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Jacqui Smith: I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Gentleman, as important work is already going on. When SOCA produces its annual report, he will see
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that it has made considerable progress in preventing the import of illegal drugs and their trade in this country. I take very seriously the views of people on the front line who are responsible for enforcement, and it is for that reason that we will work through the enforcement process with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the other bodies who will carry it out.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): As a parent and someone who had not been elected to this House in 2004, may I say that I greeted the downgrading of cannabis with some bemusement? The Government downgraded cannabis but kept its possession a criminal offence. Does the Home Secretary accept that allowing criminals to control the strength of the substance being supplied to young people meant that it was inevitable that they would get a bad lot? I am pleased by the regrading, but will she elaborate on what she said in her statement about what she called the glamorisation of cannabis paraphernalia? Is she seriously suggesting that we should criminalise people for wearing t-shirts or pendants decorated with leaves? What will happen to the people who provide that merchandise?

Jacqui Smith: No, I am not suggesting that but, as a parent, I do not want head shops on my high street. They have cannabis leaves in the window and flog the stuff that people use to consume cannabis. In my book, I do not want them in my neighbourhood. I do not think that anyone else should. The advisory council was clear about that, and that is why I want to work with local authorities and the police to close such shops down. I am sure that the hon. Lady, as a parent, would want that to happen.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I welcome the statement made by the Home Secretary today. May I invite her to recognise that the period of time when cannabis has been a class C drug has persuaded many young people to believe that it is neither as harmful nor as illegal as it once was? I want her to focus on two things. First, in the education programme that she has mentioned, will she focus on the strength of cannabis now, so that people are persuaded that it is not the same drug that they perceived it to be during its period of lower classification? Secondly, will she have a word with the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that, in prosecuting offences where class B drugs such as cannabis appear on the same indictment as class A drugs, it will not quietly forget about the cannabis offences? The CPS should continue to prosecute cannabis offences fully.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman makes two fair points. First, we certainly need to look at the “Frank” campaign to make sure that the increased strength of cannabis is fully represented in it; he is right about that. Secondly, I will ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service hears his words about the requirement not to bury a cannabis offence, even if it is the lesser of two drugs offences.

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Point of Order

1.19 pm

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that the Scottish Government were seeking to “postpone a referendum until 2010-11” and that the Scottish Government were acting “against its...manifesto”. That manifesto explicitly set out the timetable for the referendum in 2010. In misrepresenting that fact, I fear that the Prime Minister has inadvertently misled the House. It is far from the case that the referendum is being delayed or that the manifesto promise is being broken; it is a promise that the Scottish Government intend to keep. What powers do you have, Mr. Speaker, to have the Prime Minister withdraw his remarks or correct the inadvertently misleading impression that he gave the House?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has put on the record the point of view of the Scottish Government and the First Minister, and I think that we should leave matters at that.

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Immigration (Discharged Gurkhas)

1.20 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I beg to move,

The Gurkhas have a unique place in the history of our country and in the hearts of the British people. For around 200 years they, the bravest of the brave, have served Britain with outstanding courage and loyalty. They continue to play a vital role in today’s Army, both at home and overseas. Indeed, only a few weeks ago Prince Harry paid tribute to their role in Afghanistan. Today, about 3,000 Gurkhas serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces. That represents more than 3 per cent. of the British Army. Our under-strength, overstretched forces would be in a more difficult situation if it were not for the Gurkhas, yet despite their astonishing service, many former Gurkhas are treated disgracefully. To the shame of this country, Gurkhas who left the Army before 1997 are not allowed to stay in the United Kingdom.

My Bill seeks to amend the Immigration Act 1971 to enable Gurkhas to be granted indefinite leave to enter and remain in the UK under the category of “Gurkha discharged from the British Army”. It is a small, simple Bill, but one that would speak volumes. It has support in all parts of the House. To their credit, in 2004 the Government introduced changes that benefit today’s Gurkhas; that is appreciated. Those who retire from the Army can now stay in the UK should they so wish, but the changes do not apply to those who left prior to 1997, because it is claimed that before that date they were based in Hong Kong and therefore were not fully part of the UK forces. That is outrageous nonsense and an insult to men who served in Her Majesty’s—in some cases, His Majesty’s—armed forces, serving the UK’s interests in many parts of the world.

It is argued, somewhat insultingly, that Gurkhas who retired before 1997 could not generally show strong enough links to the UK. The hollowness and callousness of that arbitrary cut-off date was illustrated in the most powerful way when Victoria Cross winner Tul Bahadur Pun was initially denied entry to this country, although he is a man whose loyalty and service to the UK was recognised with the award of the VC for his action in single-handedly storming a Japanese machine-gun post during the second world war, in the face of intense machine-gun fire. That act of bravery was not unique. There are countless other stories of the bravery of Gurkha soldiers who never served in Hong Kong.

Most of our constituents have great affection for the Gurkhas. That is certainly the case in the garrison town of Colchester. I am confident that constituents share my view that the 1997 cut-off date is not morally acceptable. To add insult to injury, retired Gurkhas living in the UK now face deportation, yet soldiers from Commonwealth countries can be granted the right to UK citizenship after only four years’ service.

The moral case for the provisions set out in my Bill, which has all-party support, is best illustrated with the
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following example. Mr. Madam Gurung served in the British Army for 24 years. He retired in 1993 and applied for the right to live in the UK, but his application was refused by the Home Office. All that he wants to do is to work as a bus driver or security guard here in the UK. He currently lives in one-bedroom accommodation in Tonbridge, where he is awaiting news of his appeal. He is prevented by law from working, and subsists on handouts from concerned friends. Is that how a man who served in the British Army for 24 years should be treated? Many other former Gurkhas are going through the same tortuous process of immigration appeals. They are destitute, in limbo, never sure of their future. Forbidden from working, they are not even second-class citizens in the country that they served so loyally for many years. They are relying on the charity of friends, comrades and neighbours. It is a disgrace that some of our former soldiers have been condemned to such a life.

In any survey or poll, the massively overwhelming majority of citizens want the right to British citizenship extended to the pre-1997 retirees. The retired Gurkha community in this country is hard-working and entrepreneurial. The Government need have no fears about them in any way being a drain on the public purse. The reverse is the case—they would be net contributors. Experience in areas where they have settled clearly shows that their hard work and high standards of citizenship add positively to our economy and our culture. The numbers involved are small given the number of people who annually migrate to the UK. It is estimated that there are about 1,000 retired Gurkhas in the UK awaiting results of appeals. Back in Nepal, it is considered that most elderly retired Gurkhas would wish to remain living there. According to best estimates, the maximum number of retired Gurkhas who may possibly want to come here is under 10,000.

British people are frustrated and angered by the unfairness. They do not understand why the Government will not allow a relatively small number of people, all of whom have served in the British Army for a number of years, to live here. The sentiments and provisions of the Bill transcend party politics. The Gurkhas enjoy wide support across the House and the nation. The situation is becoming more urgent by the day. A few weeks ago, outside Parliament, I and some other Members witnessed 50 retired Gurkhas handing in their long service and good conduct medals in protest at the way in which they are being treated. There was extensive coverage of the event in newspapers and on television. The sight of such loyal, brave and dignified people being pushed to such a desperate act filled me with shame.

The Bill seeks to give voice to what I believe is the will of the British people. Let the Gurkhas stay! I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Bob Russell, Miss Ann Widdecombe, Mr. Don Touhig, Nick Harvey, Patrick Mercer, Mr. Paul Keetch, Mr. Paul Burstow, Mr. David Drew, Andrew Mackinlay, Andrew Rosindell, Mark Pritchard and Mr. Bruce George.

Immigration (Discharged Gurkhas)

Bob Russell accordingly presented a Bill to amend the immigration rules in connection with the
7 May 2008 : Column 721
requirements for indefinite leave to enter and remain in the United Kingdom as a Gurkha discharged from the British Army: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 107].

7 May 2008 : Column 722

Opposition Day

[11th Allotted Day-First Part]

Civil Service

Mr. Speaker: I now come to the main business, an Opposition day debate on the Government’s management of the civil service and communications. I inform the House that the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister has been selected.

1.29 pm

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): I beg to move,

I start by declaring the interests against my name in the Register of Members’ Interests.

The Tony Blair era of government became synonymous with spin. At the very outset of that Government back in 1997, there were huge increases in the number of special advisers; the figure more than doubled. Two special advisers in Downing street were given, completely without precedent, powers to give orders to conventional civil servants. In addition, a large number of departmental press secretaries who were already in place, and departmental heads of the information service who were permanent civil servants in the Government Information and Communication Service, were replaced with appointees who were more or less partisan.

At the time, eyebrows were raised and mildly controversial concerns were expressed, but after all, the Government were elected with a substantial majority and nothing that was done could be said to be illegal. However, it was nakedly a sharp turn away from the conventional approach of reliance on an impartial and professional civil service. That became the hallmark of the Blair era of government—the subordination of all considerations to the partisan political interests of the Labour party. In no Department was there a greater dedication to the cult of spin than in Her Majesty’s Treasury. We all remember—I do so vividly, as I was shadow Chancellor: one of many holders of that post—the notorious double-counted spending increases in the pre-Budget report of autumn 1998, in which spending increases for the whole comprehensive spending review period were conveniently added together to give a sum much greater than that which was being spent. That was the first indication
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that with the then Chancellor—now Prime Minister—it was wise to count the spoons carefully and decipher the fine print with a magnifying glass before deciding to rely on what he said.

Despite that history, it is fair to say that when the Prime Minister took office in the middle of last year, there was a sigh of relief that the first announcement of the age of change was that the era of spin was definitively over. Parliament, we were told, was to be told about things before the press and the media. Spin was consigned to history—a relic of the Blairite-Mandelsonist era of the past. The right hon. Gentleman said that

At the time, the soon to be elected deputy leader of the Labour party—now the Leader of the House—made an even more explicit promise:

The right hon. and learned Lady’s final point about treating Parliament with respect and making statements to the House before the media was instantly more honoured in the breach than in the observance. We have worked out that on average, the media have been briefed about two announcements a week before they are made to Parliament. Often, announcements are not made to Parliament at all, even after the event.

What of the pledge to cut back on spin, and put the era of spin in the past? The simple truth is that there has been no reduction in the number of spin doctors and special advisers from the Blair era, or perhaps only a tiny one. The age of change turns out to be the age of no change. The publication of the White Book by the Central Office of Information, which was delayed until September last year to take account of the changes since the Prime Minister took over from Tony Blair, effectively shows that there has been no reduction at all. In fact, it took some time for the document to be published, and a number of questions from my right hon. Friends and me to elicit that information. Indeed, the Government’s answers, to specific questions, Department by Department, on the scale of the spin machine are a master-class in the spinning of information to give a false impression. They exclude, for example, the majority of communications personnel, limiting the numbers to the narrowest possible definition of “press officer”.

The White Book directory tells the full story of a Government spin machine that has spiralled out of control. Advertising costs have also spiralled. The Government have spent over £800 million on advertising in the past five years alone. The annual spend has quadrupled since Labour came to power. No doubt under the rigorous financial stewardship of the Prime Minister, assisted by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as his adviser for much of the time, it was spent immensely prudently. Is the advertising spend simply the overhang of the reckless Blairite era? No, because the figures clearly show that since the Prime Minister took over, the advertising spend has increased still further by four times the rate of inflation.

7 May 2008 : Column 724

Taxpayers are entitled to ask whether they are getting a good return on the money that is being spent. Many Conservative council candidates who fought elections last week may think it was well spent, because the results were not bad for them. Even taxpayers who belong to, or support, the Labour party are asking that question because, after all, Labour’s electoral interests were clearly intended to benefit from those huge spends, including on advertising to promote the merits of neighbourhood policing in the middle of the local election campaign. That is a questionable use of taxpayers’ money in supposedly non-partisan information programmes.

The results of last week’s elections suggest that, from the Labour party’s point of view, it was a wretched use of money, because it led—I believe directly—to its worst position since the war; I do not mean the last war but the first world war. We have to go back a very long time indeed to the infancy of the Labour party to find a time when it did as badly as it did last week.

It is worth spending a little time looking at the Prime Minister’s explanation last weekend of what went wrong, because it bears directly on the substance of today’s motion. He said,

He also said,

He was saying that the Government were not doing enough spinning; they were spending their time earnestly looking over the fine detail of policy programmes to be absolutely sure that they had got them right. That was supposed to conjure up an image of an incredibly high-minded Prime Minister blundering around Downing street in the small hours of the morning, setting off security alarms while trying to unlock his office, because he was desperate to refine subsection (27)(a) of the bin charges Bill, or to rewrite paragraph 147 of his Chancellor’s Budget speech, or to work out with mathematical precision exactly why 42 days’ detention without charge was the right answer, rather than 40 or 44.

For somebody supposedly obsessed with substance, as the Prime Minister constantly tells us at the Dispatch Box, and the detail of “solving people’s problems”, he has not made a fantastically good fist of it. Abolishing the 10p tax rate was entirely his idea; indeed, it was his idea to create it in the first place. However, when it came to be implemented—

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): What does that have to do with the debate?

Mr. Maude: I will tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what it has to do with the debate. It is about allowing the Government’s emphasis and focus on spin from the outset to overcome the need to get the detailed management of policy implementation right. It becomes clear, and Ministers have had to admit, that that policy was not thought through. We find the Lord High Chancellor, as we understand he likes to be called, generously apologising for the mistakes that the Prime Minister had made.

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