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2.53 pm

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): I propose to make a more wide-ranging speech than those made by other hon. Members. I shall comment later on social security, as I am conscious that the Secretary of State for Social Security will wind up the debate.

I welcome the Queen's Speech and the legislative proposals that it contains. However, it must be viewed in the context of the Government's long-term policies that have been in place since 1997. I refer specifically to the Government's sound economic management that has enabled them to invest in the vital public services that are dear to the hearts of our constituents, including health and social security. That long-term approach to tax and spending is in stark contrast to the legacy of boom and bust that we inherited from our predecessors.

I am pleased that the Government are building on the foundations of the welfare-to-work policy, the minimum wage, and the record increases in child benefits, which will go a long way to combat child poverty and social exclusion, even though to achieve that may take longer than people expect.

The Government are right to focus on the need to combat crime, especially disorderly, rowdy and drunken behaviour. As a barrister, I know that many barristers would have gone out of business a long time ago were it not for the fact that a great deal of crime--including domestic violence and other problems--is caused by people who have consumed an excess of alcohol. Many of our constituents are concerned that disorderly behaviour appears more prevalent than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The Government must add to the armoury of measures available to the police to combat that problem.

I welcome the measures to raise the age applicable to curfew schemes, and the powers that will be given to the police to close licensed premises that are not being

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properly run. The introduction of fixed penalties for offences of disorderly behaviour in public places is also a valuable tool for police officers.

Practical issues will need to be considered, and we must strike a balance between the measures available to the police and the need to place equal emphasis on the need to divert young offenders from reoffending. The Government have invested heavily in programmes to combat truancy and to educate parents in their responsibilities. That is part of the whole picture of combating anti-social behaviour. The devil will be in the detail of the Home Office measures. The Home Office will be very busy during this Session, as it was in the previous one.

Rev. Martin Smyth: The hon. Gentleman said that the devil would be in the detail. How far will a curfew for young people of up to 16 years of age restrict ordinary young people going out to evening activities of a positive nature, such as the Boys Brigade, Scouts, Guides and so on? How far should such a curfew be prescribed in law?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point. We must strike a balance between civil liberties, the need to encourage youngsters to take part in social activities that create a responsible society and the use of the proposed measures, which could be draconian in their effect. I hope that the Government will take that into account, as well as the need to ensure that the legislation conforms to the Human Rights Act 1998.

I am disappointed that the Government have seen fit to reintroduce a Bill dealing with the mode of trial. I voted for the previous Bill on the subject, but I question the wisdom of introducing such proposals again, especially as the Auld commission, which is charged with the task of undertaking a fundamental review of the whole criminal justice system, has yet to report.

As a Welsh Member of Parliament, I am particularly pleased that a special Bill will be introduced to establish a children's commissioner for Wales. Many hon. Members will be aware of the grave concern in Wales following the north Wales child abuse inquiry. The Government are committed to strengthening the role of the children's commissioner and--crucially--to giving the commission a role in promoting children's rights. Those were among the key recommendations of the Waterhouse report.

I know that the Government will be anxious to make progress on hunting. That is a vexed issue and my view is a minority one in my party. I do not consider that it would be appropriate to enact an outright ban on hunting. I represent a constituency that is very divided on the issue, but hill farming is a crucial industry there, and I would be failing in my duty if I did not express the view that I cannot condone an outright ban on hunting.

The Queen's Speech contained some good news for those who have responsibility for children with disabilities and special educational needs. It is high time that the law was strengthened to provide clearer rights for such children and their parents. There is a hotch-potch of provision, and inconsistency between local authorities. Clarification is direly needed. The question of special educational needs figures saliently in my postbag, and demands urgent attention.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): The hon. Gentleman has touched on a serious point. Health boards and education

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boards have failed to make proper provision for children with special needs, and that has led to failure at primary school level. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that children identified as needing speech therapy, for example, require that therapy long before they start primary school? That treatment should be provided much earlier by the health authorities.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, with which I agree wholeheartedly. I shall be interested in the Government's response.

In my constituency, there is considerable interest in the Bill to ratify the treaty establishing the international criminal court. There is increasing interest in international issues arising out of the need to create a safer international community and to spread respect for human rights across the world. In that sense, we are living on a shrinking planet.

I have a particular interest in housing law. I am pleased that there will be a homes Bill in the new Session, and that one section of it will deal with homelessness. The measure will provide greater access to housing for those vulnerable people who fall outside the safety net at present, but I am dismayed that the legislative programme has no room for measures to resolve the vexed question of houses in multiple occupancy. That is a pity: the social effects of that problem are marked right across the country, but especially in coastal areas such as my constituency.

I know that the Government have published a draft Bill on commonhold and leasehold properties. It is high time that the regime of leasehold enfranchisement was simplified. My specific plea is that, when the Government draft the Bill and consider amendments, they pay particular attention to the needs of people in purpose-built retirement flats. I tried to introduce a private Member's Bill on that issue, and I am sure that the matter will receive attention.

To a large extent, health matters have been devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, although primary legislative power in respect of health issues still resides in this House. I welcome the huge extra investment in the health service that the Government have provided, and I also agree that that must be accompanied by a rigorous programme of modernisation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) made an impressive contribution and spoke eloquently about the need to combat and ban tobacco advertising. I am pleased that there will be a measure in the new Session to deal with that. I tend to agree with my hon. Friend that there should be a tobacco regulation authority--if only to prevent the ingenious avoidance of regulations that might occur if no body existed with a roving brief to deal with problems of regulation when they arise. More work may have to be done in that regard.

I want to ventilate a few issues to do with welfare reform and pensions. I am a member of the Select Committee on Social Security, and I suspect that its Chairman, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), will wish to speak soon. I shall be interested to hear what he has to say.

The basic state pensions will rise from April next year--by £5 to £72.50 for single pensioners, and by £8 for couples. That will be very welcome. Personally,

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I should have liked the Government to have taken the view that there was life still in the contributory principle, and to have breathed new life into the idea of social insurance, but I accept that they have to cut their suit according to the cloth available.

The Government have decided, quite legitimately, to target help at the worst-off pensioners. Clearly, the major increases in the minimum income guarantee--by £13.70 to £92.50 for single pensioners, for example--are very welcome. I detect that pensioners in my constituency are pleased with the progress that the Government have made in what is a very important area.

I am pleased that the Government are to introduce a regime of pension credits as a way of combating the savings trap into which many pensioners fall. People just a few pounds above the minimum income guarantee level lose all entitlement to it. It is high time that the new regime was introduced if we are to create proper incentives for saving.

The Queen's Speech builds on the Government's record in welfare reform. The Government have concentrated on making work pay, reducing barriers to work and tackling child poverty. The working families tax credit is especially valuable to many of my constituents, who will be dismayed that the Opposition's policy is to scrap what is an important social measure. The result of that Conservative policy would be that no fewer than 1.1 million families would face an effective tax increase of £30 a week.

This country has an unfortunate and tragic legacy of child poverty, to which the previous Government contributed to a large extent. One child in three lives below the poverty line. It is a pertinent fact that social security spending doubled when the Conservative party was in government, but we must not underestimate the challenges facing the present Administration as they try to achieve their ambitious target of taking 1 million children out of poverty. Yes, there is room for integrated child credits. I welcome the fact that, as a preliminary measure, child tax credits will be introduced from next year. There is a need to ensure that the working poor, as well as those who are not in work, receive adequate levels of income. That will be a major feature of integrated child credits.

In closing, I should like to strike a note of caution. I should be particularly interested to hear what the Government have to say on the proposed social security fraud Bill. I am well aware that any Government have to take a robust approach to fraud within the social security system, but one is entitled to be somewhat sceptical about what further scope there is for squeezing fraud out of the system. Perhaps we could be given an indication as to what figure the Government have in mind.

Techniques of data matching need to be improved. I understand that under existing legislation the Benefits Agency has access to the records of the Inland Revenue and that the proposed legislation will give benefit agencies and others access to private bank accounts. It would be useful to know what safeguards the Government propose in relation to that measure.

In respect of what appears to be a quite draconian step--to withdraw benefits from those who have been found guilty of two offences of benefit fraud--it is right to ask, bearing in mind that social security is meant to protect the most vulnerable in society, how the

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Government propose to ensure that that measure will conform with the Human Rights Act 1998. How would it ensure that the children and dependants of those guilty of benefit fraud will not be badly affected? How much discretion will there be within the statutory regime to develop a just solution and avoid undue hardship in cases of benefit fraud?

I understand that the proposed social security Bill will tighten up the rules on housing benefit, but one of the major features of the inquiry conducted by the Social Security Committee into that benefit was the fact that those rules are extremely difficult and complicated. One of the problems for local councils, bearing in mind that it is a national benefit administered locally, is the pace of change and the fact that regulations are constantly changing. It is a bureaucratic nightmare and it is causing severe problems. I would welcome hearing what the Government have to say about that.

In conclusion, I welcome the broad outline of the Queen's Speech. It builds upon the Government's successes.

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