alternative. Never was there a clearer case of honesty being the best policy since hiding the truth will not help the Government. They will know from the responses of disabled people and their organisations to the consultative document that they want the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, the whole Bill, and that they will bitterly resent and relentlessly oppose any attempt to offer them any counterfeit version of the Bill.

The Government's second principal reason for opposing the Bill was that it has the defect of vagueness. They put great emphasis on what they call its "vague definition" of disability. But in the view of some eminent lawyers, the Bill deals far more clearly and coherently with unfair discrimination against disabled people than what they describe as the Government's "patchy and half-hearted proposals". The fact is that the definition adopted in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, founded as it is on actual examples of discrimination in disabled people's lives, is at once fairer and more workable than the Government's heavily criticised alternative.

The Government's third main reason for opposing the Bill is that it would be too costly. Their consultative document repeated the bogus claim that the Bill would cost £17 billion to implement. I give the House but two glaring examples of their grossly distorted costing of the Bill. By assuming that all existing buildings would require full access, they added £6 billion to the costs of compliance and by assuming that full access to public transport would have to be arranged within five years, they just as perversely added another £5 billion. Numerous other examples could be given of their utter disregard for easily ascertainable facts in order to inflate th actual cost of the Bill.

Yet the most obvious omission from the Government's calculations is any recognition of the financial benefits that would accrue from giving equal rights to disabled people. For example, they totally ignore the estimate by Touche Ross of a loss to Britain's travel industry, due solely to lack of access for disabled people, of £22 billion. The Government include only one side of the balance sheet—the investment—and ignore the financial returns.

The costs of excluding disabled people from industry and society are very high: in loss of markets to businesses, avoidable state expenditure on expensive, segregated provision and on social security benefits, as well as in lost taxes. The cost to the state in avoidable social security benefits and lost taxes alone is estimated at £5 billion.

In the United States, they have found that giving disabled people full civil rights, not least better access to the built environment, turns tax users into tax payers, giving them more money to spend on goods and services and creating more jobs. They have also found that, far from piling new costs on industry, action to end unfair discrimination against disabled people is in fact pro-business. Who can really doubt that the same would happen here?

The other fundamental error of the Government's approach to costings, as Caroline Gooding of the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation has eloquently pointed out, is that it treats the costs of including disabled people in public provision differently from those associated with able-bodied people. It is regarded as quite normal for the providers of services to make efforts to enable their customers to enjoy those services by installing escalators in shops, amplification at meetings and so on. But provision for disabled people—lifts at stations, induction loops at concerts—is treated differently, as a "special" and abnormal expense. Together with many millions of other people in this country, I believe that "normal" provision should now include the needs of disabled people.

Fourth and finally, the Government object to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill on the ground that it is too wide ranging. They prefer, as the Prime Minister told me at an hour-long meeting about the Bill in February 1993, what he called "piecemeal reform". But he is demonstrably wrong. The problems of discrimination against disabled people, not least in the employment field, cannot be solved in isolation. As one big employer with more experience of running a major private enterprise than the Prime Minister put it to me recently: To end discrimination in the labour market, you must not only protect disabled people there but also achieve equality of access for them to transport and training, among many other facilities and services. In his view, "piecemeal change" in this policy area is an attempt to divide the indivisible and a total waste of parliamentary time and tax payers' money.

That is why I must now warn the Government that their approach is doomed to failure. In demanding full citizenship, the disabled people of this country are backed by a clear majority of MPs, including, much to their honour, many Conservative MPs, and by a huge majority of the British people. They know that, without equal rights, disabled people are doubly disabled. The handicapping effects of their disabilities are made even harder to bear by gratuitous social handicaps for which there is no moral justification. And the overwhelming mass of responses to the Government's consultative document will have insisted that what is morally unjustified ought no longer to be legally permissible in Britain.

11.33 am
Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West)

I welcome this opportunity to comment on the Gracious Speech. It contains some good Bills, and I shall mention a few that I particularly welcome.

I am glad that the pensions legislation is to be dealt with at last, together with the whole question of the Maxwell affair. We have all had cases in our constituencies of pension funds where the company concerned has been taken over or gone bust, and the pensions have been left in a bad state. I welcome the Government's move, and shall support it strongly.

I also welcome the move to deal with dangerous mental patients. Although my constituency does not cover Broadmoor, patients from Broadmoor regularly come to Reading. Last Christmas, two such patients came to acclimatise themselves to the outside world in the middle of the Christmas rush. They were given a meal in one of the smarter restaurants, during which they asked to go to the loo, and then disappeared. Much more care must be taken in dealing with dangerous patients who come from places such as Broadmoor. People in Reading feel particularly sensitive about that matter, because such patients are regularly taken to Reading.

I welcome the channel tunnel link. I had the good fortune to go under the tunnel last week. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Through the tunnel."] One can go through a tunnel as well as under the sea. Anyway, I went on the train to Brussels, which was a great experience. It is an impressive engineering feat, and I congratulate all those who have been involved. I think that it will be a great success. It will encourage people once again to start thinking about using the railways, which is important. As I represent a railway town, I believe that the more we can do to use the railways, the better.

Mr. Tony Banks

I trust that the hon. Gentleman will declare that boondoggle under the channel in the Register of Members' Interests. Did he notice that, had the train been going as slowly on the other side of the channel, in France, as it was in the United Kingdom getting to the tunnel, the journey might have been some 45 minutes longer? It is only because the French have got their act together that the journey is now so speedy to Paris and Brussels.

Sir Anthony Durant

First, the Register of Members' Interests says that we do not need to register such trips, as all hon. Members have been on them. On the more serious point which the hon. Gentleman raised about the speed of the train, he is right. The train travelled at about 100 miles an hour from Waterloo station to the tunnel, and then at about 180 miles an hour on the other side of the channel.

The reason is that, although we have improved the track—it is not that bad—it has too many curves and trains cannot travel at more than 100 miles an hour, so we have a job to do. We may praise the French, but the terminus at which we arrived in Brussels is not yet finished, so there are things to be done on the other side as well. Let us be fair to those who are developing the channel tunnel link.

I welcome and strongly support the Bill for disabled people that will be introduced, although I shall not follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) on that issue. I also support the Bill for job seekers.

May I make a general comment about the Gracious speech? The press have greatly criticised the fact that there is not much in it. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson): I do not know what the press expect from this place. If the Queen's Speech contains too many measures, we are criticised on the basis that it is too radical and disturbing, and that people do not want all that change. When we are to have a quieter Session, the press say that it is too quiet. I do not know what they want—perhaps simply to write rubbish. I support all the worthwhile measures in the Queen's Speech.

My main reason for speaking this morning is to deal with the Bill on environmental agencies. I welcome the Bill in general but am worried about two aspects. First, it might create more bureaucracy. I hope that the new agency will not be bureaucratic, but I am worried that it may be another type of quango, which could create more bureaucracy. Secondly, I am worried about the abolition of the National Rivers Authority. I have seen the draft Bill, and concerns have been expressed to me as chairman of the all-party group on inland waterways about the whole issue of navigation. Commercial and private users are worried about navigation. It is mentioned in the draft Bill, but it is not clear who will be the navigation authority.

When legislation was introduced to privatise the water industry, there was great concern about navigation and the use of waterways. The original Bill was withdrawn. A second Bill introduced the National Rivers Authority, which has done a remarkably good job. Lord Crickhowell has been a very energetic chairman, and has done a most useful job. The NRA has been quite a success. It has developed more waterways. Many have been reopened and improved—water quality has improved.

Now the NRA is preparing, at long last, for salmon to come up the River Thames. It is preparing the necessary sluices so that the salmon can jump into the next reach. There are signs that, if salmon are put back in the river, it may well work, although we are in the early stages and the most difficult problem is pollution at the river entrance. We hope that that will be cleaned up and I hope that in time we shall see salmon fished off the pier here. Perhaps one or two Members will be able to get their supper by putting out a line.

Mr. Rowe

My hon. Friend will know that one of the clauses in the 17th-century statutes of apprentices was that they should not be forced to eat salmon more than a certain number of times each week. The fish was so plentiful in the Thames at that time that it was forced upon people in indentured labour. I am sure that my hon. Friend is looking forward to the day when we might enjoy the same restriction.

Sir Anthony Durant

I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend on the Terrace with his line out, getting his supper. Samuel Pepys was well known for buying salmon from a stall right by the River Thames. I hope that that will come in my lifetime.

The National Rivers Authority set out to develop an overall strategy for navigation and to get through licences, orders, byelaws and statutes to control tightly navigation on rivers under its jurisdiction.

Work on locks has gone ahead remarkably well. Hon. Members may be interested to know that there are 40,000 boats on the NRA section alone—that is only 800 km of the inland waterways. On the remaining waterways, many of which are controlled by the British Waterways Board, there are another 30,000, so boating is a big leisure industry.

The industry wants the new Bill so that we can establish a national licence. Those involved in the waterways world have pressed strongly for that. They want a national licence, like a car tax, the proceeds of which would go to waterways throughout the country. At the moment, if I wanted to go to Reading down the Kennet and Avon canal, I would have to get a separate licence after I had gone through one lock on the Thames to enable me to get on to the canal. That situation deters people from travelling on a general circuit around the waterways. I hope that we will try to establish that licence.

We must try to improve the standards of boats. There have been some very bad accidents on the River Thames, and the NRA has worked hard to improve the standards.

I hope that the navigation policy will be based on river catchments. That is the basis for our present water policy, and it would be advantageous if we continued on that basis.

Our waterways are a national heritage. At last, we are developing them and using them for leisure. I hope that the new agency will not deter that development, as it is so important to those in the leisure industry.

Mr. Gummer

I assure my hon. Friend that the new agency will take over all the National Rivers Authority's responsibilities. I intend—I believe that it will also be the intention of the new agencies—to ensure that all that good work is carried on, and that work done on licensing and the like is brought to fruition.

Sir Anthony Durant

I am grateful for that news from my right hon. Friend.

Waste management is another element of the Bill. I have to declare an interest, as I am the political adviser to the National Federation of Demolition Contractors, who face major problems when dealing with waste. We are getting into great difficulties over infill and land reclamation. Infill has been our means of dealing with waste, and is something that the new agency will be able to tackle. It is a major problem for our society.

I know that the Bill will encourage recycling. In Reading, we collect papers, bottles, tins and even clothes for recycling. Usually the clothes go to Oxfam or some similar charity. I welcome that policy, and hope it will be increased.

The demolition industry prefers to deal with waste on site by using a crusher, but it has been running into problems with local authorities which have to license each crusher. The net result is that many demolition contractors abandon the use of a crusher, although it is the best way to proceed, and use heavy lorries. Lorry movements cause the main environmental problem.

We need a policy on waste. I know that that is included in the Bill, and I welcome that fact. I am sorry that the London waste regulation authority is to be abolished by the Bill, and I hope that that will not deter us from establishing a policy on waste, which would be welcome.

I welcome the Gracious Speech, which contains some good Bills. There is much in it for us to tackle, and the public want most of it. I hope that it will go through smoothly and happily.

11.46 am
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I shall mention the environmental issues that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) mentioned in the latter half of my speech. I shall start with the Home Secretary, not least because I am always puzzled by his claim to be crusading against the leftist political correctness that suffuses—he believes—the penal and justice system over which he presides.

The Government have been in office for 15 years. If there is an excess of left-leaning political correctness that is soft on crime, no one else can be blamed but the people who have been in charge for the past 15 years and have introduced a succession of criminal justice Bills each of which altered the mistakes made in the previous one. That is not a convincing role.

When I listened to the part of the Gracious Speech in which Her Majesty prayed that the blessing of Almighty God might attend our counsels, I thought that the Home Secretary had been left out completely. I thought that he must be so distrusted in his handling of Bills, after what happened to previous legislation, that the Government did not dare to let him have any in this Session, or that if they did, they had certainly not mentioned them in the Gracious Speech. Later that day, we learnt that the criminal cases review authority legislation would be introduced in some way or another—that was disguised in a general statement about law reform measures. The legislation is important and it is generally agreed that it should be introduced. I am surprised that those four words could not have been squeezed into the text of the Gracious Speech.

We shall want to study that legislation, but it is even more important that we study the commitments behind it. For the review authority to be effective, it will have to have the resources to deal with a very large number of cases and investigations. A large number already come before the Home Office. On the Home Office side, there will be some saving in resources because its officials have to consider the cases. I am not suggesting that those same officials should merely be transferred to the new authority—that would not give the impression of an authority approaching the subject in a new and independent way. There will be a saving in another column, however, which will help in part to ensure the necessary resources. It will be important to ensure that the authority has those necessary resources.

That legislation was included in the Gracious Speech. Other Bills were not included—not even disguised under the title of law reform. One Bill that should have been included so that the Home Secretary could justify his actions publicly was a criminal injuries compensation Bill. The right hon. and learned Gentleman got into a mess in the courts because there is already statute law on the subject, which he chose to ignore. He set out a wholly different compensation scheme. If he is firm and clear about his intentions, he should have brought a new Bill before the House to set out his scheme, which we could have amended, challenged and questioned in detail. Instead of offering the victims of crime a proper system of compensation, with whatever modifications he can justify, the Home Secretary is offering merely a chatline on which victims can make representations to prison governors—which they can do now, in any case—without any knowledge of whether the person detained is likely to be released or is under consideration for release.

Instead of helping the victims of crime in the area where they most need it—with financial resources to cope with the consequences through a system of compensation—the Home Secretary offers an illusory benefit. He is simply offering them the sort of thing that one gets to complain to if there are too many traffic cones on the motorway. One rings up somebody, but it has no effect whatever.

The Home Secretary has confirmed to me that there will not be a system for telling the victims of particular crimes that the person who caused them such suffering is about to be considered for release. Therefore, any representations that they make may be years out of time for their relevance to a particular inquiry. Victims may not realise that the possibility of release is coming up sooner than they anticipated, and they had better get on the phone pretty quick if they are to have any effect on it. It is not a serious proposition that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is offering the victims of crime and, at the same time, he is doing them considerable harm with the changes that he made to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, which he has not been prepared to bring before the House.

A further piece of legislation that could be brought forward to fill the gap left by the Post Office privatisation was referred to by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw): the regulation of the private security industry. It is simply not acceptable that someone can walk out of Wormwood Scrubs, buy a dog, get a uniform and set up as a security business.

Mr. Dobson

He could steal a dog.

Mr. Beith

Indeed, and he could steal a van to put the dog in. He would then be in business, and he could go knocking on people's doors saying, "I am in a position to help you with your security, and I cannot guarantee what might happen if you do not subscribe to my security scheme." That can happen, and the police are worried.

Even beyond that utterly criminal approach to security, there are areas of genuine anxiety, that what ought to be police work is being done increasingly by private security firms. There is a legitimate place for the private security industry. It would not be an efficient use of resources to have police constables doing entry and exit searches, and that sort of thing. But the more we bring the private security industry into basic police work, the more we offend against some of the essential principles that make us have the kind of police force we do.

If all we are looking for is protection, we could pay a private security firm to act as a bodyguard for us, individually and collectively. What we are paying the police for is something different: security under the law. That must not be threatening or intimidating to the innocent. It must not be arbitrary, and it must not favour one group over others. It should involve particular care for the vulnerable, and should allow and encourage civilised life to go on. That is why we pay trained, professional, disciplined and accountable police officers. They do not simply go fire-fighting on crime, but they are actively involved in crime prevention as well.

Therefore, the area of work for private security firms should be more clearly defined, and the good private security firms should be protected from those who moved into the area on the basis of either very low pay or even the employment of people with criminal records.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

In south Yorkshire, few private security firms pay more than £2 an hour, and some pay as low as £1.80 an hour. The quality of trained work force that one can get at that pay is extremely low, and people who are paid at that level are not able to deliver the professional security needs that private companies want. Should not part of the regulation process involve training and pay too?

Mr. Beith

It is clear from any examination of the training standards of security firms that levels of pay as low as those referred to by the hon. Gentleman are likely to lead to standards that are so low that they fail any proper regulation system. There should be such a system, and legislation to deal with it.

While the Gracious Speech lacks pieces of legislation, we are still coping with the consequences of last year's Gracious Speech, and the legislation that it introduced. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act itself has had no immediate effect, other than the production of demonstrations against itself.

The Police and Magistrates' Courts Act is already having considerable effects. Police authorities are being set up, and in respect of both appointments and budgets, many of the problems that we foresaw are happening. On appointments, the elected representatives do not know who was on the list and who was crossed off by the Home Secretary. There is considerable anxiety at the tendency for the people whom the Home Secretary recommends on the list which he sends back to include a significant number of known Conservatives and Conservative supporters.

There is also a tendency—this underlines the same thing—in some police authority areas for the Home Secretary's returned list to be concentrated on those parts of an area where the Conservatives are strongest. I have heard claims in respect of that in the Thames valley, Buckinghamshire and Salisbury area. The Home Secretary's lists, in so far as we are able to find out who is on them, might well be used to try to frustrate the decision of electors in the composition of elected local authorities in the areas concerned.

There is a considerable row in Cambridgeshire, where the Conservatives dominate the three-person selection panel, although they are in the minority on the local authority. One panellist has been appointed by the Home Secretary and, with the help of magistrates, the Conservative group got its leader appointed as the second panellist. Of course, those two between them choose the third panellist, so they are in a position to overturn the political balance that was decided by the public at the ballot box last year.

The Home Secretary sent back a preferred list of 10 to the authority, which the authority challenged. There is no system of appeal and no way of going behind the decision of the Home Secretary in his choice of people which, again, included several well-known Conservative supporters. Fears that the system would be used by the Home Secretary as a means of trying to insert his political choices despite the views of the voters are proving justified.

At the same time, the initial budget projections put out by the Home Office for the new police authorities caused such anxiety that the Home Office had to think again on them. As a result, most police authorities have no idea what sort of budget they can set when they come into office in a matter of weeks. The stewardship of the Home Secretary in an area of legislation that he has already introduced is just as worrying as the legislation itself.

I now refer to the environment aspects of the Gracious Speech. Everyone attaches a great deal of importance to the environment legislation in the Gracious Speech. That is a good thing in principle, but it could go badly wrong if the legislation is not properly drafted.

There is a danger that the amalgamation of the three responsibilities that will create the environment protection agency will make it weaker than the sum of parts. The draft management statement suggests that the agencies will be under strong central Government control with no real local subsidiarity and without some of the independence that the National Rivers Authority has shown.

There are considerable fears that the relationship established when the NRA was created—a gamekeeper-poacher split—will be undermined within the new system because the draft management statement gives considerable strength to the opinion of the regulated parties, the polluters themselves, and puts considerable emphasis on the need to minimise the burden on industry. Fears are being expressed that the new body simply will not be as resilient as the old one, far less a more effective body, because it combines several elements.

There was talk earlier of the possibility of legislation on national parks being tacked on to the environment Bill that will be introduced this Session. It is not clear—since the Bill has not been printed—whether that is to be the case. There is continuing agitation to get the new legislation for national parks on to the statute book.

In my constituency, the legislation will come at a time of considerable tension in the national parks. But that is all the more reason why we want to see the new legislation coming forward to ensure that the people who live in the parks get proper protection. The problem in my constituency was, to some extent, created by the Council for the National Parks itself, which ill-advisedly organised a visit by Mr. Chris Bonnington, who gave people the impression that he wanted to remove the Army from the national park. Since the Army has been a significant contributor to the conservation of a large part of Northumberland throughout the many years that it has been there—far more than the national park—there was considerable local opposition, which undermined the good relationship that has been built up over the years between the Army, the national park authority and the local community. That is a reminder that people who live in a national park often feel left out of consideration, both by the authorities and by outside interests. That must be put right, but I do not know whether we shall proceed with the matter in the current Session. Surely we cannot go on waiting for ever to deal with the reform of national parks legislation.

There are, of course, other areas of relevance to the Home Secretary that we ought to consider in the Queen's Speech, but unlike the Bills that I have already mentioned, I had no expectation that they would be included in the Speech. I refer to constitutional reform, a fair voting system, freedom of information legislation and devolution. There should also be measures to deal with the morass of appointed bodies that the Government have created in their time in office. None of that was likely to be forthcoming, and it will not be until we have got rid of this Government.

I tried early in the debate to give the Prime Minister the opportunity to make it crystal clear that he would create for us the chance to hold a general election so that we can get rid of the Government and respond to the strong feelings that people have that the Government have been around for too long. I can report that the by-election in my constituency yesterday resulted in the Liberal Democrats holding a seat and the Conservative candidate polling 26 votes—a microcosm of the problems that the Government would face were they to go to the country now.

Many people felt that they did not want to hear another Queen's Speech emanating from this Government. Once they had heard it, it gave them even less confidence in the idea of keeping the Government in office.

12 noon

Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)

I am grateful, as in previous years, to be called to speak in this debate. Despite some remarks by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), I welcome the appearance in the Queen's Speech of a disability Bill. I am sure that by the time it reaches the statute book it will deal with many of the concerns which, I am well aware, exist in the House and in my constituency. Those concerns were greatly stirred during consideration of the wide-ranging private Member's Bill in the previous Session.

I also look forward to Parliament taking further action on the way in which absent fathers are assessed for maintenance by the Child Support Agency, particularly taking into account arrangements made for the matrimonial home and legitimate travel costs.

After about four years I speak now having left my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary—an event that achieved the most extraordinary publicity. Among other things, it elevated me overnight to the doubtful description of "a senior Tory", and I was even given a foretaste of my obituary by being profiled as "man in the news" in The Times. It has been a great privilege to work for four years through some difficult times with one of the greatest of our Foreign Secretaries. Throughout I have received from him nothing but courtesy, kindness, an ever-open door and that magnetic combination of spontaneous words and wit, which I shall greatly miss.

My leaving had nothing whatever to do with my right hon. Friend or with any issue of principle in foreign affairs. After four years, I wanted to regain the freedom of comment and action that the role of the Foreign Secretary's Parliamentary Private Secretary restricts.

Although privatisation measures appear in the Queen's Speech, I greatly regret the abandonment by the Government of plans to include the privatisation of the Royal Mail, and the effect that that may have on the future direction of policy. On the issue itself, few dispute that the Royal Mail requires a great deal more money and freedom for its work force—I include management in that; I do not separate the two—to compete with rivals at home and abroad and to put its services, including the postman's round and the uniform national pricing system, on a sounder financial footing, and to be able to expand its services. The crucial argument concerns whether that should or could be done with Treasury-guaranteed taxpayer's money and with Ministers and civil servants inevitably deciding how much, thereby being involved in the management. Or whether that should be done with private money, raised by commercial borrowing, shares and so on—including share holding by the work force. Should it be run with wings unclipped and with a minimum statutory regulatory framework?

Since 1979, the right way of tackling such challenging questions has been resolutely pursued through privatisation. That way, along with our union reforms, has proved of fundamental significance to our long-term economic strength. No Labour Government would have created such successes as the National Freight Consortium, British Airways, British Aerospace, Rover or British Gas, or—most significant of all in the Royal Mail context—would have presided over the privatisation of the former Post Office telephone network, in the form of British Telecom.

I clearly remember—I was living in Somerset at the time—the bitter opposition to the privatisation of the telephones; the twisting of the facts; the playing on the fears of rural people; and the dire warnings of wholesale closures of public phone boxes. The reality, including far more working public phone boxes, has proved so different, with more efficient services and massively expanded expensive technology. Because commercial freedom and competition work, it now costs only 10p for three minutes on a Sunday to call anywhere in the United Kingdom.

To coin a phrase, who would have thought it? The answer is: Conservative Governments did, and acted on it. Some things have been less successful, notably some ridiculous salaries in the water and electricity sectors, but the overall economic and social benefits of such reforms so greatly outweigh the disadvantages, that many countries look to Britain for inspiration and the Labour party is in total confusion as to which approach to adopt. Some Opposition Members are aware that there can be no going back to the memorable old days and are intent on ditching clause 4 to prove the fact. Others want to enshrine clause 4 and reverse privatisations wherever possible.

Mr. Gummer

Would my hon. Friend care to add to his litany of successes? Often, when Ministers take groups of business men abroad, gaining large contracts for Britain in the water industry and in telecommunications, they bring back jobs for British people; and some of the most successful businesses in that area are the privatised industries, which are winning orders throughout the world, but which would have been blocked in that endeavour under nationalisation. Is not it sad that that success cannot yet reach every part of the United Kingdom—for instance, in the water industry?

Mr. Martin

My right hon. Friend ably buttresses my arguments.

Referring to the Government's handling of the Royal Mail issue, I should note in passing the seeming lack of relish on their part—with notable exceptions—for the task of persuasion that was undoubtedly required inside and outside Parliament. Sometimes I thought of the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians: If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? Certainly not those of my hon. Friends who scuppered the right policy and with it the right future for the Royal Mail. We should leave to Labour and the Liberal Democrats the false assertion that there is an inherently unresolvable conflict between profits and the needs of the community—the idea that free enterprise and the free market cannot provide services, even Crown services such as the Royal Mail, and even BBC services—in the public interest and for the benefit of the public.

Britain now has an economy firmly based on low inflation and steady growth. Since 1979 we have gained many more thriving, internationally competitive businesses. There is more home ownership; there are greatly improved standards in social services, health care and education. That has not happened by magic; it will not be sustained by magic either. Lower taxation meets the needs of profitable businesses, great and small. We need maximum employment, minimum regulation, privatisation, sensibly restrained public expenditure, and smaller, competent and consistent government. There is no running out of ideas or of policies to be based on them in all that.

I firmly reject the fashionable view that after 17 or 18 years in office by the next election the Government will inevitably lose when the electorate votes for a change to a Labour Government. We have heard that sort of claim before, in previous Parliaments. Only defeatism can defeat us. Certainly, neither Opposition policies nor Opposition personalities will, as they come under the intense spotlight of general election conditions. Under the Prime Minister's leadership—and all talk of challenges to his leadership is for the birds—we shall surprise the pundits again not only nationally but in Portsmouth, South.

12.9 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I shall speak on just one aspect of the Gracious Speech, the proposed criminal cases review authority, because for some time I have taken an interest in this matter. I resent what the Home Secretary said at the end of his speech when he suggested that in some way the Labour party was soft on crime. I speak as someone who has been burgled on more than 20 occasions and mugged twice. In the past 10 days, neighbours on either side of me have been burgled. The Conservative party represents rather leafier areas than Labour tends to represent and we suffer more than most Tory constituents from crime and are under no illusion about the effects of crime or what needs to be done to remedy the problem.

I give the criminal cases review authority a guarded welcome. It is long overdue, but the extent of my welcome will be tempered by the small print which we have not yet seen. I have some major reservations about what it is likely to contain and I shall later elaborate on that.

The Home Secretary started his speech by saying that the investigations would be carried out by the police and others. I am sorry that he is not in his place to clarify that, because it is crucial to the credibility of the organisation. Who are the others? When I asked him, they turned out to be customs officers. I had hoped that they might be people who were unconnected to the police who, as even the Home Secretary must have noticed, have been a source of problems in many of the most celebrated miscarriages of justice.

Earlier this year, the Home Secretary issued a consultation document on the proposed criminal cases review authority to which I and many others and organisations which take the issue seriously responded. I do not think that many of them have suggested that only the police should be responsible for investigations in this area. There is no doubt that to be credible and effective, which is surely what we all want, the organisation will need to have a dedicated force of investigators to carry out inquiries where it is thought inappropriate for the police to do so. I shall shortly elaborate on that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said, some people have suggested that the Home Secretary's heart does not appear to be entirely in this proposal. I understand that in October he told a private meeting of Police Federation officials that it would not appear in the Queen's Speech unless he came under further pressure. Only a week or 10 days ago, his officials told the press that it would not be in the Gracious Speech, and it was not.

I read press reports to the effect that the proposal would be placed in the Queen's Speech at the last minute, so I was surprised to see only a reference to further measures of law reform. At the end of his response to the Gracious Speech, the Prime Minister said that the further measures referred to a criminal cases review authority and it was only then that I knew for certain that one was proposed.

I do not understand the Home Secretary's reluctance on this issue. I am aware that it will not win many votes in the saloon votes of Folkestone and Hythe, which is where most criminal justice policy seems to be formulated nowadays, but such a body has long enjoyed the support of people of all political persuasions and many distinguished people who are connected with the criminal justice system. Such a body was first suggested by the distinguished judge Lord Devlin as long ago as the late 1970s and the Select Committee on Home Affairs unanimously recommended one after its inquiry into miscarriages of justice in 1982. Sir John May's inquiry, which was set up by the Government, recommended it as did the royal commission, which was also set up by the Government. The Lord Chief Justice has been so concerned about the fact that we have not heard about it recently that he has taken to issuing appeals in the media to find out what has happened to it.

In the past seven years I have three times moved new clauses to criminal justice and courts and legal services Bills to introduce such a body. I did so once in coalition with the former Conservative Member for Harborough, Sir John Farr—one of the less likely political alliances in this place—and the last occasion on which I did so was on 28 March this year, along with two of the Home Secretary's hon. Friends, the Members for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body) and for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend). Therefore, such a body has always enjoyed all-party support.

The body's main features are, first, that it should be composed of persons with an inquiring frame of mind and a track record of scepticism towards official versions of events. With that in mind, it should be chaired by someone of the calibre and integrity of Sir Ludovic Kennedy. Secondly, it should not be dominated by lawyers, because they have been part of the problem and not part of the solution, although there are many honourable exceptions. I say that with respect to those of my hon. Friends who are distinguished lawyers.

Thirdly, the body must have the power to summon persons and papers and to conduct its own investigations and commission its own experts. Fourthly, as I have already said, it must not depend solely on police officers. When the Prime Minister referred to it in his speech two days ago, he said that it would be independent of the Government and the courts. I welcome that, but it must also have the capacity to be independent of the police. I cannot stress that too strongly. It would contain an absolutely fatal flaw and we would all be wasting our time if we set up a body as toothless and useless as the Police Complaints Authority. I have seen the PCA referred to as a model for the new criminal cases review authority, but it is a model of what not to do. The best thing for the Police Complaints Authority would be to wind it up. I would not advise anybody with a complaint against the police to go to it: I would advise them to take a civil action in the courts.

It is no part of my argument that there are not plenty of honest police officers. I know that there are because I have met many of them in the course of my inquiries over recent years. I acknowledge that the Guildford Four and the Birmingham case were eventually brought to an end by honest, professional investigations conducted in the Birmingham case by Devon and Cornwall police and in the Guildford case by Avon and Somerset police. I accept that on many occasions properly supervised police investigations are appropriate. However, one would have to be blind not to notice that in many instances the police have been the cause of the problem. To this day, even in relation to celebrated miscarriages of justice that have long ago been accepted by the courts, a large number of policemen have failed to face reality. I am sorry to say that in many police forces it is an article of faith, even among intelligent officers, that the Birmingham and Guildford people are all guilty. One can hear that whispered where two or three are gathered together.

The only person whom one does not hear that whispered about is Judith Ward and that is because many people involved in that case knew from the outset, or at least for many years before she was released, that she was innocent. Two years ago, the Select Committee on Home Affairs went to Northern Ireland and we interviewed a deputy chief constable of the RUC. I said to him, "RUC intelligence on the IRA must he far better than that of the police on the British mainland, so you must have known all along that they had the wrong people in some celebrated cases." He said that he had never been involved in the Birmingham or Guildford Four cases and could not comment on them. However, he had been involved in the Judith Ward case and was able to say that she had been framed—that was his word—by West Yorkshire police. He added, "The irony is that when we were alleged to have done something wrong a few years later they sent over the West Yorkshire police to investigate us."

I know that many Conservative Members accept that there is a problem with the police. It does not suit them to say so out loud very often, but around the time of the releases, between 1989 and 1991, at least 30 of them, including several members of the Government and one or two members of the Cabinet, discussed the issue with me. Whatever they may pretend in public, they know that there is a serious problem and they would be unwise not to face it.

The Birmingham Six case was the subject of at least three police inquiries, which cost millions of pounds. It was clear that the early inquiries did not try very hard. That might be a problem for the new authority if it is to be solely dependent on the police. Even though the Devon and Cornwall police ultimately carried out an honourable and professional inquiry, I well remember their first stab at it. Two superintendents, Mr. Essery and Mr. Reay, came to the House to interview me and it was absolutely clear that they had no intention of impartially examining any new evidence.

Mr. Essery waved a file at me that he said contained dirt on the new witness, an ex-policeman. I remember him telling me that people were queuing up to contribute to it, as I am sure they were. I told them, "I do not think you two gentlemen are trying very hard. If you don't try harder, we will all be back here in two or three years' time going through it again." And we were. One great satisfaction was that when they came back, they were led by the chief constable, Mr. John Evans, who did a proper job. Mr. Essery was sitting sheepishly at his side.

I regret to say that police investigating cases of alleged miscarriages of justice too often see their role as being to discredit new evidence and new witnesses. There is also a problem, which we should acknowledge, of police forces being riddled with freemasonry, especially in the detective squads. Those who have been down some of the alleyways that I went down during the Birmingham and Guildford investigations know that almost everyone involved in those cases, up to the level of chief constable in some cases, is a mason. That is deeply resented by officers who are not.

Only a week ago, a policeman who is not a mason telephoned me and said how deeply resentful he and similar colleagues feel about the way in which the promotion system and other matters are manipulated by those officers who are masons. Indeed, a couple of years ago I was at the classical music counter in Virgin Records when the chap behind me—an intellectual looking chap with spectacles—said, "Mr. Mullin, I want you to know that you have a lot of support in the Metropolitan police." When I scraped myself off the floor, he told me how angry he and many of his colleagues were at the way in which the masons carved up promotions.

Another Metropolitan police officer sent me a colour photograph of the Lodge of the Manor of St. James, the top Scotland Yard lodge, showing senior officers in their aprons. I have kept that photograph as a souvenir. If we want the new organisation to be credible, we cannot have one lot of masons investigating another lot of masons. That simply will not wash with the outside world.

Mr. Tony Banks

On behalf of many hon. Members, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in bringing so many cases of blatant injustice to public awareness and to a resolution. He has performed a wonderful service for the whole country. On the question of masons, I think that a former Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis said that membership of a masonic lodge was incompatible with being a serving police officer. Can my hon. Friend tell us Commissioner Condon's view? Does he share the attitude of his former colleague?

Mr. Mullin

When Commissioner Condon came to the Home Affairs Select Committee, I asked him that very question, but he did not give a helpful answer. A memorandum in circulation, written by a former assistant commissioner—Mr. Laugharne—says that officers who wish to retain the respect of their colleagues should consider carefully whether they should be masons. I regret that the masons' response to that was to set up the Lodge of the Manor of St. James, which suggests a certain self-confidence.

I want to raise two outstanding cases of what I believe to be miscarriages of justice. If these cases are not resolved by the time the new authority is set up, they will be among the first to arrive on the desk of whoever is in charge of it. They show the scale of the problem. The first is the Carl Bridgewater case. Four men—one of whom is now dead—were convicted in 1977 of the tragic murder of Carl, a newspaper delivery boy.

It is obvious to most sensible people who have examined the case that it has entirely collapsed and that, should the Home Secretary refer it back to the appeal court, it will quash the convictions. The appeal court used to be a problem, but it has cleaned up its act considerably in the past few years. The problem is, the Home Office has not and neither have the police. The case is now going through its fifth or sixth police inquiry. All of this has cost millions of pounds of public money. If people say that it will be too expensive to have independent investigators on the new body, I will tell them that it will be a great deal cheaper than the present fiasco of the police inquiries. It is absolutely clear that they are intended to obstruct progress, not to achieve it.

The police currently investigating the case are deliberately dragging their feet. The foreman of the jury that convicted the men has called for the case to be reopened. One of the forensic experts employed by the latest police inquiry, who submitted his report 12 months ago, has written to the Home Secretary asking what has been done with it. It clearly shows that the case should be referred back to the appeal court, yet still there is no sign of progress.

The second case that illustrates the folly of leaving these matters to the police is that of Brian Parsons, who was convicted of the murder of an old lady at Axminster in Devon. The case is of particular interest because the force involved is Devon and Cornwall, the very force that conducted the investigations that brought an end to the Birmingham and the Darvell brothers cases. We might expect, therefore, that that force at least might take seriously the possibility that a miscarriage of justice could have occurred, even on its own patch. Regrettably, that is not so. The case against Mr. Parsons was based mainly on forensic evidence—fibres from woollen gloves were found in the pocket of an overcoat and in his car.

From the outset, many people have voiced serious doubts about the case and recently, as a result of the efforts of a local television journalist and an assiduous solicitor, a much more likely candidate for the murderer has been identified. Indeed, a sworn statement has been obtained from a witness who names the murderer. I have good reason to believe that officials in the C3 department at the Home Office are impressed with the new evidence, but what has happened? The case has been handed back to the Devon and Cornwall police for review. They are doing everything possible to head off even an inquiry by an outside force. Instead of investigating the new evidence, they are busy discrediting it. They are doing everything in their power to avoid having to make available the forensic evidence for independent examination.

Sadly, the officer in charge of this so-called review is Assistant Chief Constable Keith Portlock. I say "sadly", because he led the inquiry that vindicated the Darvell brothers. On that occasion, he was investigating another force. This time, he is investigating his own force, and is making no secret of the fact that he sees it as his duty to maintain the conviction of Brian Parsons at all costs. What is more, he is being particularly brazen. It is not hard to see why. If Mr. Parsons is innocent, the fibres from the gloves that led to his conviction were obviously planted by a Devon and Cornwall police officer—and that possibility is too awful for Mr. Portlock to contemplate.

I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is how a force with a reputation for integrity, and which has already conducted scrupulous inquiries into two miscarriages of justice, behaves when it comes to protecting its own. I say again that it would be folly to place sole responsibility for the conduct of investigations in the hands of the police, however closely supervised. It is essential that the review authority has its own dedicated force of investigators entirely independent of the police, who can be relied upon when there is reason to suppose that the police are not trying hard enough.

One of the Home Secretary's objections to the deployment of independent, dedicated investigators is the cost. The two or three inquiries into the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six cases, and the five or six inquiries into the Carl Bridgewater case, cost millions and millions of pounds. If the Home Secretary is interested in public money, he will save a great deal by employing independent investigators. That will avoid repeatedly going over the same old ground.

Until now, it has been an unfortunate feature of miscarriages of justice that one stands a better chance of securing a release if one can attract the attention of a television company or journalist. Although it is right in a democracy that they should have a role to play in investigating miscarriages of justice, that cannot be a matter of satisfaction for those whose job it is to preside over our legal system.

The criminal cases review authority will provide a chance to repair the damage to our criminal justice system and to restore confidence. It is in no one's interest for that body to be as ineffective as the Police Complaints Authority. If the Government are unwilling to deal sensibly with the issue, I hope that a future Labour Government will make the necessary amendments.

We sometimes forget the victims of crimes where there has been an alleged miscarriage of justice. It is a cruel deception on victims to prolong wrong convictions, when victims must witness all the facts being rehearsed week after week and are reminded of the tragedy that befell their loved ones simply because we decline to face up to inconvenient reality. It is in everyone's interest that we face up to that issue once and for all. I hope that we shall do so.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, I remind the House that the wind-up speeches are to commence at 1.30 pm. Eight more hon. Members hope to catch my eye, so perhaps they will bear that timing in mind when making their speeches.

12.31 pm
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), because he has a great reputation for his assiduous campaigning. It is good to see him welcoming the general concept of the review authority, but he will be disappointed if he expects the authority, or even himself, to discover a conspiracy behind every case. Sometimes, he appears to do so.

I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute, because it enables me to record my general optimism at the Government's resolve and policy direction as set out in the Gracious Speech. A good deal of nonsense has been spoken about the Government's lack of direction or loss of nerve. That is so much rubbish. Anyone who believes it should carefully study the Gracious Speech, in which they will find confidence, coherence, direction and resolve across the broad spectrum of policy.

The only lack of direction in this place is to be found in the Labour party, which often does not seem to know where it is going, where it stands or where it is coming from. When it comes to Labour defining its driving ideals, it cannot even agree what they are not.

Today, we are considering mainly home affairs and the environment. The Gracious Speech stressed that a priority was tackling drug misuse, drug trafficking and organised crime at home and abroad. Drugs and crime go hand in hand. One begets the other, and both thrive together. The Government and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary have been firm in not listening to the siren voices of those who preach drug legalisation.

The Labour party, or at least most of it, shows commendable sense in that area. But that sense evaporates when one turns to the Liberal Democrat benches. Indeed, Liberal Democrat Members themselves appear to have evaporated. They seem to be led now by fantasies about drug taking and hazy dreams of armchair anarchists and part-time hippies, reflecting the extent to which their party has been taken over by a new and rather weird brand of fanatic.

Drug legalisation is the grossest form of social irresponsibility. Even to attempt to make the case respectable does untold damage to the work in drugs education, and undermines the efforts of police, teachers and parents. I hope, therefore, that the promise in the Gracious Speech will translate into a triple attack on drugs: stronger anti-drugs education; better international co-operation to break the activity of the distributors, and the criminal syndicates behind them; and tougher laws and better enforcement at home.

We need to build on the very firm resolution already shown in the Government's legislation, with trafficking now attracting life imprisonment as a maximum sentence, and the confiscation of assets. It is excellent to see my right hon. and learned Friend today addressing confiscation, and extending it to other areas of criminal activity as well.

Evidence that I have been given, by local police and by teachers in my constituency, shows that the drugs problem is considerably worse than the official statistics tend to indicate. There is no doubt that a very high proportion of crime is drug-caused. It is a question not just of the habit demanding cash and therefore crime being committed to feed the habit, but also of the collapse of responsibility and judgment which so often accompanies a drug-induced state. A good deal of crime is carried out while under the influence of some form of drug.

Mr. Jenkin

Perhaps that would explain the state of Liberal party policy.

Mr. Merchant

One sometimes wonders in what sort of haze some of that policy has been dreamt up.

Were any drugs to be legal, both those effects would still, of course, be present. Legalising drugs would not do anything to alter those facts. The argument that legalisation would somehow transform cause and effect is vacuous in the extreme. By definition, easier access to drugs would extend the problem and that would almost certainly mean that more people would be attracted and involved. We have enough social problems as it is. Why on earth pursue a policy that would clearly create more?

A tough line on drugs, on the other hand, would help roll back the problem, just as it is doing already with crime generally. The sudden fall in crime rates in most areas is not unconnected with the impact of recent legislation. In my constituency, latest figures show a drop in crime overall of 21 per cent., and for some crimes the drop is even higher—by 35 per cent. for non-domestic burglaries and by 29 per cent. for car thefts. Nothing is more welcome to the public. I believe that we will see those figures improving steadily as some of the more recent policies that my right hon. and learned Friend outlined, such as the attitude to bail, to cautioning and to sentencing, come fully into effect.

I know that my right hon. and learned Friend will stick resolutely to the line he charted last year, which he outlined again in his speech this morning. The howl of demonstrators, egged on by some sections of the press, should not divert attention from the very real strength of support he enjoys from law-abiding citizens.

I therefore hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will soon move to introduce his planned new system of prison discipline with privileges being earned rather than being of right. I trust, too, that he will take firm steps to ensure that prison rules are properly maintained and enforced. Prisons should not be places for parties, drugs and sex, any more than places of intimidation, violence or fraud.

All those abuses must be stopped by a rigorous application of measures based on firm regulation. My right hon. and learned Friend referred to the need to remove lax conditions, and I especially welcome the implementation of drug testing in prisons to help combat that problem.

Clearly, action against crime generally remains a top Government priority, and I warmly welcome that. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will also ensure that police manpower is increased in areas such as my constituency, where it is needed. I also hope that he will press ahead with his plans to help finance more closed-circuit television schemes, because those have proved to be a most effective deterrent and can be provided comparatively cheaply when set against the dramatic impact that they can have in many urban areas.

The Gracious Speech also announced legislation to put into effect the promise to create a new, integrated pollution control system. I shall end by referring to that system, but in a specific way that affects my constituency.

The thinking behind the integrated pollution control system is that one cannot separate one form of pollution from another; that the quality of the environment and society in general is dependent on the maintenance of high standards in all areas. Indeed, the Royal Commission on environmental pollution backs that thinking strongly.

I shall refer briefly to environmental pollution linked with the channel tunnel fast rail link, since another important announcement in the Queen's Speech was the intention to legislate to enable that rail link to go ahead. I strongly support that. As far as I am concerned, the quicker it is built the better.

I say that from an environmental point of view and not because I am particularly keen on seeing that huge infrastructure project blossom. Indeed, I rather question whether the tunnel itself and all the associated investment—huge investment—will turn out to be the best use of resources. I could certainly think of a better way in which to spend the vast amount of money involved, but I shall not pursue that argument. I recognise the reality of the tunnel having been built, and therefore that it must be used.

However, at present, of course, it is an inadequate reality from the environment viewpoint. It is inadequate because huge Eurostar trains are roaming through my constituency on quite unsuitable commuter tracks. Primarily, the trains are unsuitable because they cause noise, vibration and disturbance to hundreds of my constituents, because they disrupt busy commuter services, which are vital for the health of the capital, and because they are so clearly out of place on those lines. It is rather like landing jumbo jets at the local airfield. Of course, they are also unsuitable for the operators and the passengers. The sooner the trains get their dedicated line, the sooner they will be out of my constituents' back gardens.

In the meantime, my constituents are disturbed and have no guarantee of compensation. The argument that they choose to live by the rail line and therefore deserve the trouble is fatuous. When they moved there, there was no prospect of a tunnel, let alone extra-long super-express trains with a particularly annoying new noise at either end as the power car goes past—twice, in effect.

It is as if someone were to move near a single carriageway and see it transformed at a later date into a motorway. In that case, of course, my constituents would get compensation, and it is good to see that the Royal Commission on environmental pollution recommends chat the Government should look very closely at awarding proper compensation or insulation grants for those in areas facing road and rail noise in the day time, even if it is from existing roads and railways. That is specifically set out in the report.

I hope and believe that there is a quicker way to reach that objective. It should be reached via the review of the noise insulation regulation for railways, which I hope will be completed soon. Through that, the Government could include in their legislative programme this year measures that would overcome the difficulty faced by people living by the track. The Government could assure them of compensation in the years between now and the time at which the new dedicated link comes into operation.

I hope that Ministers will consider that closely, and ensure that my constituents, whose lives have been badly disrupted by the new venture, will be assured of the compensation they deserve.

12.45 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I shall try to be brief, but I must observe that it is ridiculous that half the time of the debate will be taken up by Front-Bench spokesmen. The time for Back-Bench Members is abridged accordingly.

The Gracious Speech does not contain any legislation on electoral law. I had understood from the normal post-election review, which the Home Office carried out, that it would introduce some comparatively minor amendments to electoral law. I am sorry that they are not included in the programme for this Session. It may be that they have been held back to take account of issues that Liberal Democrat Members feel particularly strongly about. If so, that would be a good thing. I notice that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) referred to fair voting systems. No doubt he will consider that the current farcical antics in Dublin are a good advertisement for proportional representation.

Some prisoners were transferred from England to Northern Ireland in September. I shall not return to the spectacularly inept timing of that transfer, from which I exonerate the Home Secretary. The real scandal involved the selection of the persons to be transferred. I should like the Minister to comment on that.

I understand that the Home Office consulted the Northern Ireland Office about who should be transferred, and that the Northern Ireland Office sent its man down the wings in the Maze to speak to the leadership of the Provisional IRA, who selected who should come over. I should like that issue to be followed up. The scandal involves the fact that the effective decision about who should be transferred was taken not by the Home Office but by the officer commanding Provisional IRA prisoners in Maze prison. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that as well.

The arrangements under which prisoners are transferred are somewhat dubious. As I understand it, prisoners have been treated as being on extended leave from England, and are still subject to the English prison regime. That is not a tenable position. One person involved in the administration of the prison service in Northern Ireland said to me, "What will happen at Christmas?" Come Christmas, the normal home leave arrangements in Northern Ireland will operate.

Northern Ireland prisons will be virtually emptied. Everyone will be on home leave except those who have been transferred from England, for whom the arrangements will not apply. That is not a tenable position. Nor is it tenable to say that prisoners are on extended leave from England, as I understand that the intention is that those prisoners are to serve the rest of their sentence in Northern Ireland. Sooner or later, this device will be challenged in the courts, and it may prove to be unsustainable.

A problem exists, and it should be tackled. The problem would not exist were it not for the differences between the prison regimes in Northern Ireland and in England. That applies to a number of points, which I shall not deal with in detail, as I have discussed them before and will discuss them again. It is safe to observe, however, that there should be a broad correspondence between the nature of the prison regime in England and the nature of regimes elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The Home Secretary referred to national standards. That was fine, but are they genuinely national? They should be. They should apply not only throughout England, but throughout the United Kingdom. Failure to have a broad correspondence between the regime in one part of the UK and that in another will lead only to problems.

In this Session, we shall consider, as we do annually, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973. There have already been calls for part or all of that legislation to be repealed in the light of what we cannot at the moment be sure is anything more than a temporary ceasefire. Clearly, this is an area where we should hasten slowly.

I note that the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act is undergoing one of its five-year reviews. In light of the ceasefire, it would perhaps be appropriate to delay the review until the position becomes clearer. Certainly it would be better for the review to be carried out on a broader basis. It is well known that we have argued for some time that the anti-terrorism legislation should be consolidated—instead of there being two pieces of legislation, there should be a single Act. Clearly, the extent of that Act would have to be reviewed in the light of the present situation.

There is a strong argument for moving some parts of the legislation into ordinary law. Curiously, one of those parts was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, who referred to private security firms and the need to regulate them. Private security firms are regulated on a statutory basis in Northern Ireland, but under emergency legislation. It should be done under ordinary legislation, and the statutory arrangements in Northern Ireland could be applied to the rest of the United Kingdom, thus taking care of the problem.

One issue that has attracted considerable attention is the Government's proposal to introduce legislation to establish a criminal cases review authority. I am glad that such an announcement has been made, and that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said that the review authority will cover Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales, and will have among its members people with knowledge and experience of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. I am especially glad that the legislation will be inclusive, and that the Northern Ireland Office's suggestion that there should be a separate authority or individual reviews in Northern Ireland has fallen by the wayside.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) mentioned the difficulties that arise when one force or group of people in a particular area try to investigate their own cases. The problem is especially acute when dealing with a small and closely knit professional body. Clearly, those connected with the legal system in Northern Ireland are a small and closely knit group of people. That is often a strength, but it does mean that people are sometimes not completely objective. Consequently, we were of the opinion, and recommended to the Northern Ireland Office and the Home Office, that the best approach would be to extend the remit of the review authority to Northern Ireland. We are glad that that is to be the case.

We also believe that the review authority should be able to call on the practical resources of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other investigative resources in Northern Ireland, and to do so with regard to cases arising in Northern Ireland or in England and Wales. There is a lot to be said for bringing in outside minds that will be able to consider cases freshly. In addition, the expertise that exists in Northern Ireland might be of benefit in dealing with cases that have arisen in England and Wales. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South reinforced that point.

Northern Ireland has not had as many cases of alleged miscarriage of justice as England and Wales, but, sadly, the worst is still unresolved—the case of the UDR four. Three of the four have had their convictions quashed, but unfortunately there is the continuing injustice of the imprisonment of the fourth, Neil Latimer.

I am sure that some hon. Members will recall the Adjournment debate last Session secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). More than 150 hon. Members stayed for a debate that commenced after midnight, thus reflecting their concern about the case. That debate was many months ago, but the Secretary of State said at the time that he was considering a further referral of the case back to the courts in Northern Ireland. He has not yet made a decision, but I wish he would. I wish that he would have the courage to grasp the nettle, because an injustice has been done.

I understand that one reason for the delay may be the nature of the new evidence that my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone placed before the House on that occasion. Although it may not be admissible in court, and although there may be some difficulties in getting it into court, an obvious solution would be reference to the royal prerogative of mercy, which should be exercised in the case so that this long injustice does not continue.

I will not comment on other cases in which a miscarriage of justice has been alleged in Northern Ireland, except one. Some of those campaigning about the case, most unfortunately, have suggested that the Northern Ireland courts, in their interpretation of the law with regard to common purpose, have either done something unusual or have behaved inconsistently. I will not refer to the facts of the case, save to say that the suggestions about the application of the law by the Northern Ireland courts are quite wrong. It does not help the case for people to make quite unjustified reflections about the courts of Northern Ireland.

The section of the Gracious Speech dealing with environmental matters refers to the proposal to establish environment agencies for England and Wales, and for Scotland. I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you anticipate my next comment. Why has Northern Ireland been omitted? The need there is just as great. Reference was made to the National Rivers Authority. The need is just as great in Northern Ireland as elsewhere.

In 1990, the House passed the Environmental Protection Act. We are still waiting for equivalent legislation in Northern Ireland. Why can we not establish agencies on a United Kingdom basis? The need is there, and there is no reason why we cannot proceed. We have a good example in the criminal cases review authority, for which inclusive legislation will be introduced. We need to have inclusive legislation on environmental matters as well. We should not be subject to the delays and vagaries of the Northern Ireland Office, because there are particular problems with environmental protection in Northern Ireland. The same Department is supposed to promote development and to protect the environment.

Much of the problem in Northern Ireland stems from the fact that we do not have a worthwhile system of local government. That matter should be remedied, and I would have liked to deal with that point. In view of the time, however, I shall conclude and give other hon. Members a chance to speak.

12.56 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I shall follow the admirable example set by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and be as brief as possible. I shall enlarge rapidly on the point I made when the Home Secretary generously allowed me to intervene in his speech.

There is ample evidence that well-motivated volunteers have a major role to play in the prevention of crime, the rehabilitation of criminals and the support of victims. One of the principal reasons why we do not have far greater involvement of the enormous pool of potential volunteers is that Government agencies are still far too reluctant, whether in the criminal justice system, in the national health service, in the social services or in education, to open their doors and to learn from the excellent examples, which are plentifully available, of the value of volunteers, not in substituting for, but in extending, the reach of professionals. I very much hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will take back that message.

I now turn to environmental matters. I believe strongly that the Government must look again at blight. Blight is an intolerable and oppressive injury done by the state every year, often to hundreds and hundreds of families. In the case of the channel tunnel rail link or the building of a motorway, blight may hang over families for 10 years, 20 years or more. In our present inadequate system, a narrow band of people are fortunate enough to have their houses bought by compulsory purchase, whereas the house values of others are, beyond peradventure, destroyed by public works.

We must consider that matter again. I have raised the matter twice, and on both occasions, the Government have said that any solution that I suggested would distort the market. The Government distort the market all the time, whether by planning restrictions, the social security system, the national health service or whatever. There is no such thing as a pure market, and it is an illusion to imagine there is.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will consider again the restrictions on building houses outside village envelopes. I suspect that there is not a constituency in the country where the conflict between green belt and urban development is more acute than in mine. The present restrictions on planning permissions overcrowd village envelopes, distorting and changing the nature of villages and overloading roads that are incapable of carrying an increased volume of traffic.

The time may have come to make it easier for farmers, for example, who are constantly encouraged to diversify and take themselves out of production, to acquire planning permission for two or three houses, albeit large houses with large gardens, and to return to the tradition of country house building for which this country was famous in the past, but which has now become virtually a thing of the past.

On water resources, I hope that the new environmental agencies will take seriously the importance of retaining, restoring and cleaning up rivers. Kent has one of the last remaining chalk streams in the south-east of England, which is constantly at risk from increasing water extraction. It is much easier to retain a river than to get it back. I am glad to say that an effort has been made in part of Kent to restore the Darenth river to some extent, but those artificial restorations are not as good as the original river.

I welcome the legislation which we are to introduce for disabled people. May I draw attention to two matters that have occupied much of my time since I came to this place? The first is Lifetime Homes. Last week, I had the privilege of attending the opening of a 128-unit estate of Lifetime Homes owned by the Joseph Rowntree Trust.

The title "Lifetime Homes" came from the report of a seminar that I organised with the Helen Hamlyn Foundation five years ago in the university of Kent, when we suggested that it would be better and cheaper in the long run if the housing stock in this country were not constantly narrowed, with steepened stairs and steps up to the front door, as now happens, but if houses were designed with a level access, wider doors to allow wheelchair access, and shower rooms on the ground floor, so that someone incapable of going up the stairs could nevertheless enjoy that kind of washing.

I am delighted to say that the Joseph Rowntree Trust took on that banner, ran with it and has now produced, for less than £500 for the extra facilities for a one-bedroomed house and less than £800 for a two-bedroom house, a whole estate that can be used with equal ease by elderly people, disabled people, young mothers struggling with buggies and shopping, and teenagers who have temporarily damaged themselves playing a game or falling off a motorbike.

We need that kind of housing. Builders are sympathetic to some extent, but will not build them because they say that, unless all their competitors are forced to build to those standards, they are at a competitive disadvantage. I hope that the disablement Bill will at least pay attention to the possibility of extending the M-regulations, or something like them, to the building of new houses.

The second issue which I hope will be taken into account, and about which I believe my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made encouraging noises to directors of social services, is the old chestnut of direct payments allowing disabled people to command their own budgets and buy their own services at their own hand.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State must realise that Kent does not want the local government review to be referred back. Kent has enough problems trying to cope with the channel tunnel and its offshoots. It is being divided and distorted by continuing debate on the local government review. The Local Government Commission for England report was accepted with a sigh of relief, and we felt that we could once more get on with the business of making Kent prosperous. Now we hear rumours that it is to be referred, and I strongly disapprove.

There will be other opportunities to discuss the channel tunnel rail link, but I disapprove of the proposition that the safeguarded route should become a licence to print money for whoever builds it by charging well over the odds for wayleaves to cross it. That would be a scandalous misuse of a monopoly position, and should not be allowed. The electricity, gas and water companies and so forth should not be held to ransom by the people who suddenly become the owners of that great advantage. I shall raise the question of Boxley long tunnel again on another occasion.

I firmly support the increase in the European Union budget. I must point out to those of my hon. Friends who disapprove of it that, when we were last responsible for our agricultural support system in this country, it cost us 1.2 per cent. of gross national product. Last year it cost 0.4 per cent., although that was partly due to the fact that GNP has increased so much. The increase was partly a result of the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Export Trade, who is never in the House or the country long enough to attract the respect and support that he deserves for his enormous efforts in helping to export British goods.

The estimated additional costs to the United Kingdom of the Gulf conflict alone were £2,434 million. The idea that, by spending £75 million next year to remove for ever the threat of a conflict in Europe, we would be wasting money, is absurd.

Mr. Gummer

Before my hon. Friend leaves that subject, does he agree that, in his constant quest for new jobs and more investment in Britain, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Export Trade would have no chance whatsoever if we were not an active member of the European Union? Companies invest here because that opens the whole European market to them and their future expansion.

Mr. Rowe

That is an enormously powerful argument, as 50 per cent. of our trade is with the European Union.

I promised that I would sit down rapidly, and so I shall. We should pass the European Communities (Finance) Bill, to increase the European Union budget, and put the money into a separate account until the EU can demonstrate beyond peradventure that it is taking serious action to diminish the fraud that is attracted to that budget in exactly the same way as fraud is attracted to our social security budget. When Governments make large sums of money available, they will always attract fraud.

There is no reason why we should not take a much more active part in preventing fraud in the European Union, and no reason why we should not honour our engagement to assist the Union's growth and development in exactly the way that the Prime Minister suggested.

1.8 pm

Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)

Like the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I am sorry that there was no mention in the Queen's Speech of changes in electoral law. Whether I would want the same changes as the hon. Gentleman is not clear, but I had hoped that we might have the opportunity to consider some of the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes). It is a tragedy that in a so-called democracy so many people are disfranchised in that way. The kind of Bill presented by my hon. Friend would have enabled the enfranchisement of many of those people.

I was also sorry to see in a thin Queen's Speech that the opportunity was not taken to review the Race Relations Act 1976. Hon. Members will know that there is increasing racial harassment and violence in my constituency, and there would have been time in the next Session of Parliament to introduce legislation to tackle those evils effectively.

That would also have provided an opportunity to take on hoard the recommendations of the Commission for Racial Equality in its second review of the workings of the Race Relations Act. The Government recognise a need for monitoring employment practices and the importance of contract compliance in terms of the legislation against discrimination in Northern Ireland. If that is recognised in terms of religious discrimination, it should be recognised in terms of racial discrimination in this country as well.

I also hoped that the Government might have included in the Queen's Speech measures to deal more effectively with domestic violence. We know that domestic violence accounts for an enormous proportion of violent crime. I welcome the initiative which the Home Office recently took in its short-lived campaign which built on the success of both the Association of London Authorities and Edinburgh city council in their campaign for zero tolerance.

I had hoped that we might have had some assurance from the Government that they will continue that initiative by giving some guarantees on the future security of the funding for refuges in this country. I believe that that would make one of the most significant contributions towards tackling the problems of domestic violence.

I would also have hoped that there might have been some review of the situation faced by victims of domestic violence whose immigration status depends on that of their husband. So many victims of marital and domestic violence are trapped with a choice between deportation or enduring continuing violence. I hope that the Home Secretary will give some attention to that matter.

In view of some recent correspondence which I had with the Home Secretary, I hoped that we might have seen some proposals for changes in the immigration laws concerning the Home Secretary's powers where he deems someone to be a threat to national security. I do not want to go into the details of the case over which I was involved in correspondence with the Home Secretary, but it is not justifiable in a democratic society to give the Home Secretary powers to incarcerate and imprison someone without any recourse to the courts on the basis of the Home Secretary's assertion that somebody is a threat to national security. There ought to be some means of accountability through the courts and some mechanism for appeal.

I shall also refer to my concerns about the emergency services. I hope that we might get an assurance from the Government that, when the standard spending assessments are announced in the next couple of weeks, they will give some guarantee on disregards in SSAs with regard to the rising costs of pensions within the fire and civil defence authorities. Unless that is done, there is a real prospect that we shall face dramatic cuts in the cover provided by fire and civil defence authorities in the next financial year.

I am also sorry to see that there was no commitment in the Queen's Speech to honour the commitment given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was Home Secretary that there would be a police authority for London with some elements of democratic accountability. That commitment has the backing of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, and is also supported by the Metropolitan police deputy commissioner who is senior vice-president of the Association of Chief Police Officers.

I hope that the Home Secretary will acknowledge that, in London, the Labour-controlled councils have led in the development of working partnerships with the Metropolitan police to tackle crime. More than 30 community safety groups have been established by boroughs with the Metropolitan police, promoting joint local authority and police initiatives, sharing information and, in some cases, seconding staff.

The Home Secretary has merely established a new body, appointed by him, to provide advice on planning, thereby setting up yet another toothless quango. Londoners will continue to be precepted for the costs of the Metropolitan police, but they will remain without a directly elected authoritative body that can oversee the policing of their city. That arrangement will continue to offend against the basic principle of no taxation without representation.

As for the environmental protection agency, there may be some difficulties with the mix of regulatory and operational functions. In the area of waste regulation, I am fearful about the removal of any democratic accountability, such as obtains in the waste regulation authorities. I hope that that will be examined in some depth when the Bill comes before the House.

The Secretary of State for the Environment will know of my concern about the inadequacy of planning arrangements and inquiries in respect of incineration processes. I hope that he and the President of the Board of Trade will again review the planning regulations, especially in the light of the evidence that has emerged in the interim report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency on the problems of dioxins and furans, many of which result from the combustion of municipal waste.

This is a serious issue. In a letter to me, the Secretary of State said that he believed the planning process was adequate to deal with it, but the former director of public health on Bexley health authority and the chief environmental health officers of Bexley and Greenwich do not share his view. They do not, for instance, think that the planning inquiry into the proposal by Cory Environmental Ltd. adequately considered health and environmental issues, and they are doubtful whether the process will give enough weight to those issues next time.

I wanted to raise a number of other subjects, but I shall end now in the hope that Conservative Members will also speak briefly, thus allowing my hon. Friends a chance to contribute.

1.16 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

I, too, will try to be swift, although I do not share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) about the "thinness" of the Gracious Speech. I do not think that a Conservative Government need prove their ideological machismo by bringing acres of legislation to the House. On the contrary, Conservatives should welcome a light legislative programme. Good government is not necessarily about legislating; it is about good administration, and we certainly have good government.

Although I share many of the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) about the failure to include the privatisation of the Royal Mail in the Gracious Speech, I do not think that privatisation is the defining issue for the 1990s. It has caught on around the world and been implemented by Governments of left and right everywhere. The fact that we cannot privatise the Royal Mail now is purely testimony to the small size of the Government's majority and to the willingness of the Labour party to remain stuck in the past. But it will be privatised at some stage, to its benefit and the benefit of its customers.

Privatisation is not the issue that will win us the next election. I am reminded of the slogan put to an American politician—"It's the economy, stupid." The British economy is in a stronger position probably than at any time since the war. We have an export-led recovery with strong growth and falling unemployment. These are the ingredients of electoral success for the Conservative party in the years ahead—provided we clothe our economic policy in the right rhetoric so that people understand why our economy has become so successful.

We have established an excellent economic and monetary framework. I am afraid that it has little to do with convergence criteria or the exchange rate mechanism with which Ministers sometimes confuse it. Indeed, it is the antithesis of economic and monetary union, and we should explain it in those terms as a classical, nationalist, monetarist policy. We should take the lead in Europe and explain to other European countries that that is how Europe will become prosperous.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) that I welcome the Queen's Speech. Every pearl has a grain of sand and although the European Communities (Finance) Bill will get my support, it being a matter of confidence, it would be wrong to suggest that we can afterwards put the money in a separate account and wait for the European Union to sort out its fraud as my hon. Friend suggests, because under European law we will be obliged to hand over the money for which we have legislated.

When we put the economy in perspective and continue to explain the beneficial effects of the good administration of this good Government, we can tack other issues on to our programme to set out our stall towards the next general election. Those other issues include deregulation and social security reform and, of course, crime and punishment, which is perhaps one of the major issues and of great concern to my constituents.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jenkin

No, because I am short of time. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary deserves praise and encouragement for what he has achieved so far during his term of office. It is unfair of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) to complain that 15 years of Conservative Government are to blame for the state of law and order. On the contrary, that is due to the difficulty faced by Home Secretaries in implementing declared Conservative policy. The resistance to that throughout the law and order establishment has been one of the main obstacles, and confronting that false consensus and breaking it so that Conservative policies can be carried out is now the Government's objective. I thoroughly support that.

One has only to consider the cases that every hon. Member must face in his constituency to realise the depth of frustration felt by so many of our constituents. I have a letter from a constituent, an elderly lady who was burgled by a yob as she was asleep. He came up to her room and when he woke her, he fled with her carving knife and family treasures, which cannot be replaced. When the matter came to court, the yob was let off, despite the fact that he had committed a number of offences and caused thousands of pounds worth of damage. His only punishment was to agree to pay £5 a week compensation. That old lady faces that yob on the streets of her village every day because he lives there, and she has to suffer his taunts.

When faced with such cases, one has great sympathy with victims who feel that the balance between victim and criminal needs to be redressed. I urge the Government to continue to implement a policy of tougher sentencing. Many people despair when they hear the powerful lobbies that criticise the efforts of the Home Secretary and the Government. Those bodies complain that the prison population has gone up, but that increase may be related to the fact that at the same time crime has come down. In my constituency of Colchester, the local police know the regular criminals, the people whom they arrest time after time. They want those people locked up, and if they were it would hardly be surprising to see crime come down.

Parliament has given the courts the power to sentence and courts should be encouraged to sentence according to Parliament's wishes. I draw the attention of the House to the level of sentencing. I asked the Library to provide figures, which are quite startling. In 1993, in England and Wales, there were 1.4 million indictable offences, but only 4.1 per cent. of those convicted of those offences received custodial sentences. It was 4.4 per cent. in total, but only 4.1 per cent. received unsuspended custodial sentences. Is it any wonder that people feel that there is not enough punishment in our legal system?

Only 19 per cent. of people in 39,000 cases of violence against the person received custodial sentences. In the categories of violence against the person, sexual offences, burglary, robbery, theft and handling stolen goods and criminal damage, which is one of the most painful and tiresome problems that people suffer in a crime-ridden environment, only 16.2 per cent. of those indicted were given unsuspended custodial sentences. On the question of the sentencing of young people, it is staggering how many were let off. Even of those in the 10 to 16 age group with 10 or more previous convictions, only 23 per cent. were given any sort of prison sentence.

There is a cry to be tough on the causes of crime. If people feel that they can get away with serious criminal offences, it is not surprising that the public do not have faith in the law and order system. How are we to instil better respect? I very much welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's announcements. We need a prison system that is decent but austere. We need a victims' hot line so that victims feel that they have access to the system and are allowed to input information that is relevant to their case. I also welcome the announcement curtailing temporary prison leave.

We need more talk of rights—the right of people to feel safe walking down their own streets; the right of victims to feel that the crimes they suffer are justly punished; and the right of police officers to carry out their duties unhindered by some of the more absurd interference from the so-called civil rights lobby. We need to redress the balance between the victim and the criminal. It is worth remembering that among the prison population there are few people over the age of 40. That shows that people do learn eventually and that it is not worth bucking the system. We need a system that instils that lesson rather earlier.

1.26 pm
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in today's debate. Together with my hon. Friends, I look forward to seeing the Government's detailed proposals. In particular, I look forward to the publication of the Bill to tackle discrimination against disabled people—especially after the Government's shameful talking out of the comprehensive Bill introduced last Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry).

Today, we are discussing home affairs and I welcome the Government's commitment, outlined in the Gracious Speech, to play an active part in tackling drug misuse and trafficking. The problem of drug misuse is tearing apart our local communities and the Government must bear part of the responsibility for the problems on our estates, in our schools and on the streets. We are all concerned about the problem because of the direct link between drugs and crime.

There has been a sharp increase in the number of drug offences and drug seizures, mirroring the dramatic increase in crime. In south Yorkshire, drug seizures have increased by more than 1,000 per cent. since 1979. Of course, we do not have to rely on statistics alone to see that drug abuse has risen. How many hon. Members remember a time when a school playing field was out of bounds because of the threat from syringes left behind after use the previous night? That did not happen years ago, but it is currently the horrific position in schools in my constituency. Nevertheless, last year the Government cut the number of drug advisory posts that previously were funded by the Department for Education. They also cut the number of staff based in schools and youth clubs.

If the Government cared about the victims of crime, they would do something about its causes, such as tackling drug abuse. There are many good ways to start. The people of the Willow estate in Thorne in my constituency have suffered from crime, like many people on other estates in my constituency and throughout the country. Much of that crime is drug related—vandalism, theft, destruction of property, abuse, fear and harassment. The good people of that estate—and there are many of them, because the criminals are in the minority—said, "Enough is enough," and are developing a partnership with the police and the local authority to tackle the crime wave that has afflicted them a long while. Those residents want what everyone else wants—to feel safe in their own homes and to walk down their own streets free from fear and harm. They have my full support for their work through residents associations.

Partnerships are the key—people working together with pride rather than being alone, isolated and in fear. The weakness of the Government's approach across a whole range of policies is that they have spent the last 15 years talking ruthlessly about individualism—"Get 'what you can for yourself, no matter who you step on." That attitude will never bring social responsibility but only encourages a mentality whereby people take what they want regardless of the impact on others and the wider community. Such attitudes, coupled with economic despair, breed anti-social behaviour, not social responsibility.

Since the royal commission highlighted the need for an independent body to investigate miscarriages of justice, there has been no action by the Government. The Labour party called for such a innovation during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 1993. Even the Home Secretary made a pledge to his own party conference in 1993. Again, there was no action. I welcome the news that the Government are finally to act, and I hope that they will do so decisively. So far, the Home Secretary has been, at best, lukewarm about that proposal. I trust that he will muster sufficient enthusiasm to make sure that the body is totally independent and that it has sufficient teeth to perform its difficult task effectively.

A halfway house will not be sufficient to reassure the public, whose confidence has been shaken. The decision to establish the review body should not be regarded as an attack on the police. I have good relations with the police in my constituency and was closely involved in bringing them together with a number of concerned residents and groups trying to plan action. South Yorkshire police work hard in the most difficult circumstances and should be praised for their efforts and dedication. They work under extreme pressure from rising crime rates. In 1979, the Tories came to power promising to restore the rule of Law. Fifteen years later, crime in south Yorkshire has mushroomed. Since 1989, it has risen 66 per cent. while police numbers have increased by only 2.3 per cent.

The police are also under pressure because of the difficulty of securing convictions. They often feel frustrated when the Crown Prosecution Service does not proceed with cases that the police and victims believe should be prosecuted; it is fast becoming known as the criminal protection service. Others in the criminal justice system have also expressed concern about the CPS and its willingness and ability to take cases forward. Clearly, the Government need to address that issue. The Government cannot fail to appreciate the strength of feeling. In the last two weeks alone, I have been presented with two major petitions.

The Government talk tough but act soft on crime, and ordinary people end up paying the price of their incompetence. People feel let down by the Government, and they have been. The Tories have proved that they do not have the solutions on crime. They have had 15 years in which to sort out the problems and they have failed. If they are not prepared to revise their short-sighted, dogmatic and selfish ideology, they will never find the answers. The content of their legislative programme and their responses to the issues that I have raised today will show whether they are capable of such a leap in understanding.

The nation and the people of Doncaster, North will be watching and waiting to see what action the Government take. On their past record, I will not be holding my breath.

1.34 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

I shall follow on directly from what my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) said, because the Gracious Speech has demonstrated that the Government are out of touch with the real needs of real people in Britain today.

The Government's priorities seem to be just trying to keep the Tory party together. They do not mind what harm they do to the economy, the health service or the environment as long as they can all cling to office. The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) no longer functions as the Prime Minister; he is reduced to being the Chief Whip of the Tory party. The slogan that he uses is, "More privatisation, more deregulation and more money for our friends." That is all very well for holding on to the support of the fanatics on the right wing of the Tory party, but I am glad to say that it does not appeal to the people of Britain, who want a Government with practical answers to the day-to-day problems that they face. After 15 years of Tory rule, the public will no longer be fobbed off with more publicity stunts, diversions and distractions. They want to see their day-to-day problems solved.

In the time available I can give only three examples of how the Tories have failed, are failing and will fail to solve the problems faced by the people of Britain, and to fulfil their hopes and aspirations. Most people in Britain believe that all our citizens should have a decent home, and at a price or rent that they can afford. It is not an outlandish idea. It is what all Members of Parliament have for themselves and their families. It is common decency. It promotes family life, enhances the health of the nation and makes economic sense. What do we have instead in Britain today? Before I deal with the figures, let us look at what is happening today to real people in our country.

Within half a mile of this Palace, many of our fellow citizens will spend tonight in a cardboard box. Families all over Britain will spend tonight in bed-and-breakfast accommodation—one room in which to live, if one can call it living; one room for parents and children in which to cook, eat, wash and sleep. Next Monday morning, after a whole squalid weekend of it, the children will be packed off to school, half fed, half asleep, to an overcrowded classroom with a harassed teacher, yet the Gracious Speech referred to equal opportunities for all sections of the community. What cant and hypocrisy.

What about the young couple living in the home of their parents or in-laws, trying to bring up a child with a bed and a cot in the front room of somebody else's home? We see the ties that bind that couple together: love, hope and responsibility. We see them losing an unequal struggle, with a lack of privacy, lack of space and irritation without respite. Yet the Prime Minister talks of a nation at ease with itself, when tonight, in tens of thousands of homes, three generations will not be at ease with one another.

Then there are the families who cannot afford the soaring rents, relying on benefits that do not pay the whole rent; fretting about how they will cope. Yet we now hear that the Government intend to make things worse by cutting housing benefit. There are the families whose homes are worth less than their mortgage. The Government call it "negative equity". To the families concerned, there is a much shorter word—debt. It keeps them awake at night.

Those are all examples of what life will be like for millions of people in Britain tonight. They show the human pain and anguish behind the housing figures. The figures themselves show how the Government have failed the nation. When the Tories came to office, they inherited a house-building programme in which 244,000 houses were completed each year. Last year, the figure was 175,000. The number of council houses built in 1979 was 75,000. Last year, it was 1,940. That means that 39 council houses were completed in 1979 for every one completed last year, or 390 in 1979 for every 10 last year.

Mr. Jenkin

What about housing associations?

Mr. Dobson

The employed parrot on the Government Back Benches asks about housing associations. I expected that. They are supposed to have taken over the role of house building. But, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the number of houses that have been completed by housing associations, councils and new towns put together in 1979, he will see that the figure was 104,000. Last year between them they built 36,000. To put it another way, three houses were completed in 1979 for every one completed last year. While those 36,000 new houses only were being built last year, 160,000 households were officially accepted as homeless—four homeless families for every house that the Government managed to get built. So the Government have failed to build the houses that our people need.

On top of that, the Government have encouraged house prices to rise and they have deliberately driven up housing association and council rents. Over the past five years alone, average council rents have risen by 79 per cent., while the retail prices index has risen by 27 per cent. On top of that, the Government went on to deregulate private rents. So, rents have soared. Tenants have had to pay out a fortune. Many cannot afford the new high rents, so they have either to claim more benefit or claim benefit for the first time. Five years ago, housing benefit cost the taxpayer £3.7 billion. Last year, housing benefit cost the taxpayer £8.8 billion. That was not the fault of the tenants, or the councils, or the housing associations—it was the direct result of Government policy.

Under this Government, building firms have gone broke, building workers are on the dole, house building has gone down, housing costs have soared and the burden on the taxpayer has more than doubled. No wonder the Government, who insist on indicators of performance for local councils, have not got round to having any indicators of performance for themselves. What is needed now is a house-building programme, drawing on the takings from the sale of council houses and augmented by contributions from the private sector, to begin housing the homeless and the overcrowded. That would not only get building workers off the dole, but it would create jobs for people who make cement, bricks, tiles, lavatory pans, baths, curtains, carpets, central heating boilers, light bulbs, cookers and refrigerators. It would even be good for florists because if someone moves into a new house or flat, there is always somebody in the family who buys his mum a bunch of flowers. Everybody would benefit from having a decent housing programme. That is what Labour wants to see happen and that is what the people of this country want.

The Tories have, apparently for theological reasons, rejected the practical idea that the answer to a housing shortage is to build more houses. They are much more sophisticated than that. They try to confuse the issue. They produce misleading figures. They try to redefine problems out of existence. I say to the Secretary of State that changing the rules under which a group of people without homes of their own will have priority over another group of people without homes of their own will not do anything to solve the housing problem—it will just redefine it.

There is also the Tories' effort to change the issue by changing the language. They introduced "a rough sleeper's initiative". That suggests shades of "Nineteen Eighty-Four". Until they thought of that title, the usual words were "sleeping rough". "Rough" described the unacceptable conditions under which people were forced to sleep. The rough sleeper's initiative subtly changes all that. Now the word "rough" is used to describe the people, not the conditions under which they sleep. That is another problem redefined. Responsibility is unloaded on to the victims of the Government's policy. What will we get out of this hapless lot next—a charter mark for cardboard boxes?

That is not what people want. That takes me to my second example of the Government's failure. The people did not want their water to be privatised. When the Government ask themselves why they could not convince the people to support the privatisation of the Post Office, they need look no further than the water industry. The people of Britain know what happened and is happening in that industry. They remember that it was sold off at far below its proper price, that shares rose by 17 per cent. in about the first five minutes of trading and that, therefore, the taxpayer lost £873 million on the first day that the water companies' shares were traded.

People know that, since privatisation, their bills have increased by 67 per cent., costing £2.7 billion above what would be justified by inflation. In the south-west, water charges have doubled in five years. In the same period, water company profits have increased by 125 per cent. and water industry bosses' pay has increased by an average of 228 per cent. That average conceals some large discrepancies between one water boss and another. Some, by the standards of the greediest, have shown some restraint, but not the boss of North West Water, who has whacked up his pay from £47,000 a year to £338,000 a year, not to mention the multi-million pound share options.

Needless to say, the Tory party and individual Tories have their snouts in the water trough. Thames Water gave the Tory party £50,000. The hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) is a director of Yorkshire Water. The hon. Member for Ashford (Sir K. Speed) is a director of Folkestone and Dover Water Services and the hon. Member for Crosby (Sir M. Thornton) is a consultant to North West Water. People question whether those private monopolies, which raise their money by levying a tax on local people—for that is what the water rate is—should retain the services of any political party through the money that they pay in.

What about the famous regulators? The first thing to remember is that the Government are against regulation and never stop saying so. It shows in the way in which water shares shot up after the water regulator announced his new price regime and in the new round of profit announcements. It shows in the way in which the drinking water inspectorate has not mounted a single prosecution since it was set up.

That is not because there is nothing wrong with the water. Thames Water gave £50,000 to the Tory party. In that region, one water sample in every 20 does not meet legal standards. The inspectorate may not be tough on Thames Water, but Thames Water is tough on poor customers, disconnecting 1,200 of them last year, a rather sharp increase on the total before privatisation of just 14.

The Government's keenness on deregulation also showed when the Secretary of State intervened to relieve Yorkshire Water of the £200 million expense of building a first-rate sewage treatment plant to protect the people of Hull and Humberside. How did he do that? He did it by that tried-and-tested Tory technique of redefining the problem out of existence. Hull is now redefined as being on the coast rather than on the estuary, so semi-treated sewage can be pumped into the River Humber.

Up to now, everyone accepted that by nature or the act of God, the open sea started at Spurn point. Now by Act of Gummer, the open sea has been moved 30 miles upstream to the Humber bridge, conveniently to the west of Hull, so lower standards are permitted. The people of Hull and Humberside want straight answers from the Secretary of State. They want to know who asked him to take that decision. They want to know whether parliamentary lobbyists or Tory Members of Parliament were involved in the asking and they will not be satisfied until they get the answers.

We hear fine words from the Government about protecting the environment, but their actions do not live up to their promises.

Mr. McNamara

Will my hon. Friend speculate on how the Humber bridge became a natural boundary for an area of high dispersal? What would have happened if the Humber bridge were two miles further towards the east and if the west Hull outfall had gone straight into an area that was not so desired?

Mr. Dobson

This may be one of the few occasions on which Ministers will bless the building of the Humber bridge.

The Government constantly proclaim that they want rid of regulation. Last year, the flagship of their legislative programme was the Bill to deregulate anything that they did not like. They should, therefore, not be surprised to learn that people will regard with some suspicion the Bill to establish an environment agency for England and Wales and a separate one for Scotland. A Government who are so busy deregulating everything else are hardly likely to toughen regulations intended to protect us from fumes, poisonous dumps and rivers and filthy beaches.

We do not know what the Bill will finally say, but we know what the draft one says. It shows that the new agency will not be environmental protection writ large but environmental protection writ small. The agency is to combine the functions of the National Rivers Authority, HM inspectorate of pollution and waste regulation authorities. We support that step, but the change is being used to weaken rather than strengthen existing statutory duties.

For example, the NRA has a duty to "further" the conservation of areas of natural beauty, flora, fauna and so on. The duty of the new agency will be to "take into account" the effect that any proposals may have on areas of beauty, flora and fauna. At first sight, that may not seem much of a change, but there is a great difference between having to "further" something and having to take it "into account". As shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, I have to "take into account" the Tory Secretary of State's policies, but I can assure the House that I do not intend to "further" them.

At present, none of the bodies to be amalgamated into the environment agency is required to take into account the costs and benefits of their decisions, but the new agency will have to do so. That will leave it open to legal challenge from powerful business interests and is bound to make it less rigorous in protecting the public. If cost-benefit considerations are to be taken into account, countervailing additional powers and duties must be given to the agencies. For example, the precautionary principle and the concept of making the polluter pay could be enshrined in law and given clear precedence over cost-benefit considerations. Without such changes, the new combined agency will be much weaker than the sum of its parts.

Wildlife trusts have said that they are astounded that the new agency's duty is to be so weak; Friends of the Earth described the Bill as a travesty; and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that the duty on the new agency is so weak as to be farcical. The National Federation of Anglers believes that it opens the way to a deliberate failure to achieve effectiveness. The Government's reputation has sunk so low that no one trusts a word that any Minister says.

Most interested people welcome the basic idea of the new agency, but they realise that it is flawed from the start, with vested interests taking precedence over the health and welfare of the public and the future of the environment. People are profoundly suspicious of a Government who, we understand, are now considering allowing the nuclear industry to dump bulky, low-level, radioactive waste at landfill sites all over the country. Most people do not like what is already being dumped there and they certainly do not want the situation made worse.

The Environmental Protection Act 1990, passed as a result of Labour pressure, required local authorities to draw up registers of contaminated land. The Government have issued two sets of proposals for implementing that, but both have been withdrawn. We want to know when they will get on with implementing the law. If it was right to pass that law in 1990, surely to God they should have implemented it by now.

The Government have promised action to protect hedgerows, but will the new Bill deliver on that pledge? Will the Government keep their election promise to set up independent boards for national parks and to enhance the status of the New Forest? Will they use the Bill to keep their promise to extend the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 to cover environmental claims? Will they promote new technology to replace equipment and processes that depend on chemicals which destroy the ozone layer? Will they use money from the roads budget to encourage the installation of devices to reduce and clean up emissions from buses, coaches and lorries? Above all, will they halt their demented crusade against regulation and recognise that regulation has a useful role to play? It has a useful part to play, not just in the immediate protection of the environment, such as trying to reduce the increasing incidence of child asthma, but in making British industry more competitive.

Higher standards for energy efficiency, for engine emissions and for discharges into rivers and seas may cost a bit now, but in the long run, those regulations can help to make British industry more competitive. World markets are crying out for techniques and equipment that can reduce the damaging environmental impact of what is happening now. That is known in the trade as pollution abatement. In future, those world markets will look for plant and equipment that does not create environmental problems in the first place—clean technology, as it is called.

In both markets, Britain is falling behind. Let us take pollution control. At the beginning of the 1980s, Britain's exports of air pollution equipment were eight times the level of imports. By the end of the decade, the decade of triumphant Thatcherism, we were net importers of air pollution equipment. A recent survey of the international pollution abatement market shows Germany, Japan and the United States between them with about half the market. The British share of the world market is so small that it does not rate a mention in the report. It is the same sad story with clean technology, with a lack of Government support in Britain and massive Government support in Germany and Japan.

It is not just a question of Government support. It is widely recognised that the early adoption of strict environmental standards in Germany and Japan gave their industries a head start by requiring them to meet higher standards at home, which made them better equipped to meet higher standards when they sold abroad. As a result, clean technology, which was actually invented in Britain, has been developed and brought to market by Japanese, German and Swedish companies. Deregulation and weak regulation are not just a betrayal of our people's right to clean air, clean water, clean rivers, clean towns and clean countryside. They are a betrayal of British workers and British business.

Given the spur of regulation and Government help, thousands of British people could now find work in research, design, manufacture, construction, installation, operation, maintenance and repair—top-quality jobs to provide a top-quality environment. Britain would be competing with the best on quality, not reduced to trying to compete with the cheapest on price. That is what the people of our country want to see.

Our people want practical help, practical answers to their problems and a decent future for their children. They heard nothing of that in the Queen's Speech other than bits of cant and hypocrisy. Our people want to see a Britain at work, not a Britain on benefits. They want a Britain where people who work for a living are paid a living wage and where the taxpayer does not have to make up for the poverty wages paid by Tory bosses. They want a Britain where economic prosperity, environmental protection and decent social cohesion go hand in hand. They want a Britain where everyone has a decent home in a neighbourhood free from crime and free from the fear of crime. They want a Britain with a health service in which the doctors work for the patients and do not have to take orders from Tory bureaucrats in flash company cars. That is what the people of our country want.

Our people want a Government who run Britain in the interests of everyone who lives here. They do not get that from this Tory Government. This Government are too busy with their primary, top-priority task of keeping their own party together. They are trying to do it with the same old mixture of more privatisation, more deregulation and more money for their friends. They are trying to keep their party financially afloat by taking money from dodgy sources in Britain and from lying, corrupt and criminal foreigners abroad. They are out of touch with the people and they have shown that in the Queen's Speech. They are so out of touch that before long, they will be out of office.

1.59 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) on his new Front-Bench position. I am sad, however, that his speech did not rise to the new job. We are discussing serious matters, and I was sorry that he should have recycled an old speech. That was the only piece of recycling that we heard about.

One element in the Queen's Speech that will be of particular concern and interest is the decision to produce a new environment agency. I shall begin with that matter, as it is central to my consideration of the Gracious Speech. The idea of bringing together those three disparate organisations is welcomed on both sides of the House. That is perfectly proper, because one cannot deal with environmental problems in other than a holistic way.

The National Rivers Authority, which I was lucky enough to play a part in founding and setting up, has been a great success, but it cannot do what it was set up to do because its remit is not wide enough. To look after the environment properly, it needs, with others, to be able to deal with pollution not only in terms of water but in terms of air and other elements. It is impossible to have a proper arrangement to protect the environment unless the whole issue of waste is part and parcel of that regulation. We have recognised that, and I am pleased to hear from the Opposition that, in principle, they accept and support the bringing together of those three organisations.

I was keen to move forward with a legislative programme that enabled maximum discussion as widely as possible. That is why I produced a draft Bill as early as possible. I have always believed that the process of legislation within the European Union has something important to teach us, in the sense that we know early on what the proposals are, but in a form that makes it possible to discuss and argue. We often end up with legislation that is wholly different from the original draft. That is the proper way to proceed in a democratic structure. I hoped to extend that idea, so the draft Bill has been designed to meet that purpose.

I am pleased to see that, in most areas, the content of the Bill has been welcomed. But the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras referred to the use of the words covering conservation duty. I have been advised that the words used have exactly the same effect in law as the words used in respect of the NRA.

I have discussed those matters with the various green organisations, some of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and tried to explain to them that I saw none of the failures or dangers that they saw. I sought to reassure them because we had no intention of weakening the new agency's powers. They still feel that they would prefer the wording to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and would like a different way of dealing with their concerns.

So that there is no doubt whatever about the agency's conservation and sustainable development role, I have decided to amend the wording to provide the clear duty that those bodies would prefer. That is a main advantage of having a draft Bill. If I claim that the words make no difference, I should be able to turn that claim on its head and say that I am prepared to accept words that help those organisations and make them surer of our clear commitment to an agency that has at least the powers of the NRA and which, by bringing them together, will be a significantly more effective guardian of the environment.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras did not take the same time to read my speeches over the past two months as his hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) spent on the speeches of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. Had he done so, he might have come to the House a little more educated about the issues before us. He might not have made those allegations.

The hon. Gentleman might, for example, have discovered that the secretary-general of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—the largest voluntary organisation in the country, I believe, with about 1 million members—said that it would be hard put to keep up with the environmental pace set by this Secretary of State for the Environment. He might have discovered that, however much he may dislike the Conservative side of the House, there are some issues on which we might have made common cause instead of nasty innuendo. I fear for the future of our discussions if he is going to approach this issue, which of all issues ought to be the one on which we could find much in common, on a cheap party political basis. I shall seek not to do so, but no doubt it will be extremely difficult, especially if the hon. Gentleman continues to giggle from the Opposition Front Bench as is his wont.

The real issue that faces the House is looking after the environment for the sake of our children. We are signed up to sustainable development. That means sustainability—not cheating on our children—and it means a commitment to growth. Those two things must be brought together for there is no evidence of life if there is not growth, and growth must not be bought at the cost of the next generation. The bill must be paid now.

That is why, in addition to the establishment of an environment agency for England and Wales and a Scottish environment protection agency, the Bill will contain the following measures. I hope that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras will listen, because this will answer some of his questions.

First, the agency will have powers and duties relating to contaminated land, and amendments will be made to the powers and duties of local authorities, to achieve consistency. Those provisions arise from the review of policy on contaminated land and liabilities, and I shall make a fuller announcement on the subject before the introduction of the Bill. That is the first of the areas that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras mentioned on which I think that I can give him full satisfaction.

Secondly, there will be new requirements to enhance the agency's abilities—to make it much stronger—and enable it to deal with pollution from abandoned mines. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has not had much time to get in control of his brief, but he did not mention that subject. Most people would say that it is an important matter, not least in those parts of the country with long-standing problems of that type, which need a modern legislative framework.

Mr. Dobson

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends pressed for changes in the law on abandoned mines and took the opportunity to mention the subject during the passage of the various mining and coal industry Bills that have appeared before the House, so that idea is not a novelty?

Mr. Gummer

I am happy to be able to say that pressing for that has been a common view on both sides of the House, especially among Members of Parliament who represent constituencies affected by the problem. In the environment agency Bill, I am taking an early opportunity to do something about it. I merely pointed out that, for me, that was a major priority.

In addition, we have been working on one new recommendation, which will form part of the Bill and put Britain ahead of any other nation on producer responsibility. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras pressed hard the view that we should be leading the world on the environment for economic as well as moral reasons. I happen to agree, and that is why we will introduce provisions to support industry-led schemes for producer responsibility.

Recycling will thus become a central part of producers' responsibility. They have worked out the scheme themselves, and given us the basis. We shall work on it with them to complete it. I have no doubt that various alterations will be made to their proposals.

I started by saying that it was likely that the most cost-effective way of delivering the scheme would be worked out by the people who were to do the delivering. In other words, the Government must set the targets and it is much better to get those who are best placed to discover the best means of delivering them. That will increase the proportion of material which is recycled significantly. We shall set the targets, and industry will deliver the goods within a legal framework which protects them from unfair competition from those who do not carry that responsibility.

That is the exact kind of cost-effective system for which I am looking. I do not see why it benefits anybody to make people pay more than they need to pay to achieve environmental benefits. Indeed, I think that the opposite is true. If we spend money that we do not need to spend on the environment in one area, we do not have it to spend in another area. Those who are silly enough to suggest that seeking cost-effective, cost-benefit arrangements are somehow anti-environment are surely missing the point.

Unless cost-effective measures are taken, and unless those measures are sensible ones in which there is a link between a gain and cost of that gain, we will not be able to afford the immense cost of the environmental improvements to which the Government are committed and which will be central to the Bill that I shall bring before Parliament.

Our example stands in strong contradiction to what happened in Germany, for example, where industry has been burdened with a system set up by a Government, with all the bureaucratic failures which a Government system has. It has ended up with the Germans disrupting the whole of the waste recycling system of the rest of Europe, and it has meant that Britain has had to pioneer, push through and finally succeed—or as near as damn it succeed—in producing a new regulation on the issue of waste. The German Government sought to use the bureaucratic methods normally associated with socialist Governments, and I am surprised at them—they ought to have known better.

We in this country have dealt with the matter in two sensible ways. First, we have seen that there was a proper European directive to cover the whole of the European Union so that we act together in concert. That is a proper use of the European Union's powers and of the position of Brussels.

Secondly, we have insisted that the system works upon the principle of subsidiarity, so that we in Britain can produce our own scheme which will be bedded in the principle that the industry which produces the waste must not only deal with its recycling, but do so in a way which is best for the industry to achieve the ends which are set by the Community through the Government.

That is surely the way in which we should deal with environmental issues, and we have shown a lead not only in Europe, but in the world. We shall seek, through Commission on Sustainable Development conferences and other ways, to see that such methods are carried through elsewhere. That does not mean regulation for the sake of it. One respects and recognises the need for regulation, but we should not have unnecessary regulation.

Deregulation means getting rid of unnecessary regulations, making them simpler, making them work with the grain of industry instead of against it, making sure that we get the best value for money, and seeing that we have up-to-date regulations rather than carrying forward all kinds of stuff which has been stuck on the statute book for years. That is deregulation, and very sensible it is.

We know that the Labour party does not like deregulation, because it likes regulating. It likes to be in charge—it is the party of centralised control. What has it said during the whole of this debate? "More power for local government…local government must do this…local government must do that." It does not mention partnership, but it mentions the people who are in centralised control in local government.

What did Labour local authorities not want? Labour did not want the schools to run themselves; the Opposition wanted them under centralised control, under the town hall or the county council. They did not want parents, teachers and governors to run the schools. They wanted local government to run them because, according to the Labour party, local government knows better.

So let us not be taken in by the Labour party's views of partnership. Its list of partners really amounted to the Government and local government. We believe in partnerships between ordinary people, local government, business and national government, all working together as they do in city challenge up and down the country. [Interruption.]

However much nonsense the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) may shout from a sedentary position, he should have accompanied me to Labour-controlled Hackney and Stratford, East the day before yesterday, where he would have seen real examples of partnerships, not just partnerships driven by local authorities. I certainly honour the role of local authorities, but that role should be as one partner to bring in the local community. A partnership should not consist only of those who happen to be part of a local authority net.

This Session we shall certainly introduce measures to establish new independent authorities for the 10 national parks in England and Wales, and to revise parks' purposes. We said that we would do that; now we shall deliver it. The Opposition said that we would not do it or deliver it, so people would not respect us. We said that we would do it; we will; and people will support us for doing it.

We shall also introduce—this will please the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras—an enabling power for the preservation of hedgerows of particular value, and new arrangements for the payment of environmental grants. These measures too will form part of the Environmental Agency Bill. To prepare for that, I wish to announce to the House the names of the people who I hope will help us to move from the present system to the new agency system.

I am pleased to say that Lord De Ramsey has been prepared to serve as chairman. Councillor Harman has also been invited to join the committee. He is leader of Kirklees council and vice-chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, and he has been centrally involved with Agenda 21, the local authority organisation dealing with issues of sustainable development. In that capacity, he has shown himself able to bring together people of all political parties.

In addition, I have invited Peter Burnham, a former senior partner at Coopers and Lybrand and a member of the recently established HMIP advisory committee, to join. He is also a founder commission member of English Heritage. Another member of the group will be Imtiaz Farookhi, chief executive of Leicester city council. Hon. Members will remember that Leicester was Britain's first environment city.

I shall also invite Nigel Haigh, director of the Institute of European Environment Policy and chairman of the Green Alliance, to join. Christopher Hampson, a former board member of ICI, chairman of the HMIP advisory committee, former chairman of the CBI's environment committee, and chairman of Yorkshire Electricity, will also serve.

I shall include John Norris, an NRA board member nominated by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and a well-known expert in drainage matters. Then there is Mrs. Shirley Jackson, whose work as a fellow of the Society of Practitioners of Insolvency and whose business ability will bring to the agency the sort of tight control over bureaucracy that my hon. Friends would like. There will be an additional member nominated by the Secretary of State for Wales.

I am especially pleased that Lord De Ramsey has agreed to be chairman. When I was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I was much concerned about the fact that drainage authorities had no conservation duties. Now, drainage is important when it comes to keeping the environment as we would like it to be.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras might have spoken differently if he had looked at the background and history to the duties of conservation. I was determined to introduce such measures to drainage authorities and the man who made it possible was the then chairman of the Association of Drainage Authorities, Lord De Ramsey. He has been prepared to stand up for conservation not only among the people he represented as president of the Country Landowners Association but on his own farm, where he has carried out a great deal of work which has become a model for people roundabout and beyond. He has delivered the answer to many conservation concerns and hon. Members would honour him for that.

Another aspect of Lord De Ramsey's work should commend itself to the House. He will now withdraw as a member of the board of the long-established Cambridge water company. It recently sank a new borehole some way from Cambridge, and I went to see it and open the pump assembly. That was part of another aspect of conservation that concerns us, because conservation is not just about flora and fauna, which are important, but about the man-made part of Britain's environment.

The way in which that water company has ensured that its installations should clearly blend with the other buildings of a historic village and estate is impressive. I could mention a number of other utilities where that concern has not been dealt with as directly. I was pleased to note that in my discussions with Lord De Ramsey he supported the change in wording of the conservation duty to which I have referred.

We shall also be transferring to the environment agency HMIP's functions under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, and we shall simplify the authorisation procedures, to make them not less stringent but very much clearer. I am sure that all hon. Members will be pleased about that.

Mr. Dobson

The Minister said that the hedgerow legislation would be an enabling measure. Who will be enabled by that? I am not in the habit of commenting on the background of people I know nothing about. The only two people mentioned by the Minister whom I know about are John Harman and Imtiaz Farookhi, who are both excellent. If there are to be local authority representatives on the board of the agency or agencies, I hope that the Secretary of State will consider allowing local authorities to nominate some of their members or to proffer alternatives from which the Minister might choose. In this case, perhaps we could see who two of the alternatives might be.

Mr. Gummer

I do not envisage the environment agency advisory committee, which is what it has to be while legislation is going through Parliament, as having a representative function. I have tried to make it a group of people whose interests are widely spread and who can make personal contributions and have the credibility of great standing.

I hope that no one suggests that Councillor Harman is anything other than a good representative of local authorities. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman did not say that he was not, but he said that people should be representative. I do not see the agency in that way.

One of the problems about the representation of local authorities which have a number of different organisations within them is that one could not have an effective committee with the range of representation that might be convenient for them. Therefore, I have done my best to get the balance which I hope the hon. Gentleman thinks is right. To have both the chief executive and the leader of a local council on a committee of some eight people, plus a chairman, is not a bad way to try to ensure that local authorities are fully covered.

I understand the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) about playing fields. The planning arrangements about the use of playing fields are tough. I made a number of decisions recently in which it was made quite clear that I would not allow playing fields to be developed. I respect my right hon. Friend's views on the matter, which I have looked at before. I shall look again to see whether we need to tighten up in any way, but my impression is that the arrangements are already fairly tight.

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend about the enormous changes in Brent. It is a good example of not throwing money at problems but running the show properly. That is what has made the difference. The Conservative Brent council is now running the show at a much lower cost to the council tax payer than was the case under Labour, and it is running it extremely well. To win prizes for services that used to be nominated as the worst in the country, when the Conservative council has been in power for only just over three years, is a remarkable achievement, and one that is clearly recognised as worth while by the people of Brent.

There are difficulties with development appeals, which was another point raised by my right hon. Friend. After all, what we are doing is telling people that they cannot do what they want on land upon which they should have a right to do just that. We restrict people's rights, so naturally they have an appeal that is different in form from others. I think that that is about the right balance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) raised the question of the National Rivers Authority and navigation issues. I do not think that anything that we are doing will in any way weaken the position of those concerned with navigation. If he has a particular point, I shall be happy to consider it. I am certainly looking at the problem of crushers. I agree with him about their value. The problem is that they make a great deal of dust in many cases and there must be some sensible regulation. If my hon. Friend has any particular cases he wants to raise, I shall consider them.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) courteously explained that he could not remain until the end of the debate. However, I must point out that he has again called for an unfair voting system. In Germany, for example, it ensures that the smallest party remains in government for ever. He wants an unfair voting system, and I think that I know why.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) about the Royal Mail. It will suffer because privatisation has been put off, when in fact it is the answer to the problems.

I say directly to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that I go around the world selling British industry. We are making considerable inroads and our exports are up in a big way. Many of the companies that are most effective in selling environmental goods, services and new techniques are the British privatised water companies. Yet, in all he said, he did not say a single word about the many jobs and the considerable amount of extra wealth that has come into this country because of privatisation, and especially through the water companies. I am sorry that he is not yet able to admit that.

The difficulty with the Labour party is that it is so much behind the times. No other Labour party would speak as the British Labour party does. In his speech, the hon. Gentleman was more out of date than any spokesman of any Labour party in the whole of Europe. No one speaks like him. Indeed, I do not think that the ex-communists in eastern Germany would speak like him—yet he is supposed to be a moderate, even behind his beard. He made a speech that would not have sounded out of place in 1932. He must grow up in the world in which we live, not in one—

Mr. Dobson

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer

Not on that point; it would be too much fun to give way to the hon. Gentleman. I have only three minutes— [Interruption.] Oh, all right, I shall give way.

Mr. Dobson

My speech would have been out of place in the 1930s, because there were far fewer homeless people then.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that, in the 1930s, the people were better off and had better housing and better opportunities. With or without the beard, that is beyond the bounds of credibility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) was right about the rail link; we must carefully consider the points that he raised.

I must tell the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) that the newspaper report he mentioned has no basis. It is the NRA that decides the areas concerned. It then goes to each and recommends whether it needs primary, secondary or tertiary treatment. It has not yet done the survey for Hull. When it does, it will give the advice, not me. It is not my responsibility, nor would I want to have it. It is a technical responsibility.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras cannot resist the party politicisation of everything, even the location of the Hull estuary. He is not interested in the environment, but only in the Labour party's fortunes. I was thrilled to be able to announce today, for the first time in a little while, that the Conservatives not only won a by-election from Labour in Hackney but pushed the Liberal party to the bottom of the poll. I suspect that will be the order in which the Government will be returned to the House at the next general election.

We ought to support in particular the elements in the Queen's Speech that relate to the environment agencies Bill, for we will then give the kind of tough protection to the environment that is necessary.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Monday 21 November.