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9.5 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I am grateful to be called to speak. If there were two speeches by Labour Members to which the Home Secretary should have listened, one was made by the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) and the other by the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). We have learned a great deal from them this evening, and I regret deeply that the Home Secretary made a speech that was less interesting and less sensible than theirs.

The Government say that they will focus on cutting crime, but the Queen's Speech provides little evidence of a focus on anything other than a desire to do as little as possible save spin their way to the forthcoming election. The appearance of action is no substitute for action itself. The failure to recognise the problems that need solving, or the wilful refusal to see what is staring us all in the face, are not what the country requires in the Queen's Speech.

Why is there nothing in this Session's programme to ensure that police numbers are increased substantially to meet the needs of areas such as rural Harborough? The police force in my county has to cover not only the city of Leicester, with all the social and other crime-related problems that appear to be so prevalent in new Labour's urban Britain, but the huge area outside the city--rural Leicestershire and Rutland--which presents huge problems of isolated communities separated by long distances, cash-strapped district councils, a farming economy in crisis, village schools closing down, difficulties recruiting teachers, and drugs being sold to schoolchildren. The Government say that they are determined

and I am sure that they would like to do so, but I heard nothing in the Queen's Speech and I have seen nothing of sufficient purpose or result achieved in previous Sessions to justify my having any faith in the Government's aspirations, or that their proposals will help my constituents.

Tackling disorder and disorderly conduct was the aim of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Why has so little been made of that legislation? Police and local authorities

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have made scant use of anti-social behaviour orders and parenting orders, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have said. Have the Government bothered to find out the reason, or whether any one reason or group of reasons lies behind that apparent failure? No, they have not, so they now propose general curfew orders which are draconian, illiberal and a desperate response to the Government's failures. It is wrong to impose a penalty on anyone, let alone a whole group of young people, without due process, but despite the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998, the Government clearly care little for due process. I suggest that it will be futile to impose general curfew orders if there is an insufficient number of police available to carry out their existing tasks.

The Government say that they want to make more use of tagging, or electronic home curfew orders, so that young criminals can be kept at home rather than sent into custody. That is fine in theory: it is far better to sentence a teenager to a home detention order than to send him to a young offenders institution, and I tried to do precisely that a little while ago. I sit as a recorder and I had before me a group of naughty, silly, bored teenagers who had, earlier this year, mugged a train passenger at a London railway station late one evening and stolen his mobile telephone. It was their first offence. The courts bend over backwards not to send youngsters inside when a more constructive alternative is available, and I suggested that the teenagers be kept at home between 7 o'clock at night and 7 o'clock the following morning. However, I received a letter from the Home Office telling me that judges should not sentence teenagers to home curfews because the authorities have neither the machines nor the ability to monitor them, and individuals who break a curfew are caught only by chance, usually in connection with some other offence.

Tagging has been available since the Criminal Justice Act 1991, and it was extended under the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. However, the Government have failed to implement their warm- sounding words at every turn. The Government are not so much guilty of lacking the right intentions on criminal justice, as the managerial competence and willpower to carry their intentions through into action on the street and in the courts, be they adult or juvenile.

The Government propose legislation to regulate the private security industry, which is no doubt a hugely worthy subject. The Select Committee on Home Affairs dealt with that matter in the previous Parliament when the Conservatives were in office, largely at the behest of Labour Members, but when the Labour party took office it did nothing about it. Why not, and why only now? The Government are simply trying to fill up the time between now and next spring. The Labour party had 18 years in opposition. The Government should be bristling with ideas, but they are not. They are, I fear, a thought-free zone.

Instead, the Government give us a Bill on foxhunting. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) wasted a golden opportunity with his private Member's Bill to do something for his constituents. He made a gross error of judgment and achieved nothing. Now the Government are doing the same thing on a national scale, and their offence is made all the worse because their Bill comes in the wake of the Burns report. The Bill's motives are clear and they are of the lowest. It is throwing a bone to the left-wing, anti-rural element in the Labour party, to persuade it that

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a Government led by this Prime Minister has not lost touch with its class warfare roots. Foxhunting is not at the top or anywhere near the top of the country's agenda. The Home Secretary knows that, and should have had the courage and the clout to stand up to the Government's business managers to get rid of the Bill and use the time to do something of benefit to the whole country.

The Home Secretary should have done the same with regard to the jury Bill. That was not a manifesto Bill the first time, it was not a manifesto Bill the second, and it is not a manifesto Bill this third time. It is unwanted, unnecessary, unpopular, illiberal and unintelligent, and it represents another missed opportunity.

The Home Secretary tried to rely upon the support of the previous Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, on Second Reading on the last occasion. He misused the correspondence with which Lord Bingham had provided him and he fell apart in trying to defend his actions. I have no doubt that during the next few weeks the Government will unravel as they try to produce a third and deeply silly jury Bill.

We have wasted a great deal with this Queen's Speech and during the next few months the Government will learn that to their cost.

9.12 pm

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): As we approach the end of the Government's first term, it is appropriate to look back at what we have achieved and to look forward at what we have yet to do. Last week, I heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) speak of the shocking and tragic killing of her young constituent. She described the environment of the blighted estate in which Damilola Taylor lived and she rightly expressed the Government's vision in trying to improve and transform those conditions. She said that we have recognised the dreadful problems of social exclusion which blight our inner cities and outer estates. We are determined to address those needs and we have devised a range of policies and programmes, such as welfare to work, sure start, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, healthy living centres, education action zones, new deal, and so on.

In truth, we cannot know if all those policies will be effective, but we should and shall be judged on whether they work. We also deserve credit for our bold ambition--it is a bold ambition--both because of the difficulty of the task and the extent of the problem.

The social exclusion unit report identified 44 districts where there was at least two thirds more unemployment than normal, where the under-age pregnancy rate was one and a half times the normal, where 37 per cent. of 16-year-olds had no GCSE grades above grade D, and where mortality rates were 30 per cent. higher than normal. That is what characterised those communities. The report "Bringing People Together" estimates that there are between 1,600 and 4,000 such neighbourhoods. That is roughly 15 million people--30 per cent. of the population of these islands live in those areas.

At the beginning of the 21st century and at the end of this Labour Government's first term, I am confident that members of the previous Labour Governments of Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan would share our ambitions, if not all our methods. The solutions tried in the past have not worked. Where we have increased social welfare

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programmes and poured in vast resources, there has been little effect other than perhaps increasing dependency. Our Government have embarked on a new policy of helping people to help themselves. I am pleased that the Queen's Speech continues that process by announcing Bills to tackle the continuing problems of the yob culture and benefit fraud, along with Bills to reform schools and help homeless people.

However, the Queen's Speech is something of a disappointment to many people in my constituency because of what it does not contain. Our 1997 manifesto promised a Bill to license houses in multiple occupation. Indeed, the Green Paper on housing published earlier this year outlined such a scheme. It seems that Ministers believe that that is not a sufficient priority for legislation this year. I am disappointed with that decision, although I understand the pressures of competing Bills in what may be a short programme.

Most Ministers and Members of Parliament will not see the need to increase regulation of houses in multiple occupation, or, if they recognise that need, they will not view it as a priority. That is the case because the distribution of houses in multiple occupation is neither random nor uniform. It is aggregated where there is unusual demand for short-term accommodation or unusual supply of surplus hotels or vacant housing. Those circumstances fall roughly into three categories. They apply in some northern cities--Leeds has already been mentioned--where the population is rapidly falling. They apply also in some seaside resorts. Finally, they apply in constituencies such as mine, which have benefited from the rapid increase in student numbers during the past decade.

The extension of the opportunity to participate in higher education to so many more young people is, indeed, a great benefit. Raising the education skill levels of our future work force is also a benefit to society. That benefit is not, however, unalloyed. During the past 10 years, the two universities in Cardiff, Central have increased their student numbers from a combined total of 10,000 to the present total of 30,000. That has occurred without any planned accommodation, transport or social infrastructure.

That rapid change has not happened without an undesired impact on local communities. In the inner-city wards of Cathays and Plasnewydd in my area, up to two thirds of properties have been converted into student flats. Most families have sold their houses to large-scale landlords and moved to quieter neighbourhoods. Local schools have suffered massively falling rolls and are struggling to cope. Much of the remaining indigenous population consists of elderly people, who often feel alienated from the new communities in which they live, although they have lived there all their lives. Streets that were filled a decade ago with house owners with a long-term commitment to their property and community are now owned by three or four large-scale landlords who live elsewhere and may never even have seen their properties. Such properties are often managed by letting agencies. Both landlords and letting agencies have only one clear commitment: to maximise the rental income in the shortest possible time.

Those are communities that are under stress and in which regulation is overdue. Short-term tenants such as students are highly vulnerable, as the properties that they inhabit may be unsafe. Although additional safeguards exist for some houses in multiple occupation, the current

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definitions exclude the houses in which the majority of students in my constituency live--three-bedroomed family properties.

Cardiff students union has identified at least 160 students and several landlords who have lost money to a letting agency called Castle Management, which is based in Cardiff. Customs and Excise finally moved in and took the owners, Naiz Taj and Sha Unia, to court over a specimen debt of £12,780. The court order forced the business partners into liquidation on 8 November this year. I believe that Mr. Taj left the country the following day, leaving an estimated debt of £250,000, which he owed to students and others. What alarms me is the ease with which he and his partner could return and set up a new business that would prey on students and others.

It is common for students to pay bonds and non-returnable administrative fees to agencies that secure their houses and retainers of up to half or three quarters of the rent on houses that may be sub-let. That is unacceptable, and regulation and legislation is needed. The local council and students union should consider setting up bond boards to try to overcome those problems.

We could set up partnerships, but the Government should recognise that regulation of houses in multiple occupation is an essential requirement for some of our inner-city estates. That is not essential everywhere, but it is extremely important in some places. I hope that when the Minister winds up, he will give me and my constituents some reassurance about the fact that the legislation, although late, will not be forgotten.

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