Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

3.16 p.m.

Debate resumed on the Motion moved on Wednesday last by Lord Wade of Chorlton--namely, That a Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:

"Most Gracious Sovereign--We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, the gracious Speech contains many Bills, covering a wide range of activities and issues. In the field of home and social affairs, there are no fewer than 10. Clearly, in the time available today, I will be unable to say more than a few words about them. I would, however, make the point that the legislative programme before your Lordships today, although disparate in subject, is very much homogenous in aim.

22 Nov 1994 : Column 157

The measures will touch upon, to a greater or lesser extent, many aspects of life affecting all of us--health, pensions, and the criminal justice system. They will also directly affect the lives of specific groups. In that regard I am thinking, in particular, of the disabled and the mentally ill. I think it true to say that the legislative proposals we are debating today fall into two broad groups: those concerning social welfare reform and those concerning law reform.

In the field of social welfare we will be proposing changes in a number of areas. First, legislation covering both state and non-state pensions will be introduced in this Session. The main proposals for legislation were set out in two Government White Papers--Equality in State Pension Age, which was published in December 1993, and Security, Equality, Choice: The Future for Pensions, which was published in June of this year.

The legislation will also implement all of the main recommendations of the Pension Law Review Committee by bringing the management of pension schemes up to the level of best practice, giving members more influence in the running of their schemes, introducing a minimum solvency requirement to ensure the adequacy of pension fund assets, appointing a new regulatory authority, and setting up a compensation scheme.

Having listened carefully to the many different opinions on state pension age, last November the Government announced their plans to equalise at age 65, phased in between 2010 and 2020. Sixty-five is the right choice for four main reasons: it recognises women's changed role in the work place; people are living longer, healthier lives; the international trend certainly supports this; and the importance of the interaction between state and occupational provision. The age of 65 is, we believe, the only responsible choice.

The Bill will also give effect in domestic legislation to rulings of the European Court of Justice requiring equal treatment between men and women in occupational pensions and it will simplify the arrangements for contracting-out of the state earnings-related pension scheme to make it easier for contracted-out schemes to provide equal treatment.

The Pensions Bill will balance the interests of members, employers, and existing pensioners. We will be improving the security of pension funds without unduly burdening employers and fund managers. Our reforms will, I believe, strengthen the whole system of pensions provision.

Another aspect of state provision which is to be improved during this Session is the payment of benefits related to unemployment. The Jobseeker's Allowance Bill will replace the two existing benefits--unemployment benefit and income support for unemployed people--with a new single benefit; namely, the jobseeker's allowance. It will be a modern benefit designed specifically to help meet the needs of unemployed people and get them back into jobs. In introducing the jobseeker's allowance, the Government have three main aims: to improve the operation of the labour market by helping people in their search for work while ensuring they understand and fulfil the conditions for receipt of benefit; to secure better value for money

22 Nov 1994 : Column 158

for the taxpayer by streamlining administration and closer targeting on those who need financial support; and to improve the service to unemployed people themselves through a clearer, simpler benefit structure and by better service delivery. The change represents a further step towards the reform of the benefit system and continues the successful progress made in the Government's wide-ranging labour market reforms.

The gracious Speech also contains proposals for legislation to continue our programme of improvements to the management of the National Health Service and to strengthen community care for seriously mentally disordered people.

The Health Authorities Bill will sweep away the current regional health authorities. They will be replaced with a much smaller, integrated central management structure of regional offices which will be part of the National Health Service executive within the Department of Health. Regional health authorities had nearly 3,900 staff in 1993 before those changes began; the new regional offices will have a total of 1,100 staff. The Bill also provides for the merger of district health authorities and family health service authorities.

The measures represent a significant cut in bureaucracy which I know will be welcomed on all sides of the House. Central management of the National Health Service in England will be simpler, sharper and more efficient. As a result of those and other changes, management costs will be cut and substantial savings will be available to go back into patient care. That will mean still shorter waiting times and more improvements in the quality of care; and a more efficient, more responsive National Health Service which is fit for the next century.

Your Lordships will be all too well aware of those tragic cases in which mentally ill people have fallen through the net of community care and have gone on sometimes to commit terrible offences. That was most vividly documented in the report of the inquiry into the case of Christopher Clunis, chaired by Miss Jean Ritchie QC.

Those problems cannot be solved by legislation alone. The 10 point plan announced by my right honourable friend last year represents a broad approach to tackling them. But legislation is needed to strengthen the hand of the caring agencies in dealing with seriously mentally disordered people. We shall bring forward a Bill to implement a new power of supervised discharge for patients who have been detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983. That will implement a key element of my right honourable friend's 10 point plan to ensure the safe and successful care of mentally ill people in the community.

The new power provided by the Bill will play a very important part in underpinning community care by ensuring effective supervision for some of the most vulnerable people, and better protection of the public.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has also announced proposals for a Bill to enable the General Medical Council to deal with the very small minority of doctors whose professional performance is found to be seriously deficient. Those powers have been sought by the GMC. They are in the interests of patients

22 Nov 1994 : Column 159

and the profession and will help raise the standard of health care even further. The proposals have been widely welcomed.

The Government have made clear their intention to work towards eliminating discrimination against disabled people. We published a consultation document earlier this year covering a number of measures to tackle discrimination against disabled people. As a result, we intend to bring forward a package of legislative measures in the area. The details of the Government's proposals will be announced shortly. The Bills that I have outlined will contribute greatly to the health and social welfare of the nation. More, I know, will be said from all Benches on those issues during the debate and as the Bills are considered in this Chamber.

I turn now to law and order. I should like to begin, first, with the changes which are proposed north of the Border. I am sure that that will meet with the approval of certain noble Lords on all sides of the House. A prime example of the Government's commitment to law and order is the announcement in the gracious Speech of legislation to reform the Scottish criminal justice system. The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, introduced into the House on Thursday, makes a number of important reforms to the Scottish criminal justice system. The provisions of the Bill are designed to strengthen the police, the prosecutors and the courts in the fight against crime. The Bill will also streamline the operation of the system, and will make it more accessible and responsive to all those who come into contact with it. Its provisions will build on the improvements set out in the justice charter for Scotland, while reaffirming the Government's firm and fair approach to law and order in Scotland.

Another aspect of law reform north of the Border is the Children (Scotland) Bill. I know that many noble Lords will welcome the opportunity to debate it in due course. In the White Paper, Scotland's Children, published in August 1993, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland set out the Government's intention for the reform of child care law and policy in Scotland. Widespread support has since been expressed for the promised legislation. The Bill will be a major reform of the law relating to children in Scotland and will embrace both public and private law, the latter based on the child-related aspects of the Scottish Law Commission's report on family law.

Returning south, I know that a general welcome will be given to the Bill, which introduces the setting up of a new body to investigate possible miscarriages of justice and to refer appropriate cases to the courts. The Bill will also propose changes to ensure that the Court of Appeal has the full powers that it needs in order to remedy wrongful convictions at the earliest opportunity.

Those important changes were among the main recommendations of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice and the Government had no hesitation in accepting them. We set out our detailed proposals for implementation in a discussion paper issued in March. That exercise revealed wide support for legislation of the kind that we are now proposing, and has enabled us

22 Nov 1994 : Column 160

to benefit from the observations of many experienced people, including the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice and his colleagues.

Our criminal justice system in all its operations must enjoy the full confidence of the public. It must ensure the conviction of the guilty, but only the guilty. We are confident that this Bill, which aims to strengthen appeals procedures and to create an independent body dedicated to the task of investigating cases where things may have gone wrong, will make a substantial and lasting contribution to the quality of justice.

Finally, in relation to the legislative programme, I should mention the implementation of Law Commission reports. The Government recognise the value of the Law Commission's work and, accordingly, welcomed the recommendation of the Select Committee, chaired by my noble friend Lord Jellicoe, that there should be an experiment in the use of Special Public Bill Committees for considering and enabling the passage of uncontroversial law reform measures such as those regularly produced by the commission.

The procedure was used in the last Session and it is, I think, generally agreed that it was a success. The Government intend to continue its use in the new Session for Law Commission recommendations which have been accepted, are ready for enactment and are not considered to be controversial. I should like to think that the reference of law reform Bills to Special Public Bill Committees might become a regular feature of the parliamentary landscape.

An example of the sort of measure which should be well suited to consideration in that way is a Private International Law Bill, which implements three short and technical, but useful, Law Commission reports. There are several other measures which we would also hope to introduce, given agreement as to their suitability for the new procedure. They would cover such matters as the civil remedies for domestic violence, the hearsay rule in civil proceedings and the effect of divorce on wills.

I hope that I have managed to give your Lordships at least a flavour of what the Bills outlined in the gracious Speech will achieve. Before finishing, however, I should like to say something about some of the many areas in the field of home and social affairs in which the Government are taking forward non-legislative initiatives, all intended to improve the lives of the people of this country; for example, the misuse of drugs, the tackling of which the Government see as a very high priority. Last month's Green Paper, Tackling Drugs Together, set out the most comprehensive action plan yet to tackle the drugs problem in this country.

We recognise that enforcement by itself is not enough to tackle drugs. Therefore, the strategy places a new emphasis on prevention and education to reduce the demand for drugs, especially from young people. In particular, the Government are launching an information and education campaign to give young people the knowledge and skills to resist drugs. My department will continue the funding of the Home Office drugs prevention initiative for a further period of four years. From 1st April 1995 there will be 12 teams which will

22 Nov 1994 : Column 161

cover a wider area and a larger population than ever before, stimulating community resistance to drug misuse.

An area in which we are actively seeking the views of the public and interested bodies on possible action is that of identity cards. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced on 13th October the Government's intention to publish a consultation paper in spring next year on the question of a national identity card scheme. I am well aware that there is a wide range of views on identity cards. I want the Government's Green Paper to open up that debate so that more views can be heard and we can consider the way forward in the light of the views expressed in that consultation period.

Turning to a different aspect of national life, I am sure that many of your Lordships will have noticed with some relief that the gracious Speech contains no legislative proposals for education. That does not, however, mean that we have no plans in that area. Far from it. We shall continue the effective implementation of our programme of reforms, which are all directed at further improving the standards of performance of our schools and our children. The key elements of the reforms include slimming down the national curriculum in response to teachers' own concerns about overload; ensuring that parents have the information they need about the performance of their local schools and colleges, so that they can make informed choices about their children's schooling; and continuing to encourage schools to become grant maintained and to promote the advantages of the grant-maintained sector by ensuring that factual information is available to parents and governors. We shall ensure that grant-maintained schools continue to receive the funding to match their additional responsibilities.

Additionally, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has set a target to provide, over time, a pre-school place for all four year-olds whose parents wish them to take it up. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education is now consulting widely with a view to drawing up detailed proposals. New places will have to be of good quality and promote diversity, parental choice and cost-effectiveness.

As my right honourable friend has already announced, in the coming months the Government intend to review the longer-term development of higher education, including its future purpose, size and shape. We shall consult fully with others on that important issue.

Your Lordships have, of course, had a full debate on Northern Ireland since the Summer Recess. I shall not, therefore, go over the ground again in full. However, it is important to look briefly at some of the recent developments. Since he entered Downing Street the Prime Minister has put Northern Ireland at the top of his agenda. He deserves our congratulations and praise for his courage, determination and vision. It is important that I also mention the courage and resolution of the Northern Ireland people, who have suffered with such stoicism the consequences of terrorism for so many years. The lives of us all have been touched by the shadow of terrorism.

22 Nov 1994 : Column 162

The Government's policy in Northern Ireland is clear: we want a lasting peace--not peace at any price, but peace properly attained and supported by an agreed political settlement.

There have been no secret deals for peace and nothing has been hidden under the table. We shall continue to watch the words and deeds of Sinn Fein and will expect to see practical evidence of its commitment to the peace process.

It is appropriate that I should say something about the fears, anxieties and suspicions of both communities in Northern Ireland. Those fears are groundless. Underpinning everything we do in Northern Ireland is the cast-iron guarantee that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland will be determined by its people. The Government will continue to work to achieve a widely acceptable political accommodation through its discussions with all the main Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government. The Prime Minister has made a commitment that the final outcome of the talks process--which will examine relationships within Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and between the two Governments--will be put to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum. That has put it beyond doubt that the people of Northern Ireland will make their own judgment and no settlement will be imposed on them against their will.

Before I close my remarks on Northern Ireland I should like to add my praise for the unstinting work of the security forces in Northern Ireland. Few of us in the House can imagine just how difficult and dangerous their task has been. They have already reacted to the different situation they face with violence having ceased; many measures have been reduced. But they have not dropped their guard; nor will they.

There is much work ahead for the Government, but I know that we have the support of the whole House for our efforts to secure an enduring peace and a lasting political settlement in that land.

The wide range of issues which my speech today has covered, albeit only briefly, and the doubtlessly even wider range in the debate to come, are indicative of the efforts the Government are making to achieve real improvements in services.

The legislative programme which I have set out today, together with the many non-legislative initiatives which are being taken forward, is designed to help improve the quality of people's lives. And it will do so by raising standards in our public services; by providing more help for the disabled; by improving further still the National Health Service for all, and for the mentally ill in particular; by strengthening the Scottish criminal justice system; and by strengthening the appeals procedure in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to name but a few.

This Government are determined to make a real difference to people's lives. Nowhere is that more true than on law and order. As the Police Federation has said, the measures we brought forward last year,

    "will enhance the ability of the criminal justice system to redress crime, bring criminals to justice and significantly reduce the fear of crime, so improving the quality of life for many members of society."

22 Nov 1994 : Column 163

They will give the police and the courts the powers they need to catch, convict and punish the guilty. We aim to challenge the politically correct dogma, which too many people in authority have held for far too long, that criminals are not responsible for what they do, but are simply a product of society. It is fashionable to claim to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. My Lords, the main causes of crimes are those who commit them --the criminals--and we intend to be tough on criminals. No matter how difficult that may be, we shall not flinch from our task, because we are determined to provide this country with the criminal justice system it cries out for.

That, then, is a brief resume of the home and social affairs programme. My Lords, I can promise that there will be few idle moments for you in the weeks and months ahead!

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page