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8.35 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I congratulate the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) on what, as he said, is probably not his maiden speech. From listening to him, I can tell that he has lost none of the good humour for which I knew him in his previous incarnation in the House. One thing that always struck me about Ted Heath was the extent to which, no matter his achievements in this House, as Prime Minister, on the international stage or domestically, he gave the impression, which the hon. Gentleman has just confirmed, that he was an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament. That speaks well not only of Ted Heath but of the hon. Gentleman who has picked up that baton. I am sure that he will run with it in the appropriate manner.

I want briefly to comment on the James Bulger case and events of last week, to which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred in their opening speeches. Denise Fergus and Ralph Bulger are both my constituents. None of us has the imagination really to appreciate what they have gone through over the years as the parents involved in losing a child in such horrendous circumstances. My heart goes out to them, and I am sure that everyone in the House shares that sentiment.

It is unwise for politicians to try to second-guess the decisions of the parole board or, for that matter, of those in the Home Office who have had to be party to those decisions, if not make them themselves. I say that for the simple reason that I have not had sight--nor would it be appropriate for me to do so--of the reports prepared on the two young men concerned. To comment without the knowledge and understanding of what has happened to them and where they stand now would therefore be unfair.

I want to make two points in the remaining time available to me, the first of which is to do with policing. I certainly welcome the target of 6,000 additional police officers that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary reaffirmed in his opening speech. Most people in my constituency and, indeed, across the country will welcome that target. Although it may be important to increase the number of police available, what we do with those additional police officers is also important--how they are organised and how they address the problems of crime faced by many of our constituents.

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The major problem experienced in my constituency can exist in all sorts of different communities, and not always just in areas that are unstable in some way or suffer great social and economic deprivation. My constituency is very mixed. There are rural parts, parts known in classic sociological jargon as C1 and C2, and there is Kirkby, which comprises a series of council estates. The problem is low-level street crime--which I consider an inappropriate description--or crime and disorder. Previous Home Office Ministers, my right hon. Friends the Members for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), had a new vision of how to deal with such problems and they gave the police and local authorities some useful tools for doing so, but I believe that that solid foundation must now be built on by reviewing the method of policing, revisiting the punishments available and adopting new and innovative approaches.

On Merseyside, the chief constable has now reorganised his police force in such a way as to put policemen back on to the streets. He has used the existing wards structure and allocated a number of officers--usually an inspector, two sergeants and 20 policemen--to a defined geographical area. That is their patch, which they work mostly on foot. The Home Office is monitoring the progress of that development. It is not the only story--other parts of Merseyside's police force are tackling other problems--but it is a useful start that deserves our support. We should keep a close eye on Merseyside, because developments there may well serve as models for the future.

I should like to make a plea to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle). Merseyside police authority and the chief constable are taking a risk. Although I believe that they will address the problems as people experience them on the street, they might find themselves in conflict with the key performance indicators that Merseyside police force is supposed to meet. While enhancing people's quality of life, they may well fail to meet those performance indicators. It would be wrong if they were penalised for having the courage to act to meet the public agenda.

We need to consider ways in which the police and the criminal justice system can address offending behaviour very early on in a criminal career. The youngster in my constituency who is throwing a brick through a bus window tonight is a nuisance, and a dangerous one at that, but five years down the line he--it usually is a he--could be the local drugs baron, a house burglar or car thief, or committing even more serious crimes. Stopping youngsters early in their criminal career and giving the police and the courts proper remedies to break into the spiral towards ever more serious offences are among the most useful things that we can do. I should like to suggest two things that might help. I do not pretend that they are easy, that they will require no resources, or that I have a fully worked out plan for delivering, but they deserve serious consideration.

First, there is a role in the process for fixed penalties. I know that when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister suggested that some time ago, the response was derision, but a fixed penalty gives the offender the chance to acknowledge the crime and have it dealt with quickly, and it may provide the early warning that a person needs to stop him doing something worse. That will work for some

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people, but not for others. There is no system in place for it, so it will not happen quickly. Secondly, an early custodial sentence--perhaps for people as young as 12 or 14 if additional resources are created within the prison estate--might be the wake-up call that is needed to stop youngsters developing their criminal career any further.

When opening the debate, my right hon. Friend invited new ideas and said that they would be welcome. I offer those two new ideas to my colleagues in the Home Office.

In conclusion, if we do not start to address so-called low-level disorder and street crime early in people's offending careers, and if we do not stop the drift that seems to be the norm in some areas, we will reap the whirlwind in years to come. I believe that the problem can be addressed, and that the Home Secretary has the will to do so. There will probably be a consensus in the House in favour of measures that start to address it effectively.

8.45 pm

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in the House, especially in a debate touching on the constitution.

I should like to preface my remarks with an expression of gratitude to the House and a pre-emptive apology. My gratitude is for the introduction and passing of the House of Lords Act 1999, which permitted me to shake off the shackles of the peerage and return to being a normal human being and enabled me to fulfil a long-held dream of seeking election to the House of Commons. My pre-emptive apology concerns the fact that, having sat in another place for a number of years, I observed former Members of the House of Commons taking up a seat there, and saw the difficulty that they had throwing off the habit of addressing colleagues as hon. Gentlemen. If, by mischance, I address the Chair as "my Lord" or refer to any Member as "noble", I ask the House to understand that I mean no disrespect; it is merely old habits coming through.

It is the tradition--and, for me, a particular pleasure--to pay tribute to the one's predecessor. It is a great pleasure because the former Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is a great personal friend; Robert Maclennan served in the House for just over 35 years and made many major contributions. He led one party for a short time and helped to co-found the Liberal Democrat party. In the previous Parliament, with the then Leader of the House, he was responsible for the report that allowed much of the constitutional legislation that was introduced to go through. However, he is most remembered by all those who know him for his extraordinary assiduity as a constituency Member. Having knocked on many doors during the election campaign, as many other hon. Members will have done, I found out just how hard he worked and how many people spoke of him with affection. Indeed, only 24 hours before the election, he was with me, knocking on doors and collecting more casework, which he took great pleasure in handing over to me in recent weeks.

As we got to know each other well, Robert Maclennan told me that he would never have stood for or sought election in any other constituency. I share that view; I would never have wished to seek election in any constituency other than my home of Caithness, Sutherland

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and Easter Ross. It is an extraordinarily large and varied constituency. I am not sure whether it is the largest; I think that that honour belongs to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), but my constituency is a close second. When I drive home from Inverness airport and cross the constituency boundary, I can see a sign telling me that I have 91 miles to go until I get home; there is therefore a large geographical area to cover.

My constituency not only has geographic variety, but great economic variety. We have new industries, such as Dounreay, the former fast-breeder reactor plant, which is in the process of being decommissioned and has a genuine opportunity to become a world centre of excellence in decommissioning skills that we can export to other countries. At the other end of the constituency in Invergordon are some of the major players in rig refurbishment, looking after the oil industry. Many new businesses have recently come in; we have the largest manufacturer of chest freezers in the world, and we have the company that produces all of Madonna's cassettes. Much in the constituency, therefore, is surprising.

The backbone of the constituency--the heart of it--remains the rural traditional industries of farming and fishing, and to those I would nowadays add tourism. These are all industries that are in considerable trouble.

The fishing industry is in severe crisis. There is a major problem of balancing fish stocks and fishing effort, and I look forward to an opportunity to bring the matter before the House on another occasion.

Farming in my constituency, as in many others, is the glue that holds together many of the rural areas. The entire fabric of, for example, remote parts of Sutherland is held together by farming and crofting.

The recent foot and mouth crisis has had a terrible effect. Happily, my constituency has not had the problems of those where large slaughters have had to take place. None the less, the future seems very difficult, particularly with the tradition within the constituency of rearing stock for transfer to other areas of the country. I look forward to bringing both these matters before the House.

I ask for the indulgence of the House to speak briefly on tourism. I must declare an interest. I am still involved with a number of tourist businesses. I am also patron or president of several industry bodies. Tourism is the industry in which I grew up. I started my working life in the kitchens of the Berkeley, and I did day release at Westminster college. I worked my way up through that industry.

Tourism, as a result of foot and mouth, is having a difficult time. It can be seen from the extent of the crisis what an impact the tourist industry has. It is one of the largest employers. According to the Government's figures, it produces about 7 per cent. of national gross domestic product. It needs to be properly supported and resourced. I hope very much that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will ensure that resources are made available to encourage overseas tourists, through the British Tourist Authority, to come to the United Kingdom.

I turn to reform of the House of Lords. I was delighted to read in the Gracious Speech that the Government intend to go ahead with stage 2 of the reform, which I warmly

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welcome, but I have two concerns. The first is about the words "after consultation". I hope that that will not mean that reform disappears into the long grass and that what comes out at the end is a somewhat more anodyne reform. I believe absolutely--this is said with the conviction of having sat in another place--that there is only one outcome, and that is for the House of Lords to be either fully elected, or in large part elected.

My second concern is that reform will perhaps be predicated too much on the Wakeham report. One of the key elements of that report is the assumption that the House should always retain its superiority or supremacy over the other place, which is dangerous. As a number of hon. Members have said, it is important that the House takes the opportunity to consider the functions of not only another place but of this place, and to regard reform as a marriage of two equal partners. Both Houses have different roles and should have different roles, but the roles are complementary. I believe that ultimately the two Houses should be fundamentally equal.

I have come to serve in this place with immense humility and respect for its traditions. Having sat in another place and having had the good fortune to go through an election, I understand, despite the aversion that one has to being on green, how important it is, and what a great mother of Parliaments it is. I look forward to serving my constituents, to whom I am immensely grateful, to the best of my ability and to making what modest contribution I can to the workings of the House.

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