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The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker) rose--

Mr. Kirkwood: Let me finish the sentence.

The last two offenders whom I came across who had been washed up by the benefits verification programme were both pensioners aged over 80 who had not declared their capital properly. If that represents one strike, and if they will be chucked off the minimum income guarantee if they do it again--

Mr. Rooker indicated dissent.

Mr. Kirkwood: I am sure that that is not the Minister's intention, but without proper flexibility and discretion in the system, silly things like that could happen.

Mr. Rooker: The hon. Gentleman refers to making two mistakes, but the sanction will be imposed after conviction in court. It is not an administrative sanction. The courts will decide whether people have defrauded the Benefits Agency once or twice. People will have to go through a court process. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security will probably say, if he has time, some benefits cannot be subject to sanctions. There is a no-go area in which some benefits cannot be sanctioned, and there will be a hardship scheme.

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The proposal is a very much a deterrent; we expect several hundred people, not thousands, to be caught. Such a deterrent is required.

Mr. Kirkwood: I do not want to detain the House too much longer. Perhaps I have misunderstood the proposal; we have not yet seen the Bill and I do not know the detail. If the decision is taken by the courts, it will be an entirely different matter. As a former solicitor, I know that the courts can look at the means available to the household. One of my main objections is that if it were an administrative act, households could be deprived of income, which could bear down on dependent children. Part of the Government's policy is to eradicate child poverty, so the left hand does not seem to understand what the right hand is doing. I may be better informed after the winding-up speech.

Mr. Rooker: I hope that I am not in danger of being misleading. Two frauds against the Benefits Agency represent the two strikes, but there must be a court conviction. What happens after a second conviction will be fairly automatic. When people are convicted of defrauding the agency, they will be warned exactly what will happen if they do so again. They will not go back to court a third time. However, they will be required to go to court twice, so there is no question of a mistake being made.

Mr. Kirkwood: Does that mean that the sanction could be visited on someone who had just been fined in a sheriff court or a magistrates court? The proposals may simply be deterrents, and may never be used. However, I do not think that the measure, which offends my liberal sensibilities, is necessary. I shall, of course, examine the Bill's provisions carefully, but as things stand, and in view of what I currently know, I believe that it is a mistake. I hope that the Government will think again.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I inform hon. Members that I do not have the power to impose a time limit at this stage in our proceedings. However, if hon. Members proceeded on the basis that I could do so, and that the limit would be about 13 minutes, that might be a helpful guide. It might ensure that all those who want to make a contribution can do so.

4.21 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that guidance.

It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). His expertise in social security is well appreciated in the House. I am sure that the Government will take his thoughtful comments into account when they consider the social security Bill.

Like me, the hon. Gentleman represents a rural constituency. If there is one point in his speech with which I certainly agree, it is that about the sense of disillusionment that many people in the farming community have about policy and the policy-making process. They often feel disengaged from decision making, which affects their lives in many ways. Agriculture is highly regulated, and it is influenced greatly

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by the European Union, the Government in Westminster and now by the Welsh Assembly. I fully support that, but I appreciate the fact that many in the farming community feel that the policy-making process is rather mystifying.

The hon. Gentleman said that this is one of the best Queen's Speeches ever. I am inclined to want to agree with him, but he may have been referring to its shortness rather than to its comprehensiveness. However, he made some valuable points.

The Queen's Speech begins with the premise that the Government have successfully maintained economic stability. We have had steady growth in this country, low inflation and stable interest rates. I was interested to see that there was no increase today in interest rates by the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. That economic stability gives the Government the resources to invest in the national health service, our education services, law and order services and other essential public services.

I represent an area in Monmouthshire that has benefited from improvements in the economy. Recent research in Wales by Professor Talbot of the university of Glamorgan showed that Wales is now enjoying the best economic conditions since the 1950s and 1960s. I am sure that my hon. Friends who represent Welsh constituencies will acknowledge that the Welsh Development Agency has helped to contribute to that. That effort was emulated by the Government's decision to have development agencies in the English regions, but the Conservatives are committed to abolishing them.

Monmouthshire has benefited from economic growth but even that county, which is generally regarded as one of the more affluent parts of Wales, suffers from social exclusion. I am privileged to be a member of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which is currently carrying out an inquiry into social exclusion in Wales. We visited parts of my constituency, including Abergavenny and Llanelli Hill, where there are pockets of social deprivation. People in those areas often lose out. I represent an area that is outside the objective 1 and objective 2 areas, but we suffer from lower local government support than other parts of Wales. People in those communities are doubly disadvantaged. The Select Committee's report will come out in January, and I look forward to debating it then.

The Queen's Speech contains new legislation on health care. I welcome the national plan. There is a concern in Wales that a national plan refers to the nation of England, not necessarily to Wales. However, I am sure that the best principles for the national plan for health will be introduced in Wales as well.

My constituency has benefited from the Government's investment in the national health service. Recently, I was at the opening of the new community hospital in Chepstow. It was opened by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), who is also First Secretary of the National Assembly. A day surgery unit has also been opened at Nevill Hall hospital in Abergavenny. It is another initiative that has been introduced under this Government. I welcome the new emphasis on collaboration between health and social care, which will be in the new health Bill, and the Government's commitment to abolishing or reducing inequalities in health.

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On the national plan for health, I have attracted some controversy in my constituency over the role of consultants. I was interested to read the report of the Select Committee on Health on private practice undertaken by NHS consultants. It contained the recommendation that NHS consultants need to be better rewarded when they work exclusively for the NHS. I believe that the Government have adopted that recommendation. There is a concern that NHS consultants' private practice is often more lucrative in those specialties that have the highest waiting lists.

I am concerned about the Government's proposals for community health councils. I have made representations to Jane Hutt, the Assembly Secretary for Health and Social Services in Wales, on behalf of the North Gwent and South Gwent community health councils, whose work I commend because it represents consumers' interests and highlights inadequacies in the service. A good example of that in my constituency involves the inadequacies of the ambulance service. I am pleased to be having a meeting with the chairman of the all-Wales ambulance trust next Friday to discuss that.

We in Wales particularly welcome the proposal in the Queen's Speech to establish a children's commissioner. That was an important recommendation of the Waterhouse inquiry into child abuse in north Wales. I inform the House that a major police investigation is still going on in my constituency following allegations of child abuse at Ty Mawr, which is a residential school in Gilwern, Abergavenny. There has been strong support for a children's commissioner in Wales from the Assembly and child care specialists. It is right for the commissioner to be able to promote children's rights. The Government proposed giving that new power to the proposed commissioner. The commissioner will be able to observe child abuse investigations. That is a good example of Wales taking the initiative. It could lead to the establishment of an equivalent commissioner in due course in England.

The special educational needs and disability Bill is an important part of the Queen's Speech. I have a particular interest in that area. I welcome the Government's aim to strengthen the rights of SEN pupils to attend mainstream education. Like many other hon. Members, I recognise that when SEN children are integrated into the mainstream education system they thrive, and that can reduce some of the stigma and disadvantage that many children with learning or physical disabilities suffered from when more discriminatory policies, involving different schools, were applied. I commend the special educational needs unit at Overmonnow school in Monmouth. It was commended in a recent inspection report. I have recently been involved with St. David's school in Abergavenny, where 43 per cent. of the children are on the SEN register. I pay tribute to teachers at that school who are dedicated to working with SEN children.

The Bill will place a duty on local authorities not to discriminate against pupils with disabilities. A constituent of mine, Sarah Griffiths, lives next to a local comprehensive school. However, she does not have access to the school because of her disability and her mobility needs. She attends a comprehensive school in Abertillery, which is very supportive, but she faces a long taxi ride to and from school every day. It is important that our school system examines the question of access and makes schooling more accessible to children and young people with disabilities.

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I am concerned about aspects of SEN provision in my constituency. It has been pointed out to me that some parents feel that children with equal needs do not always get equal provision. The concern has been expressed that the support children receive depends on where they live, what type of school they attend and what level of parental support they receive.

It is important that all children who are likely to benefit from statementing should have access to it. Staff in a school in my constituency thought that children who should have been assessed for statementing had not been put forward for it. Parents of children with special educational needs in my area are concerned that Monmouthshire is one authority in Wales that has not implemented the named person scheme, which would give advice and support to children who are statemented and to their parents. I hope that that will be rectified, and I understand that Monmouthshire is reviewing its provision of special educational needs.

The criminal justice and police Bill will be an important measure. There is a widespread belief that our town centres are unsafe environments for many people because of violence and disorder, which is often related to alcohol. That has been a problem in my constituency. I would not wish to exaggerate it--it is far worse in other towns and inner-city areas--but people have been worried about the rowdiness, especially at weekends, in Abergavenny, Chepstow and Monmouth, and they are uncomfortable and unlikely to go out to participate in community events.

I have discussed those problems with the local police and I am sure that they will welcome provisions to give them more powers to close down pubs where disorder occurs. Hopefully, schemes such as pub watch will mean that such measures will not need to be implemented. That scheme is an important initiative that involves collaboration between the police and local licensees. I also welcome the serving of fixed penalty notices for threatening or abusive behaviour by drunk and disorderly people or for people causing criminal damage.

It is important that the criminal justice Bill is not seen as an attack on young people, who are often victims of violence and disorder late at night as a result of alcohol-related incidents. I do not like over-use of the phrase "yob culture"; sometimes we need to be a little more restrained in our language.

Gwent police will welcome the measures. I am sure that the House will be pleased that crime has been reduced in Gwent. The Prime Minister recognised that achievement, and I had the great privilege the other day to present the chief constable of Gwent with a letter from the Prime Minister, written to me, commending Gwent police on the reduction in crime in that area and the increase in the number of drug dealers who had been arrested.

I was also pleased to make representations to Ministers following the recognition that Usk prison--one of four prisons in Wales--in my constituency had recently received the Investors in People charter mark and a good inspection report. The prison governor has congratulated the Government on their commitment to having positive regimes in prisons. Usk prison in particular has a very successful sex offender treatment programme. It is important that such prisoners are rehabilitated and do not reoffend.

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I represent a rural constituency where hunting has been a long-standing tradition. Farmers value the role of the hunt in removing fallen stock and in destroying foxes which are a threat to livestock. However, the Hunting Bill is not just about foxhunting, but about the hunting of animals with dogs. I fail to see any conservation value in hare coursing or stag hunting with dogs. There is a debate to be had on foxhunting, but my constituents' representations to me were overwhelmingly of the view that hunting with dogs as a sport is morally wrong. I supported the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and I will support such a measure again. It is a moral issue and Members are entitled to decide whether the hunting of animals as a sport is morally right or wrong. I support my constituents who believe that it is the latter.

I welcome the Government's commitment to establish the international criminal court. I am pleased that the United Kingdom will become a partner to the court. I remember that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made an inspiring speech when it was first announced, soon after the general election. Domestic courts will have the jurisdiction to ensure that crimes are covered in ICC areas and that there will be greater co-operation for the law enforcement agencies. I want to pay tribute to people in my constituency who belong to Amnesty International or who have written to me to urge the Government to legislate on that matter. I am sure that they will be very pleased to know that legislation will be introduced to bring to justice people who perpetrate crimes against humanity.

I welcome the Queen's Speech. It is a further step towards achieving a fairer society, economic prosperity, less social exclusion and better public services. I am sure that the people of Monmouthshire will support it.

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