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9.9 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on his maiden speech. His references to Disraeli were entirely apt, considering the tenor of most of his remarks, and I am sure that he will make a positive contribution to the debate that is needed among Conservative Members to create a party that has something valuable to say to the nation.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his new team at the Home Office on the start that they made in this debate. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, he is building on the excellent foundations laid by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who has moved on to entirely different matters. There are many reasons to be concerned about law and order, and we still face serious problems. However, despite the doom and gloom, we must remind ourselves that crime has fallen by about 10 per cent. since 1997.

The Government have reversed the trend of falling police numbers which started in 1993. Police numbers are beginning to rise again, and there has been a huge increase in the number of people applying for initial police training. We have introduced a crimefighting fund, which will ensure that by 2003 there are more police officers on the beat than ever before. More cash has been made available for the police service. Money for victim support has doubled, and rape victims will no longer have to go through the trauma of being cross-examined by defendants.

Despite all those good points, the Government are right not to be complacent. We have to remind ourselves that violent crime has increased, and is part of the yob culture to which many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have referred during the debate. The fear of crime remains high. In my constituency, people are afraid to walk through the town after 9 o'clock in the evening simply because of the threat of danger that large crowds, mainly of young men, seem to pose. That fear exists despite the fact that 99 per cent. of the time there is no danger at all. City centres just feel unsafe. That is why I welcome the police Bill, which aims to create a more effective police service by, among other things, enabling better co-operation across police force boundaries. A more open and independent police complaints system will have benefits for the public and the police. It will give the public confidence and help to improve co-operation with the police.

Initially, police reform could lead to more criminals being caught, but in the long term I foresee a reduction because of the deterrent effect of the increased likelihood

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of being caught and the preventive effect of better policing and other anti-crime strategies, such as the "communities that care" programme, which bring together the police, local government, schools, youth clubs and the voluntary sector for the good of the community as a whole. In my local authority area, which covers my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Sir R. Powell), four such projects are getting under way. They have captured the enthusiasm of those involved, and I believe that they will make a significant contribution to reducing crime and creating more cohesive communities that are truly at peace with themselves.

Equally important for the success of the police Bill and anti-crime strategies such as "communities that care" is the modernisation of our criminal justice system, both to speed up the judicial process without sacrificing fairness and to ensure appropriate sentencing. The punishment should fit the crime, but punishment on its own is not enough. It is true that, when a criminal is in prison, the public are protected, but the role of the criminal justice system goes beyond locking up criminals in prison, and the role of the Prison Service goes beyond keeping criminals in custody. Indeed, part of the Prison Service's stated purpose is to look after prisoners

I believe that a crucial role for the criminal justice system--of which prisoners are a necessary part--is to protect the public. That can be done, as the retiring chief inspector of prisons Sir David Ramsbotham recently put it, "by preventing reoffending". I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will read, inwardly digest, and act on many of the proposals in the lecture that Sir David gave to the Prison Reform Trust eight days ago.

I believe that rehabilitation, the prevention of reoffending and the reduction of reconvictions must be central to the Government's anti-crime strategy. All the good work that will follow from the passing of the measures in the Queen's Speech sponsored by the Home Office will be stunted and disfigured if reconviction rates within two years of release remain at more than 50 per cent. for adults, and at nearly 90 per cent. for those under 18. Those figures must be dramatically reduced.

Prisons will not be working properly until reconviction rates are reduced substantially. The record of Her Majesty's prison at Grendon shows that the rates can be brought down. Rehabilitative work at other prisons, such as at Parc in my constituency, gives grounds for hope. Parc had a very rocky opening 18 months ago, but it is now beginning to work for its inmates and the public. However, the chief inspector of prisons recognises that, despite improvements at Parc and other prisons, there needs to be a thorough re-examination of rehabilitation strategies. Moreover, those attested success stories that are to be found across the prison service must be boldly implemented according to a well financed, properly monitored and coherent strategy.

It is interesting to note that, of the 30 announced, and 23 unannounced, inspection reports through which I have skimmed, 37 seemed to me to cover a range of verdicts that ranged from "very good" to "on balance encouraging" and "positive". The remaining 16 seemed to have serious problems, but in the main even they, on reinspection, showed encouraging signs of improvement.

Home Office projections suggest that the prison population could be higher than 83,000 by the end of the decade, so there is plainly a need to look at alternative

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strategies. I believe that we need a stronger, more closely supervised system of community sentences, and that it might be worth developing youth justice initiatives such as reparation and referral orders.

The average cost of a prison place is about £26,000 a year, whereas a community sentences costs, on average, about £2,600 to supervise. There is therefore scope for putting more resources into community sentences, given the savings that could be made on prison places.

I believe that a new concentration on rehabilitation throughout the criminal justice system--and especially in prisons--is an essential component in the Government's determination to cut crime and create peaceful communities where people are comfortable and at ease with themselves. Without that new concentration, all the best efforts to make really significant inroads into the crime culture will fail, and the disaffection of crime- creating, excluded communities, made up of what might be called multi-problem people who are persistent offenders, will remain a blight on our society.

I am confident that the Government have the will to tackle those fundamental problems, and I look forward to progress being made over the lifetime of this Parliament. I trust that the good work that has been begun will focus on rehabilitation and better community sentencing, because I believe that that is an essential part of the process.

9.19 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Today's debate has been a full one. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have made constructive contributions to a debate that has focused on law and order and the constitution.

As this is the conclusion of the full debate on the Queen's Speech, I will not do what I normally do in a winding-up speech and touch on everything that has been said, but I would like to pay tribute to all right hon. and hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches tonight. We have all been very impressed by what we have heard. Those giving them have spoken with great knowledge and warmth about their constituency and their predecessor. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), and for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), and the hon. Members for Southport (Dr. Pugh), for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), for Caerphilly (Mr. David), for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman).

I should also like to mention the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who was not making his maiden speech. Any Member unfortunate enough to have to deal with a case of violent crime in his or her constituency--as happens now and then--knows only too well what a harrowing experience it is. Obviously, it changes the lives of the individuals concerned, but the whole community is affected. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East for his contribution to the debate. He has had to deal with the Bulger case for some years now, and we can all sympathise with the responsibility that that has put on him as a constituency Member of Parliament.

I wish to conclude our debate by referring to constitutional matters. Part of the amendment before the House in the name of the official Opposition deals with

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constitutional matters. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) spoke on law and order with her usual conviction and knowledge. However, I wish to focus my remarks on the constitutional part of the Gracious Speech, a matter that has been picked up by many right hon. and hon. Members.

In another place on 21 June, the Lord Chancellor opened the debate on the Gracious Speech and spoke specifically on constitutional matters. It is appropriate, perhaps, that we form two bookends--the Lord Chancellor started the debate on the Gracious Speech with this subject, and I am pleased to conclude it in the same way.

The Lord Chancellor justified the constitutional reforms of the Government in the previous Parliament. He stated:

I call the Labour party to account on that statement. The people of this country have given the Government a second chance to prove that they can deliver on matters such as public services, which have been the subject of a great deal of debate during the past few days, and the Government can certainly say that they have delivered with regard to the changes made to our national constitution in the previous Parliament.

The changes were contained in some of the earliest Bills produced in the previous Parliament. They were put through without thought or consideration, and they have changed the constitution of this country irrevocably. That is why the further changes that are proposed in this Parliament should be of great concern to all right hon. and hon. Members.

Members of Parliament should take it as a personal duty to ensure that constitutional changes, particularly those that affect the procedures and workings of this Chamber and another place, do not undermine the rights--particularly in this Chamber--of democratically elected Members to challenge the Executive; and to ensure that, nationally, our democratic process allows the voters to continue to influence our democracy through the ballot box. Anything that undermines that process should affect all Members, regardless of which party they were elected for at a general election.

Much concern has been expressed about the turnout at the election--59.4 per cent, which is the lowest since 1918. Many Members on both sides of the House have said that the House must consider carefully why the general public are so disinterested--cynical, perhaps--about our proceedings and about the very heart of democracy. It is incumbent upon all of us to rectify that.

I have heard Labour Members argue that the low turnout was due to the fact that people are so satisfied with the way the Government performed in the past four years that they had nothing to complain about and got on with watering the plants instead of going to the polling station. I question that argument. Indeed, I am sure that the Prime Minister himself would do so, as the tone of much of the debate in the few days since the Gracious Speech has been about the second chance and the need to deliver on promises that were made in the last Parliament.

The failure of any Government to deliver and to fulfil expectations raised has an impact on the way in which people perceive the proceedings of this place and on

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whether they think that they are engaged in the democratic process. However, it goes beyond that, and there is no single reason why so few people came out to vote. People have become cynical about politics in general and about this national Parliament in particular.

There is a sense of urgency now. All parliamentarians must--in the way we conduct our business and conduct ourselves as individuals and collectively as political parties--put right some of the damage that has been done. If we do not do so, the people of this country will no longer feel that our democratic system serves its purpose--which is that we, as democratically elected representatives, can be dismissed or re-elected every four or five years. That process is painful for some of us, but it puts the power in the hands of the electorate. Any democratic system that is worthy of the name has to be strong and ensure that the power always remains ultimately in the hands of the electorate, who elect us or choose for whatever reason not to do so.

We heard some anecdotes, in particular in the maiden speeches, about things that had been said during the campaign. I was particularly moved by the contribution from the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), who had had comments made to him that I am sure we all found distressing. Let us hope that people become more enlightened and educated so that they do not say such ignorant things in future.

All parliamentarians are used to the public saying and doing things that can be wounding. I am pleased to say that my general election campaign was gloriously victorious--I almost trebled my majority with a very respectable turnout in Tiverton and Honiton--but when one of my constituents was asked whether he would vote Conservative he said, "No, I'm voting tactically to get that Edwina Currie out." That was very wounding.

The Lord Chancellor opened the Queen's Speech debate for the Government in another place and spelled out some of the issues that would be constitutionally important in this Parliament. In a moment I will deal with those constitutional matters that are printed on the face of the Gracious Speech, but it is of great concern that the Lord Chancellor should raise as a priority constitutional matters that are not even in the speech. I raise this tonight in the hope that the Leader of the House may be able to enlighten the House with the full agenda for constitutional change that the Government obviously have in mind, but have not necessarily disclosed in the Gracious Speech.

There was nothing in the Gracious Speech to say what the Government intended to do about sorting out the mess that was left behind following devolution in Scotland. That was mentioned in another place, when the Lord Chancellor said:

Obviously, however, there will be antagonistic confrontation unless fairness is introduced as between Scotland and England, and to the way in which Scotland is represented in this place, and unless we take action on the way in which MPs representing Scotland are allowed to continue to vote on matters that are quite clearly, as far as primary legislation is concerned, matters for England and Wales alone.

I hope that the Leader of the House will tell us that, under his stewardship, we can expect that injustice to be

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put right in this Parliament. I know that I am addressing the right person in the Cabinet, because I remind him of his words when he said that

he was referring to devolution--

So on a point of principle the Leader of the House is clearly signed up to the fact that there has to be fairness in the way in which devolution is arranged. It is a done deal now. The official Opposition accept that there is a Scottish Parliament. There is no suggestion that we would seek to revoke that. However, there must be fairness for the rest of the country as well, because this is unfinished business. I hope that the fact that the Lord Chancellor mentioned it in another place means that the Leader of the House will tell us tonight exactly how the Government will put that right.

Another very important constitutional issue that was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech or in anything that we have heard in the Chamber during the debate on the Loyal Address, concerns English regional assemblies. The Prime Minister said earlier today, in response to an oral question, that the people would decide about regional government for England, so I wonder why there is no proposal on the table, and certainly no mention of it in the speech, because many issues surrounding the regional government proposals for England remain.

What is the future of the democratically elected county council structure in England? The Lord Chancellor described the English regions as distinct parts. They are not distinct parts; they are parts of England, drawn on a map with an arbitrary line, created not because those regions have anything in terms of commonality, but simply because they suit a political agenda. The agenda is to chop England up into bite-sized chunks. How much easier it would be for a Prime Minister, if we had such a Prime Minister, to see off each little chunk of England one at a time than to see off the collective voice of England represented in the Chamber, ready to hold the Government to account, which is what this Parliament is for.

I hope that, when the Leader of the House gets to his feet in a moment, he will be able to share with us his response to those errors in, and omissions from, the Gracious Speech, which received a great deal of attention and comment in another place.

Will the Leader of the House respond to another issue that is mentioned in our amendment? Will he explain why, if the Government believe that it is the people who should have the final say, one of the biggest constitutional issues that the House will deal with this Session, and which we suspect will be dealt with very soon--the ratification of the treaty of Nice--is not to be subject to a referendum of the people? If the people are to be trusted, why cannot this big constitutional change be put to a referendum of the people, as big constitutional matters should be?

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