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3.36 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for her typically down-to-earth and practical approach to the subjects we are to debate this afternoon. I believe that I shall carry all in the House with me when I say how much we look forward to the maiden speeches this afternoon of my noble friends Lord Attenborough and Lord Dubs and the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I am sure that they will make an excellent contribution to our debates, not only today but also in the future.

I said that the Minister was down-to-earth in her approach. However, it is important that we should raise our eyes a little when we consider home and social policy. Unless we ask ourselves what social policy is for, then we are not really asking the question which is the most difficult of all to answer; namely, what is this Government for?

In the debate this afternoon we are concerned, as the Minister rightly said, with many aspects of the quality of life. The quality of life is as important for ordinary people as the quantity of life, which is to be debated on Thursday in the debate on the economy and industry.

In considering social policy, I shall not go back to Beveridge, as my noble friend Lady Hollis and I did last year, but I want to take my text from a more recent and very wise man, John Kenneth Galbraith. He published a book entitled The Culture of Contentment two years ago. He had a powerful insight into the kind of social policy which lies behind the Government's legislative programme over the past 15 years and as announced this afternoon.

Galbraith said:

In other words, if you have something, you do not necessarily want everyone else to have it; and you want to make sure that nothing in social policy takes away from the "haves", even if that is at the expense of the "have nots". Unfortunately, intellectuals throughout history have fallen over themselves to provide justifications (whether or not consciously) for the "haves" rather than the "have-nots".

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Without going back further than the ancien regime in France, before the French Revolution, the physiocrats--the economists of those days--found excellent justifications in theory for the predominance of a small class, without even realising that their days were numbered by overwhelming protest from the great majority of French people. Nineteenth and 20th century capitalism has had a series of intellectuals justifying its precepts: from Malthus saying that there was no way in which the poor could have their condition made better because there would therefore be more of them and they would be dragged down by that factor, through classical economics to, more recently, monetarism. With Soviet communism--a wonderful theory in many ways--the intellectuals justified the establishment of the elite in the theory of democratic centralism. That tiny elite oppressed the vast majority of other people under Soviet communism. That in the end brought about the downfall of Soviet communism.

We should be aware of the intellectual underpinning of the culture of contentment. It shows itself in the way the Government think about social policy. I wish to identify the three elements: the theory of less government, given most extreme expression to by Mr. Newt Gingrich, the next speaker of Congress in another country; the theory that wealth and indeed greed is good, as expressed by Mr. Ivan Boesky, and many Right-wing politicians in many countries of the world; and the theory that it is desirable and possible for us to have less public responsibility for the poor, as endorsed by Dr. Charles Murray most recently. The problem with those theories is that they can work in electoral terms. What capitalism has succeeded in doing is to secure that the contented are in the majority. Marx identified the oppression of the majority by the minority. We now find possible the oppression of the minority--the poor, the underclass--by the majority, and certainly the electoral majority as expressed in the American mid-term elections at which only 38 per cent. of the population voted.

I have taken that time to introduce what I wish to say about the gracious Speech because it seems to me that the Queen's Speech is very much about that intellectual underpinning of the culture of contentment. Through its social policies, such a culture risks two factors at the core of both law and order policy and policy on the welfare state. Through isolating an underclass, it risks making that class's position more hopeless and moving it further away from the contented majority in our society. It risks the increase in crime which indeed has taken place over the past 15 years under a Conservative Government. By the deliberate destruction of some of the major elements of the welfare state, such a culture further alienates that underclass.

Under the Conservative Government what has happened with regard to the welfare state, even in the past 12 months, is that we pay more in order to get less. For example, employees' national insurance contributions went up on 1st April of this year. Less will be received in respect of incapacity benefits, statutory sick pay, the jobseeker's allowance and the other programmes which the Minister has outlined. I shall wish to say more on a number of those specific aspects.

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However, before I do so, I wish to say how much we on these Benches welcome the decision of the Government to advance the introduction of the criminal cases review authority. The Minister rightly said that the proposal will achieve support from all corners of the House. Indeed, I so stated from these Benches only a few months ago. I can reassure her that the Bill will receive enthusiastic co-operation from us. A number of issues in the discussion paper issued in April have still to be resolved. For example, who will conduct the investigations? Will it be the police or a dedicated force? With regard to membership of the authority, will it be leavened (if lawyers will forgive my saying so) by the presence of a significant number of non-lawyers? There will be issues regarding powers, for example, to summon witnesses in its procedures. Although we shall not oppose the proposal in principle, there are matters on which we may disagree. I respectfully suggest to the Leader of the House that a special standing committee might consider the Bill in the period of 28 days between the time that it is introduced and Committee stage, with the benefit of expert witnesses assisting your Lordships in their considerations. If the Bill is indeed to be introduced in this House first, I commend that procedure.

The Minister said nothing about prisons or the announcement made recently on home leave. It is interesting that previous Home Secretaries have boasted about having a reduced prison population, whereas this Home Secretary seems to consider it proper to boast about having a larger prison population. Indeed, the prison population has increased under his regime from something like 42,000 to nearly 50,000. However, I was concerned by what has been said about home leave. As noble Lords will know, the present system on home leave was introduced as a result of the inquiry by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, into the riots in Strangeways Prison. I had thought that it was generally agreed that such a pressure valve was desirable in the prison service. Yet in response to questioning from the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, it appears that there are no adequate national statistics on the extent of home leave or indeed the extent to which home leave is being abused. On what appears to be a purely arbitrary basis, the Home Secretary proposes to cut 40 per cent. of home leave. I have seen no justification put forward that such a cut is necessary. I regret in particular the proposal that there should be no home leave for education, training and work experience for those serving in Category A and B prisons.

Your Lordships have expressed their opinion on criminal injuries compensation and attempted to press that opinion but were regrettably overturned by Government. That was before we knew that the Government's proposals were illegal. If it is true that the costs of criminal injuries compensation are increasing--there is some doubt that they are increasing as fast as the Government suggest--we have to ask why. The answer can only be that crime is increasing under a Conservative Government. We have to ask about the justice of proposals put forward in that policy's stead, in particular about the abolition of compensation for loss of earnings.

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Criminal injuries compensation is only one aspect of the vacuity of the Government's claim that they are looking after the victims of crime. The Minister stated that the Government's policy is to be tough on criminals when she opposed Tony Blair's description of being tough on crime and on the causes of crime. It remains to be seen whether a tough policy in dealing with those criminals who have been convicted is the right approach to dealing with law and order problems. What is quite certain is that the Government by their attitude to the criminal injuries compensation legislation, and in other matters, are being tough on the victims of crime.

For example, what are the Government doing to ensure that there are quick payments by criminals charged to compensate victims for the crime? What are the Government doing to ensure that there is proper control of progress payments to victims of crime? What are the Government doing to ensure that victims are consulted on charges? That is a perfectly reasonable reform which has been advocated for a number of years and never adopted. What are the Government doing to ensure that victims are given adequate information about the progress of a case and the dates on which a case comes forward? What is being done to protect victims from intimidation? That is a very topical comment in view of the commitment to prison of an elderly husband and wife who were afraid of being intimidated as potential witnesses. What are the Government doing to ensure that there is secure witness accommodation in courts? All those and many other matters do not give us any assurance that the Government's claims to be concerned with the needs of victims have any real substance.

There are matters on which we strongly agree with the Government. I particularly welcome what the Minister has just said about Law Commission reports. I remind her that there are now, I believe, 32 outstanding Law Commission reports and if we are to deal with them in a reasonable time --say, three years--we ought to be dealing with 10 or more Law Commission reports every single year. Even if--as the Minister suggests--and we support it--we refer them to Special Public Bill Committees, it is quite a programme to be introduced off the Floor of the House.

The Minister spent some time on Scotland, but I shall not follow that because my noble friend Lord Macaulay of Bragar will deal with it. However, before I leave Home Office policy, I wish to extend the argument a little further. Respect for the law and for probity in public life also affects us as Members of this House. I welcome the statement which was recently made by the Leader of the House in favour of consideration of a register of Members' interests. I am glad to know that it will be pursued. However, when we consider it we must also consider whether the declaration of interests by Members of the House is adequate and whether the phrase "direct pecuniary interest" is drawn too tightly. We must consider whether the declaration of interest is adequate in the sense that, having declared an interest, there appears to be no firm prohibition on those who have conflicting interests speaking and voting on legislation.

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I believe that we ought to consider whether we should look to the rules which Parliament itself has imposed on local government as an example to us in the way we conduct our own affairs. There it is very clear that those who have a pecuniary interest, even of a fairly general kind, are forced not only to declare that interest in advance but are also debarred from speaking and voting. We ought to look to the principle which was established many years ago by a Select Committee on procedures in this House--in a report which was accepted by the House--that we should receive pay for nothing which arises out of our membership of the House. If we receive pay for what we are doing here as Members of the House, we are breaking the fundamental principle that we are an unpaid House. I do not believe that that is sustainable. If any Members think that membership of the House is somehow a bar to introducing stronger procedures for control of our own affairs, I suggest to them that what they are doing is arguing not against stronger principles for the way we conduct ourselves but against our existing membership. The argument will fall inevitably that way if reform is resisted.

I move through other issues of social policy as rapidly as I can because my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden will deal with most of them in her winding-up speech. I wish to say a word in particular about pensions. As the Minister made quite clear, the necessity for a reform of pensions arises from the Maxwell debacle and the Goode Report which followed. If we are to have adequate control of private sector pension schemes, we have to assert some principles about the way they are conducted. That is what the Opposition will do. We shall have to ensure that member trustees, who should really be in the majority, are an essential part of the trustee body. There should be no question of opting out. We should ensure that trustees receive independent training, not simply from the financial advisers to the pension fund.

On the whole issue of the guaranteed minimum pension which has been ensured as not less than the value of SERPS, I am worried about the proposed replacement by a requisite benefit scheme. That seems to us to be fine for the better paid and those in long-term jobs, but it does not seem to provide adequate protection for the large, and increasing, number of people who have many different jobs, some of them low paid, in the course of their working lives. I must remind the Government and the House that the need for this new control over pension schemes arises from deliberate government policy. It was the Government's policy which, with the stick of reducing the benefits from SERPS and the carrot of providing for a short-term bribe from the Department of Social Security, led us into this mess in the first place. We shall have to help them get us out of it, but it will not be an easy problem to solve.

I shall not say much about the Child Support Agency because other noble Lords are much better qualified to talk about it. Nor will I talk about the disabled because my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke will undoubtedly make as powerful a speech as he usually does on the subject. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, intends to speak somewhat in that area too.

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I thought it was a bit of a nerve for the Minister to say that the jobseeker's allowance would provide an improvement in government policy for the unemployed. What it will do is to reduce the benefits, which have, after all, been paid for and which are not means tested, from 12 months to six months. It is based on the entirely false assumption--which goes back, I think, again to Galbraith--that what deters the unemployed from finding jobs is lack of effort to find them rather than the real problem with which the Government do not propose to deal--the poverty trap.

I shall not say much about the National Health Service, except that to abolish the regional health authorities and turn them into committees of the National Health Service Executive seems to me to be nationalisation to the nth degree. Having created regional and local quangos, we are now to replace them by branches of a central quango. Of course, we welcome any improvement that is proposed in the treatment of those with mental health problems in the community and we shall listen sympathetically to what the Government say in that respect.

I repeat the question: what is social policy for? The Government seem to think that social policy is an instrument of supply side economics, an instrument of the policy which suggests, "Well, there's very little we can do about economic policy other than fiscal and monetary adjustment. So we shall treat social policy as a sub-division of that repudiation of positive government action". We, on the other hand, see social policy and policy on law and order as the means to a civilised society. We want to see the result of government actions, not just this year, not just over the past 15 years, but in the short time which remains to this Government, as helping to create what the next government will create--a society to which we are all proud to belong.

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