§ The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)
My Lords, I have to acquaint the House that Her Majesty was pleased this morning to make a most gracious Speech from the Throne to both Houses of Parliament assembled in the House of Lords. Copies of the gracious Speech are available in the Printed Paper Office.
I have, for the convenience of the House, directed that the terms of the gracious Speech be published in the Official Report.
§ 3.37 p.m.
§ Baroness Turner of Camden
My Lords, I beg to move that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament".It is a great privilege—indeed, an honour—to be asked to move this vote of thanks for the gracious Speech. I believe that it is an honour often bestowed on veteran Back-Benchers; a role for which I now qualify. I have been a Member of your Lordships' House since 1985; a very long time, although it does not seem that long to me.
I can well remember the time when I was first approached with the suggestion that I might join your Lordships. I was quite surprised. I had had no previous parliamentary experience—no sojourn in the other place—and I recall that I did not immediately know how to respond. So I went home and I said to my husband as I came in, "I have something very serious to say to you". My husband laughed and said, "If you've been unfaithful, I don't want to know!". "No, no", I said, "it is more serious than that. It has been suggested that I should go into the House of Lords. It is a bit daunting". "But of course you must accept", he said; and of course I did.
One of my sponsors was the late Lord Ennals. At that time, he was chief Opposition spokesperson on health. He told me that on the day following my introduction, he was opening a debate on the NHS. "I'll put your name down to speak and you can make your maiden speech then", he said. I protested that it was only the day after I was due to come in. "Yes, very good" he said. "You won't have time to worry about it". I did as he said. He was right; I did not have time to worry about it.
I found the general atmosphere very different from my expectations. It was far less adversarial; indeed, courteous and friendly. I believe most new Peers find that too. As the years have gone by I have had the opportunity to voice my particular concerns, for a 6 while in opposition. I was on the Front Bench then, along with my noble friends Lord McCarthy and Lord Wedderburn, dealing with what appeared to be a constant stream of legislation on employment, with very little in the way of research or administrative back-up. I sympathise with oppositions as the work is quite hard. A great deal of commitment and expertise is required and one often has to work long hours, although it is hoped that all-night sittings are no longer to be endured.
§ Baroness Turner of Camden
My Lords, I believe other reforms are on the way.
As far as the past year is concerned my recollections are tinged with sadness. During that time we have lost four remarkable women, all of whom made a substantial contribution to the work of your Lordships' House. Three had previously attained ministerial rank and the fourth was the widely-respected leader and convenor of Cross-Bench Peers. I refer, of course, to my noble friends Lady Castle and Lady Serota and to the redoubtable Lady Young. Lady Hylton-Foster died recently after an incredibly long period of service.
All began their careers at a time when the obstacles in the paths of even very talented women were much greater than they are now. There was no supportive legislation and there was unequal pay. Severely limited career opportunities for women were taken for granted—almost facts of life. Lady Castle was responsible for the introduction of the first Equal Pay Act, and much else besides. However, all became known for the passion and commitment with which they pursued their objectives. None had entered public life for personal advantage. They did so because they wanted to make a difference, to do good as they saw it. Hence they became an inspiration and role models for other younger women who followed them. I am saddened that they are no longer with us.
As I said earlier, my husband encouraged me to take up the opportunity afforded by membership of your Lordships' House. Sadly, he died several years ago but often used to come here before he became too ill, and took a keen interest in whatever I was doing. He had been an RAF pilot during the war. He asked me o n one occasion to host a luncheon in this House for the members of his crew who were still alive and who had been with him when his plane had been shot down at Arnhem. I was delighted to do so. Those remaining came with their wives.
They had a very happy time here. The staff—what a good staff we have here—many of whom were ex-service, made a great fuss of them. I remember sitting next to one of the former crew members who told me that he had been a rear gunner. He said—I recall it well and could not help thinking about it as I watched the Remembrance Day commemoration on television last Sunday—speaking about the Arnhern crash, "I relied on the captain to get us out but the plane was on fire. I was absolutely terrified. I was only 19 years old".
7 I thought of the sacrifice that war requires, often of very young people whose adult lives have hardly begun. That man was fortunate—he survived—but many, as we know, did not. Now war clouds are gathering again. Modern war is so truly terrible that it must be the last resort. For that reason I am grateful to the Minister for her Statement last week when she said that in her opinion war was certainly not inevitable. We must all hope that that is so.
However, that is for the future. The House will have ample time to discuss those matters when the gracious Speech is debated. However, at the core of the speech is concern about domestic issues and in particular the criminal justice system, which there is a commitment to reform. Clearly, there are problems. Many people are deeply worried about the growth, as they see it, of criminal activities, including violence. Often the principal victims are poor, frequently elderly people living in deprived areas and estates. Anti-social behaviour can make their lives miserable. Street crime frightens them. Something clearly must be done. It is a matter of culture as well as of legislation. The House will have the opportunity to explore these difficult issues in the forthcoming debates.
I shall be followed by my noble friend Lord Alli, who will deal with other issues in the gracious Speech about which he is more qualified to speak than I. He is one of the younger Members of your Lordships' House, but one who has remarkable achievements to his credit. He is a distinguished entrepreneur and he has frequently delighted your Lordships with his speeches in this House. I beg to move.
Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty in the following terms:
Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects. the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament".—(Baroness Turner of Camden.)
§ 3.46 p.m.
§ Lord Alli
My Lords, I beg to second my noble friend's Motion for an humble Address. In doing so, I also want to record the sense of honour I feel in being asked to second this Motion.
When I was summoned to see my noble friend the Leader of the House, I was quite taken aback by his request. I found myself agreeing to speak almost immediately without asking what it might entail. I asked him how I should approach the task. He advised me that I should make it personal, light-hearted and, I thought he said, controversial. But on reflection I could well have got that wrong. He advised me that my humour should be in good taste and appropriate to the occasion.
8 Having come from a television background, I naturally turned to the BBC policy guidelines relating to humour. Unfortunately, the only copy available in your Lordships' Library was dated 1948. Nevertheless, I found them most enlightening. The document states:Humour must be clean, and untainted. Well known vulgar jokes (e.g. the brass monkey), even 'cleaned up', are not normally admissible, since the humour is only evident if the vulgar version is known. There is an absolute ban on the following—jokes about lavatories, effeminacy in men, immorality of any kind. There should be no suggestive references to honeymoon couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, ladies underwear e.g. 'winter draws on', animal habits, e.g. rabbits, lodgers, or commercial travellers. Extreme care should be taken in dealing with references to, or jokes about. pre-natal conditions, (e.g. His mother was frightened by a donkey'). The vulgar use of such words as 'basket' should be avoided".I tried to keep those rules uppermost in my mind when deciding what to say.
Another noble Lord—he will know who he is—pointed me in the direction of what he assured me was an authoritative source of etiquette in your Lordships' House. I speak, of course, of Punch; in particular an article dated 13th November 1897, which gives advice as to how a relatively new Member of your Lordships' House could make a mark on an occasion such as today:A popular way for a new member to make his mark is for a member, timing the return journey of Black Rod, to lie prone in his pathway—that never fails to bring the House down, as well as Black Rod".I was sorely tempted this morning to follow that advice. But caution and an absolute fear of Black Rod got the better of me.
When I first joined your Lordships' House, Janet Walker, a friend of mine at Channel 4 Television, sent me a book that contained various anecdotes about your Lordships' House. Tucked away inside the book, I found a card that had written on it an anonymous quotation. It read:My ambition in life is to move from puberty to senility as quickly as possible".On many days in your Lordships' House, I feel that I have achieved just that.
It is a particular honour to follow my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden as she has for many years been a passionate champion of equality. As a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission and of Stonewall, she has fought for equal rights. With the late Lady Castle, to whom she paid tribute, she has championed pensions reform, having been a member of the Occupational Pensions Board. I have much admired her work over the years. I hope that she will not mind my saying so.
I also thank my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House for his patience, his kindness and, above all, for his human qualities, which endear him not only to those of us on these Benches but to the whole House.
I turn to my noble friend the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms. I do not know about other noble Lords. I always feel slightly bizarre dressed in my ermine at State Opening but when I saw the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms this morning I understood the 9 true meaning of the word "bizarre". However, as usual, my noble friend managed to carry off that most difficult situation with great charm and poise.
I have served under two Chief Whips. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for recording my thanks to my noble friend Lord Carter. I also forgive both him and my noble friend Lord Grocott for the turmoil they have caused me. They have paged me, harassed me and made me vote, but all of it done with a smile of winsome innocence that would charm even a child—which, in relative terms, I probably am. But if one quality shines from both of them, it is their ability to communicate.
Speaking of communications, I welcome the communications Bill featured in the gracious Speech—I am tempted to say, "At last!" I am truly proud of the television we produce in this country; we are among the best producers in the world. That is due in no small part to our commitment to public service broadcasting through both the BBC and Channel 4. We should protect and cherish the idea of public service broadcasting.
A hundred years ago—at around the same time that the advice, which I wisely ignored, was being written in Punch—my great-grandfather set sail from Calcutta in India on a ship bound for the British West Indies. He was destined to work on the sugar plantations of Tate and Lyle as a bonded labourer. Like so many others, he braved the seas in search of a better life. He found that better life in Trinidad where he met and married my great-grandmother and went on to have 14 children.
My great-grandfather, a Hindu, arranged the marriages of all of his children. One of his daughters married my grandfather when she was only 12 years old and he just 14. They were given no access to any form of education, and my grandfather, like my great-grandfather, went to work on the sugar plantation. I suspect that my mother, who is here today, was born with the same sense of adventure and ambition that drove my great-grandfather to leave India.
At the age of 17, she left the family home and took a boat to Britain—a journey about which many tales have been told. My mother settled into a society here in London that needed her labour as a nurse in the National Health Service but was none too sure about her or her culture.
My mother—a Hindu—fell in love with my father, who was, unfortunately for her, a Muslim. There was huge social pressure put on them not to get married. Thankfully for me, they ignored it. They went on to teach all their children, including me, not just to tolerate but to have real respect for the wide diversity of belief and—most importantly—not to live in fear of other people's faiths. So I have happily celebrated Christmas; I have happily celebrated Diwali; and I have happily celebrated Eid. I am waiting, in excited anticipation, for my noble friends Lord Levy and Lord Janner of Braunstone to invite me happily to celebrate Hanukkah.
10 Yet, for so many people in this world, the idea of sharing and celebrating other people's faiths and beliefs is something to fear. In recent months, that fear has increased dramatically. Truly, we are at a crossroads: the choices that we make at this crucial time, as parliamentarians and as a nation, will determine the kind of world we leave our children. There is a heavy responsibility on all of us, as well as our leaders, to define clearly the kind of world that we wish. All of us who contributed to or listened to the debate on Iraq in this House know that we have much to offer the other place in helping to forge that new world. In fact, it is a strength of this House that here is so much real experience and expertise, which will, I hope, help the executive in the coming months.
I look around our society, and I see such complex problems. There are problems relating to race, gender and sexuality. There are problems relating to our country and our relationship with other countries. I have wondered where the solutions lie. To me, the heart of the solutions is education for all—not, I hasten to add, just here in Britain but all over the world. I left school when I was 16; I did not go on to further education. We have an amazing opportunity, in this age of interconnected communication, to teach and inform, not just here in Britain but all over the world. Our long-term stability depends on our sharing knowledge and expertise with those who need it most.
As a nation, we have a duty to help obliterate the fear, ignorance and prejudice that suffocate so many people's lives through lack of education. It is hard for someone to learn when they are hungry and their greatest concern is survival. I am proud of the work that the Government have done on debt relief and third world development. I welcome the moves the gracious Speech to reduce poverty, increase Britain's aid budget and implement the Africa action plan.
Last October, I went to India for the first time. I saw a country rich in culture and heritage of which I was in awe. But I also saw a level of poverty that beggared belief. I knew then what motivated my great-grandfather to get on a boat, leave his culture and heritage and travel halfway round the world in search of a better life. When I look at the pictures of young children and their parents on similar journeys in the Pacific Ocean or even across the English Channel, I know why they are there. They are there—just as my great-grandfather was—in search of a better life.
Whatever legislation we may pass in the future, we must, hand in hand, help people to find the hope and security they are searching for in their own societies, in their own cultures and in their own lands. We must willingly give them the support and education that they and their children need. Only then will we have the right to lead. Only then will we be able to shape a new world. Only then will we able to build a better life for all of us to share.
I beg to second my noble friend's Motion for an humble Address.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow.
11 In doing so, it is my pleasant duty to congratulate the mover and seconder of the Motion for an Humble Address. This year it is all pleasure and very little duty. Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord have a warm place in the affection of the House and both reinforce today the respect in which they are held.
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, will not mind my telling the house that she celebrated her 75th birthday a few weeks ago. You would not think it though. Look around the House. See how some of us are ageing—but the noble Baroness is forever young.
I hope that her age does not mean that she is being lined up for one of the pay-offs we keep hearing about for the awkward squad among older Peers. One of the strengths of this place is that it offers on all sides the voice of experience, and the noble Baroness is a prime example of that.
When I first became a Minister at the Department of Employment in 1989, she was my shadow. She was courteous, tenacious but, above all, deeply committed to the old principles of the Labour and trade union movement—and none of these qualities made my job any easier. I liked and respected her then; I like and respect her now. Long may she remain with us on such sparkling form as she was today.
Perhaps I may say the same to the noble Lord, Lord Alli. I hope that the current father of the House, my noble friend Lord Jellicoe, will not mind my saying that he has been a Member of the House for 63 years. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, is one of the few of us with a biological chance of matching that. We lost a number of our younger members in 1999 and to have the noble Lord, Lord Alli, among us was welcome. From the very beginning he has brought to us an integrity, a courtesy and a wisdom that have enriched some of our most critical debates. Today he has shown his humour and wit in entertaining us and making a thoroughly interesting and thoughtful speech. We very much look forward to hearing from him on many more occasions in the future, especially on the communications Bill, a subject in which he has great expertise. But if he does too well—and I think he may—then I must warn him that he may well find himself on the Government Front Bench. If he does, he will have to forego his media salary for the more humble offerings of government service.
Today—or perhaps more accurately tomorrow—we start the experiment with new working practices. On this side we shall do what we can to make the arrangements work. I want the Leader of the House to be able to look Mr Cook, the Leader in another place, in the eye and say, "But I, too, am the very model of a modernising Leader". The difference is that here we are doing it broadly in agreement across the House. If these reforms work, it will not be because they are modern—after all, many of our old procedures are well worth preserving—but because they are shown to be right for the House.
12 In recent years, this House has sat on more days than another place; the previous Session was the second longest since the War. The House has passed more amendments than ever before—several thousand a Session and several thousand examples of had law avoided. I hope that in this Session we will see Bills better thought through and better drafted than some we have seen in previous Sessions. The House should not lightly accept the cavalier tabling of hosts of late amendments by departments or "think-it-up-as-you-go-along" instructions to draftsmen from Ministers. I know that Ministers in this House and the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House deplore that as much as I do, so perhaps when he responds the noble and learned Lord will tell the House how many Bills in the programme will be presented to the House for pre-legislative scrutiny.
It is our free and open procedures that have made this House—even though it is the weaker House—overwhelmingly more effective than the other place in revising legislation. However we slice the cake, the hours will be long and sometimes inconvenient. But every section of every Bill improved is a potential injustice avoided. Revising legislation—and revising it freely, responsibly and well—is what we are here for. So we shall watch carefully over the next two years to see whether the new working practices help or hinder in that. It is against that criterion that they should and will be judged.
We now know the shape of the Government's programme. I say "now", but in truth we have again seen a deplorable tendency for the gracious Speech to be upstaged by spin. I sometimes think that we should all be happier if the Government were as good at governing as they are at briefing people about government.
Let us ponder for a moment the centrepiece of the programme: yet another criminal justice Bill. It is one of up to six Home Office Bills. Truly, the spirits droop. And is this the 11th or 12th crime Bill since 1997? There are to be yet more health Bills—the third major bureaucratic reorganisation of the NHS in five years, against a background of a department in open war with hospital consultants. There are three major Bills on local government and planning, to change yet again the framework in which local councils operate—only two years after the Government last turned local government organisation upside down.
This is the mark of a government who are constantly rearranging the furniture of the nation's bureaucracy and never touching the key problems that beset people's lives. Too much of this programme has the smack of one of those bungling DIY enthusiasts who cannot get anything right but cannot admit it to the wife either. They just keep tapping away—and keep on making matters worse.
Is the country any better for the five years of frenetic activity? Are the trains running on time? Are the hospitals functioning better? Are our streets safer? You have only to pose the questions to know the answers in your bones.
13 We have paid the taxes. The Chancellor has spent it all, and has plundered our savings too. He inherited spending of some £300 billion per year. He now plans to spend £511 billion per year. I do not think that many people grasp the lavishness of all this spending, or the scale and historical significance of the potential failure.
What has it all been for? How is it that at a time of economic prosperity, having inherited what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, said was the finest economic inheritance of any government since the War—except, of course, the one following his own Chancellorship—more people have been sucked into the welfare state than ever before?
It has been a case of tax and spend, and churn so much and achieve so little. Our once admired pensions system has been drained of money by stealth taxes and left in a state of near ruin. There is nothing about that in the programme. When shall we see action there?
And what of education? The examination system is in chaos. The universities are in doubt about their future. Students are in fear over their finances. There is a hailstorm of paperwork in schools. I shall say no more than this. It is a shambles.
Of course, we welcome aspects of the programme. We welcome moves on railway safety. We welcome overdue action to review law on communications. We support action to reform the law to protect children. Action on antisocial behaviour is welcome.
However, we shall look very carefully indeed at points where the Government trespass on the ancient rights of the subject. There will be much debate in this House at least over any restriction on jury trial, and on moves to abandon the double jeopardy rule or to give foreign police the right to arrest people in this country for activities that are not crimes under British law.
We look forward to examining proposals to reform the licensing laws. Clearly, we have travelled far from the old Welsh nonconformity of yesteryear. Perhaps Ministers now think that 24-hour drinking is the only way to get through the daily trials of life in new Labour Britain. There is talk of the Bill starting its passage in this House. Can the noble and learned Lord confirm that—and can he say how many other Bills in the programme will start in this House, and when they are expected? Will a mental health Bill be published in draft?
Finally, I confirm that we on these Benches will vigorously oppose paving legislation for regional assemblies. Has government in Ken Livingstone's London given such value for money that we should want to replicate it nation-wide? Do we not have enough politicians already? If regional assemblies are the "Big Idea" of the second term, then the Government have well and truly run out of steam.
This is a programme that seems to search more for headlines than for practical solutions. They spend too much time disinventing and reinventing the measures of the first five Labour years—up and down the same old ground, march and counter-march through the 14 bureaucratic jungle. It is a speech that the Grand Old Duke of York might have been proud to give had he become king.
The challenges after five years of this Government are clear. We have an overtaxed nation, the veins of whose industry and economy are furring up month by month. We have too much bureaucracy, too much meddling, too much interference from the top, and crumbling public services far worse now than they were five years ago. This speech skates over these issues as if they barely existed. Over the year ahead, it is on those needs that we on this side will focus the revising influence of this House. I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow.
§ Moved, That this debate be adjourned until tomorrow.—(Lord Strathclyde.)
§ 4.11 p.m.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the Leader of the Opposition, in particular in congratulating the mover and seconder of the address in reply to the gracious Speech.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, and her husband together have been a marvellous model of public service. All of us who have known the noble Baroness over many years appreciate the great wisdom and experience she has brought to this House. As the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition said, she has had much experience in the field of industrial relations, not least as a very distinguished senior officer of her own union, ASTMS. She became extremely knowledgeable about that particular area of industrial relations over many years.
The noble Baroness mentioned the names of some very distinguished women who have graced this House: Lady Castle, Lady Young, Lady Hylton-Foster and others. The noble Baroness has every right to claim to be of that distinguished company. Her work in the Equal Opportunities Commission and throughout her life in fighting for equality and against discrimination is a ringing endorsement of the kind of work and the kind of legacy that those great figures left behind them. I repeat my belief that she is of their company.
The noble Baroness was also a member of the TUC General Council for many years. When she ceased to be an active trade union official, she became a significant supporter of the Save the Children Fund. Her work in that area, too, has brought her a great deal of respect from those concerned about the welfare of children in this country and abroad. All of us wish her many more years of service in this House. We thank her warmly for her contribution.
The noble Lord, Lord Alli, might be described as the cutting edge of the new generation. I was slightly surprised that he turned to a BBC standards code of 1948. Being very much part of the new information technology world, I turn instead to "peoplenews.com", which wants us to know that the noble Lord, Lord Alli, is "a diminutive dandy". There is no compliment in the world I would prefer to that were it addressed to me.
15 The noble Lord has played a distinguished role in the media world. Many of us strongly share his view that we in this country have a very proud legacy of public service broadcasting that none of us wants to do anything to undermine. It is perhaps one of the most distinguished achievements of this country over the past 50 years that it has brought to the tempting and potentially exciting areas of television, digital television and the internet standards of support and community that many would like to emulate. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, has addressed this House time and again with great conviction, honesty and courage. We all respect that profoundly. I have a particular soft spot for the noble Lord because he is one of the most distinguished alumnae of the comprehensive system. I compliment him warmly. I am sure that we shall hear much more from him. I think that the career adviser who suggested to him that his future career lay in bus conducting was the daughter or son of the career adviser who told me that my future lay in being a secretary. I associate myself with the noble Lord because we are both unfortunate people for career advisers to advise.
I turn to the gracious Speech. Like the noble Lord, Lord Alli, I acknowledge that due to the conventions attaching to it the speech cannot reflect the fact that we are living through a period of extreme peril and concern. It is not just that we might be on the brink of war. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and the noble Lord, Lord Alli, I hope and pray that war can be avoided and that the Government of Iraq will do everything they can to co-operate, even at this late date, with the inspectors from the United Nations so that we may avoid another holocaust of innocents wherever in the world they may be.
Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, implied, and as the gracious Speech says, with its reference to NePAD and the efforts to try further to increase our aid programme, we also stand tragically on the edge of what looks like being a major famine in Africa. With our long tradition of a sense of responsibility beyond our own borders, we shall have to address within the next year what we can do as a country—and, I hope, more widely in the Commonwealth and in the European Union—to avert this terrible fate for so many hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings in that profoundly troubled continent. I trust that we shall not feel, as perhaps was the case several generations ago, that this is something we cannot avoid and that we must simply wait for it to happen. Every minute that passes carries with it greater threats and greater dangers to yet more innocent people.
The programme of legislation put before the House is primarily concerned with domestic issues. Again, at a rather different level, this is a perilous time because we today face the first major strike of fire fighters carrying with it certain risks to ordinary men and women who may suddenly face the disaster of a fire in their own homes or neighbourhood. I am sure that many Members of this House will agree that it is important to try to find a fair and just way out of this 16 dispute, while recognising that there are very strong public feelings about the value of fire fighting and a very strong sense of gratitude towards the fire-fighters.
As the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition said, the centrepiece of the gracious Speech is a new criminal justice Bill. I share some of the noble Lord's sense that we are asked to address such legislation rather too often. I believe that this will be the 38th Bill from the Home Office since the Government were elected in 1997. I share with no one any sense that the Home Office is other than an extremely industrious department. However, I just wonder whether a little less industry and a little more imagination might not be preferable. I am sure that civil servants in the Home Office go home very late at night and are back in their offices very early next morning. I would sometimes that they were a little less assiduous.
That draws me to one of the promises made in the gracious Speech. It relates directly to the modernisation of working practices, something I am delighted to see. I have in mind the reference to "pre-legislative scrutiny". I can think of no area where pre-legislative scrutiny would be more helpful, more useful, and more likely to avoid endless repetitions of further Bills than that of criminal justice. There is a huge level of knowledge and understanding of such matters in this House, not just among lawyers and judges but also among people who have worked in prison reform, in social services, in childcare, and in early-years' education. A great deal of wisdom can be brought to bear on these extraordinarily difficult issues.
We on these Benches fully recognise that it takes the wisdom of Solomon to strike the right balance between the liberties of the individual, the needs of justice and the requirement to punish crime. It is not an easy balance to strike. We will therefore want to ensure that the liberties of the individual are not disregarded in striking that balance. Like the Leader of the Opposition, we have very great doubts about rolling back trial by jury—which has always been the talisman that enables our fellow citizens to feel that the British system of justice is both understandable and fundamentally fair. One must be very careful about throwing away that kind of trust.
I have a few words to say on the proposals for fines and other punishments for antisocial behaviour. I make just one gentle suggestion to the Government. As everyone knows, I think—and I once represented a constituency with large and desperate housing estates—antisocial behaviour can make the lives of many of our fellow citizens almost unbelievably hard to endure. My concern is that the emphasis in the Government's legislative programme is being placed on negative measures such as fines and punishment.
The Liberal Democrats, the controlling party in Islington, have introduced a proposal for what is called "acceptable social behaviour". Instead of punishing youngsters, we ask them to sign a contract with their council and their school for acceptable social behaviour. The contract entails, among other things, not endlessly using bad language as a way of 17 attaining one's own ends and purposes. The youngsters are also enjoined to do various types of community service. The emphasis is on encouraging youngsters to behave well, not punishing them for every miscreant act for which they are responsible.
I leave the House with one other thought on this issue. Anyone familiar with the plight of single parents will know that many of them are desperately trying to earn enough to keep their children. Many of these women constantly face the problem of how to raise adolescents on their own. We have to ask ourselves whether it is right, on top of everything else, to fine and punish these parents by withdrawing child benefit when they are already desperately short of means. We have to ask whether that is the right way to go, or whether parenting classes and child support might not be a better way.
We welcome the local government Bill. However, we very much hope that the Government also recognise that, if local government is to be responsible for caring for elderly people, it really must have the resources to fulfil that responsibility. Every week that passes, more good local authority homes are closed and the elderly people living in those homes essentially put out into the street or into geriatric wards where they inevitably block beds needed for others.
We on these Benches believe that the creation of regional assemblies is a good thing, and I shall say exactly why. We are extremely concerned about the imbalance in this country between the north—especially the north of England—and the south and about the way in which ever more resources seem to be moving south of the Trent and ever fewer resources going north of the Trent. We would like to think that regional assemblies will give the people of the North East, the North West and the Midlands a chance to be heard and a chance to build their own communities and create the type of confidence that we have seen in Scotland and in Wales.
I conclude by mentioning two other Bills that have been proposed and two Bills that have not. One of the proposed Bills is on foundation hospitals. We on these Benches have doubts about the wisdom of yet again creating some excellent institutions while leaving the other institutions to regard themselves as second best. We should like to see the National Health Service decentralise power and decision-making much more effectively. To quote the Prime Minister's phrase about respect for the work of individuals, nurses and others in the NHS require respect for the work they do, which includes their own professional discretion.
I turn last to the dogs that have not barked. We are sad not to see a Civil Service Bill. We believe that it is vitally important to set out clearly the duties and responsibilities of the Civil Service and to protect its autonomy from the continual invasion of political advisers and others who really have to learn to keep within their own area and not to invade quite so many others.
We are sorry that there is no mental health Bill. We agree with the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. Legislation is desperately needed.
18 Although there were great flaws in the Government's approach, there were good aspects too. We should like to rescue those good aspects.
Finally, when we discuss the expansion of the European Union, which we shall do in one of the Bills that is to come before the House, I hope that we shall remember two matters; namely, that an expansion of the European Union without reform of the common agricultural policy is a recipe for economic disaster, and that expansion of the European Union without bearing in mind—this will, of course, be controversial—that sooner or later we must decide whether or not we wish to join the euro means that there is a sentence in the gracious Speech that we on these Benches cannot quite believe in but would like to believe in.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)
My Lords, it is a pleasure, as always, to support the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and to begin my second Session as Leader of this House, which is an ineffable privilege.
The previous Session was a long one; we sat for 200 days. It was a hard Session for those of us on the government Benches—an underprivileged and harassed minority. We suffered 56 defeats, more than any government since 1977. But, after all, it is said that legislation is much too important to be left to the House of Commons.
In the past 18 months we have lost many old friends including three former Leaders of the House, Lord Longford, Lord Hailsham and Lady Young, but we have significant achievements to think about and celebrate. A revising, scrutinising, effective Chamber needs at least three minima to work: first, a transparent and effective code of conduct, which we have; secondly, proper resource for opposition parties, which we now have: state funding of political parties at its very highest and most unselfish; and, thirdly, a new package of working practices which will begin tomorrow.
We need to move forward, to consolidate and to work carefully in continuing recognition of the undisputed primacy of the Commons. The Chief Whip and I have had nothing but the keenest co-operation from the Leader of the Commons and the Chief Whip in the Commons as regards working together much more closely in planning the parliamentary year. I tease the President of the Council when congratulating the Commons on their belated reforms. We did it a long time ago on July 24th this year. He is not always pleased when I tease him.
My noble friend Lady Turner of Camden has sat here for 17 years. For the past five years she has been a distinguished Deputy Speaker. On one day she can address your Lordships with passion and, even worse, knowledge of the subject, normally on employment rights and pensions, as my noble friend Lady Hollis bears mute testimony. My noble friend Lady Turner is respected in this place, although that is not so difficult, but to be respected and liked at the same time is a good deal rarer.
19 My noble friend Lord Alli tells me that he is the youngest Labour Peer. It is, of course, rather a small field of competition. He speaks with moderation and scruple to an agenda not familiar to everyone in this Chamber and it is to our benefit. He deploys reason and argument, not prejudice one way or the other, and he often succeeds. He has what apparently is called a "day job" to do with something called television. His production company produces something called "Survivor". Some of your Lordships may have seen it. I describe it briefly. It is a reality television show (oh, how the heart sinks). It is a reality television show—I remove the parenthesis—which brings together a bizarre group of egomaniacs, drawn at random from the ranks of the unemployed. They are put in unusual environmental circumstances and peered at by the public and the common people. They are called on to work together and occasionally have to vote for who has to be expelled. I cannot begin to imagine where he got that idea!
The Government remain committed to further reform of your Lordships' House. We know that the Joint Committee is seized of that simple problem. Tomorrow we shall start our substantive debate on the gracious Speech. We were re-elected 18 months ago on promises to keep the economy strong and stable, which we have; to rebuild and invest in public services, which we are doing; and to rebuild a sense of what many of us in all corners of the House believe has been lost—that is, a sense of true community. There is such a thing as society.
We shall bring forward reforms to the criminal justice system. We need to attack the scourge of antisocial behaviour. It is the poor, the weak, the underprivileged and the otherwise defenceless who suffer from that. It is a constant pollutant to their daily lives, and it is a disgrace. There will be three major Bills to reform criminal justice, the courts and the law relating to sex offences.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked me for a private indication of the timetable, which I now give—it is not for repetition, of course. Before Christmas, we will look to introduce in this House Bills relating to licensing, waste and landfill, crime (international co-operation), the courts and—I hope that noble Lords will be particularly pleased about this because there is very substantial expertise here relating to Northern Ireland—the police (Northern Ireland) Bill; we shall start that here. After Christmas, there will also be Bills relating to water and to sexual offences.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said that the Government should publish a draft Bill on mental health. I do so agree with him. That is why we published it before the Summer Recess. But I must not tease—unnecessarily.
20 That will be a very challenging programme. We shall have a shorter Session than we did last time and we shall need, I hope, to work together to produce the best possible outcomes in terms of legislation. I believe that we do our work well. We scrutinise in the sense of rejecting components of Bills and we scrutinise in the apparently lesser sense of making sure that legislation is technically appropriate. I believe that we do that well. We must move further in terms of pre-legislative scrutiny because that will mean that we shall get better Bills and that the mind of the Government—even the mind of the Home Office—may be well informed about possible consequences of legislative programmes and propositions.
We therefore have an important programme as a Parliament but we are being entrusted with seven significant Bills, which will start in this Chamber. I believe, first, that that is right and, secondly, that it is a recognition of the quality and value of our work. Those are very important measures, although the details are not for this afternoon, which is, by and large, a festive and happy occasion. I support the Motion.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly until tomorrow.