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6.54 pm

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): The rag-bag of measures in the Queen's Speech is a rather sad reminder of the grand rhetoric that accompanied the coming into power of the Government only three and a half years ago. It is a long way from all the great talk about the third way and modernising Britain. We have come down to a thin Session, with some worthy and some unworthy little Bills to fill in the time between now and the general election.

We know that the general election is a short time away--it is one of the worst-kept secrets in politics. It is likely to be on 3 May. The secret has been kept so badly that the Prime Minister will lose considerable face if he adjourns the election beyond that date. As a result, the Queen's Speech was bound to be thin, with few measures. However, the Government were not full of ideas and purpose, with Ministers competing with each other in trying to force Bills into the last legislative programme before the election. Having read the Queen's Speech, it is obvious that the Government had to go round Whitehall to find Ministers who wished to introduce Bills to fill in the time between now and May. The fourth Queen's Speech of the Session shows a Government who have run out of steam.

As ever, the Government went back to the Home Office, which had a staggering number of Bills in the previous Session. The electoral prospects were considered and it was rightly decided that the public are still concerned about crime and law and order. As we know from some notorious memos, the Prime Minister has been desperate to find eye-catching initiatives that will tell the public that he meant what he said when he used the utterly meaningless phrase about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. The right hon. Gentleman was shadowing me when he produced that phrase, and it was one that made him the leader of the Labour party. On the day that he became leader, he was no more capable of explaining what it meant than he was when he uttered it. It is not the only example of a good one-liner in politics that carries someone a long way.

We know that the Prime Minister wishes to have eye-catching initiatives, preferably those with which he can be personally associated, to show that he is being tough on crime and on the causes of crime. Therefore, the Home Secretary--

Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke: No, I am sorry. I have only 12 minutes and I speak at much greater length than that on any occasion.

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The fact that the Home Office has produced five Bills reveals that, when faced with the demand to produce sufficient to make the legislative programme dominated by Bills on crime, it could do very little to fill the gap. Regulating the security industry is an old chestnut for the Labour party. It will burden the police with a considerable amount of administrative work and make demands on manpower, which will be tied down in regulating one of the few industries that is left unregulated in this over-regulated country.

Vehicle crime measures seem worthy but not terribly important. Anything that reduces the amount of vehicle crime is to be welcomed, and if new legislation makes the law easier to enforce, so be it. I would welcome an attempt to tackle some of the weaknesses that have been displayed in the law on money laundering and on the proceeds of crime. It is a complex problem and the Home Office is able to promise only a draft Bill.

We are left with an attack on disorderly conduct. I am sure that I shall welcome part of it. We know that in market towns and suburbs throughout the country--not only socially deprived inner cities and bad urban estates--there is concern about minor disorder, vandalism and petty crime, which make such a great difference to people's lives. As politicians have always known, the difficulty is finding what can be done in legislation to tackle the problem. If something is done to make it easier to prosecute people for drinking cans of beer in the street and easier to get a penalty from people who are drunk in the streets, that will be welcome. Some of the other proposals seem again to be scraping the barrel.

I shall learn more about the Strathclyde experiment, but I am slightly alarmed about curfews. It is contemplated that a youngster who has not previously been in trouble may suddenly get in trouble for going out at the wrong time of night. That is because somebody has decided that a curfew should apply in a certain area. If we are not careful, we shall be drawn into introducing draconian measures that are misguided responses to public concern.

Mr. Michael: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke: I am sorry, but no.

Why is the last Session of this Parliament to be spent discussing minor matters of vandalism, drunkenness and youthful delinquency on estates? The Government were told by their focus groups that such matters mattered to the public. Why did the Prime Minister come up with the dotty idea of waking up drunken youths and taking them to a hole-in-the-wall machine so that they can produce their credit card and pay an on-the-spot fine? Out went Mr. Gould with his focus groups. We all know that when people talk about crime, they mention people throwing around litter bins, drinking in the street and gathering in the town centre, so the Home Office has been asked to produce measure after measure to tackle such behaviour. If something worthwhile emerges, so be it, but I echo the observation made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe): if the Government think that such measures will cheer up the public and make them think that the Government are now on top of the problems of crime and disorder, they will find that they cannot meet the expectations.

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In relation to his policy on the police, the Home Secretary has unwisely made foolish and misleading remarks about police numbers, so we have all gone back to playing the numbers game--arguing about how police numbers are moving. When I was Home Secretary, I removed from myself the absurd responsibility given to me for deciding how many police officers should be allocated to each and every police service in the country. The whole point of creating a more effective police service is to provide proper resources and leave to the local chief constable, in conjunction with his officers and local police authority, the responsibility for setting local priorities. Some police services want many more policemen, some want fewer and greater civilianisation, and some have other priorities.

What needs to be tackled and enhanced is police effectiveness, which means that resources have to be right and morale has to be raised. We also have to follow up the work of targeting individual crimes, setting proper performance indicators and not allowing too much police effort to be diverted into populist measures, such as installing better cameras to increase fines derived from speeding motorists to finance the police service and ease the burden on the Treasury. Instead, we should concentrate on supporting the best chief constables and the best police authorities in getting the best from their service.

The fifth Bill the Home Office has come up with is a complete disgrace and it is the reason why I speak today. To fill up the Session with law and order measures, the Government have reintroduced the Bill dealing with the right to choose jury trial. It is the most illiberal measure. The Bill has been thrown out, rightly, by the reformed House of Lords, and it looks as though the Government are returning to the charge to use the Parliament Acts to push the Bill through.

I no longer understand why the Bill has been produced. Originally, the reason was to save money--about £120 million--but that argument no longer stands up and the Government have abandoned it since it became apparent that about £80 million of that was meant to be derived from the shorter prison sentences that magistrates were to hand out. It sounds as though the Home Secretary thought that the Bill would alter the incidence of crime in this country, but I consider that most unlikely. Is the recidivist charged with stealing a Mars bar more likely to be convicted by magistrates than by jurors, and does that help to improve the effectiveness of law enforcement? I do not think the right hon. Gentleman has the first idea why he is introducing the Bill.

The Bill has often been described by junior Home Office Ministers as a measure to modernise the criminal justice system, but the right to choose jury trial for the offences catalogued in the Bill, some of which are fairly serious, is not some ancient mystery. We do not just tolerate the fact that jury trial is still to be used in respect of all the most serious crimes. It is a traditional liberty. It is not an attack on magistrates courts to say that Crown court trial is superior: in Crown court cases, there is prior disclosure of the case against the accused and of documents, arguments about the admissibility of evidence take place in the absence of the jury, and there is the jury itself. When the Conservatives were in office, every member of the Labour party would, rightly, have described juries as a bastion of our liberties and jury trial as something that anyone accused of a significant crime should be entitled to choose.

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There has been an argument about whether a bishop or a Member of Parliament who is accused of stealing a Mars bar should have greater right to jury trial than the man who already has 15 convictions and is accused of the same theft. The Government's reaction to that complex issue has been to go in the illiberal direction: so impressed are they by the argument that one should not discriminate between the two types of accused that the bishop, or the Member of Parliament, is to lose the right to choose jury trial if he is accused of, say, obtaining property by fraud, or many of the other offences covered by the Bill.

The Government are persisting with the Bill because they do not want to lose face: they introduced it, so they are going to persist with it. They have been defeated by new Labour peers, the Liberal party and the Conservative party. Against them is ranged the liberal establishment, so if they use the terms employed by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), they can appeal to the right-wing, populist section of the public by arguing that it is too kind to criminals to give too many people the right to jury trial.

By such measures, one can judge the state of a Government. At the end of their period of office, the Labour Government are tired and worn out. They cannot produce significant legislation on the subject of law and order, so they persist with a most illiberal measure that is wholly contrary to the concept of civil liberties. The Queen's Speech should be condemned on that ground alone.

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