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4.41 pm

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, one of the more remarkable communications from the present Administration was the Green Paper, published within a matter of a few weeks of the Prime Minister taking office, on the governance of Britain. It is remarkable that that Green Paper, which was extensively debated in this House, came at a time when the Prime Minister’s standing in the country was extremely high. I venture to suggest that it was brought forward in part because of his recognition and his personal imprimatur on the need to review the workings of our democracy and the need to consider, as spelt out in the Green Paper, how best to limit the powers of the Executive, how to make the Executive more accountable, and how to reinvigorate our democracy. Some progress was made in that direction in earlier Sessions of this Parliament, but what is noticeable is that the programme has almost entirely disappeared from the gracious Speech that we are considering today.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, mentioned the rather opaque remarks in the gracious Speech about the Government’s intention to take forward the proposals in their draft constitutional renewal Bill, which was considered in the last Session. While I do not agree at all with the noble and learned Lord’s remarks about the position of the Attorney-General, I none the less regret that that Bill has not

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re-emerged in this Session, not least because over many Sessions we have looked to the Government to fulfil their commitment to bring forward legislation to put the Civil Service on a statutory basis. To that end, I was particularly glad to hear the Front Bench of the Conservative Party reiterate its understanding of the importance of this Bill. How that could possibly be doubted at this time, with all the criticisms we have heard about partisanship in the Civil Service, I cannot imagine. I hope that in his winding-up speech the Minister will give us a clear indication of the Government’s intentions behind the opaque language about progressing these matters.

It may be thought that it is understandable that the gracious Speech focused more on the financial and economic crisis which overhangs our country’s future than on matters of governance. The legislative programme that the gracious Speech adumbrates is the most limited since the Government took office in 1997. In particular, it may be understandable that the Government do not wish to return at this time to the agenda for the reform of governance that they have announced, particularly at a time when their efforts are bent on projecting, at home and abroad, the Prime Minister as the leader needed to conduct us safely through this storm. It may be argued that it is a mere distraction to be seen to be working for what the Government’s own Green Paper describes as,

What a contrast that offers to the recognition by President-elect Obama of the United States of the requirement for full congressional backing to ensure the success of the evolving fiscal and banking measures required to turn round the United States economy.

There is, I regret, some truth in the observation made after the gracious Speech by Professor Anthony King, of Essex University. In a remarkable article in the Daily Telegraph he said that,

The charge that Professor King makes—that our system of governance is failing to perform adequately—is one that we cannot afford to put on ice until the financial problems which this country faces are adequately and finally dealt with. That, unquestionably, will take some years.

The professor summed up the situation by referring to the three decades that have given us the BSE debacle, the poll tax, the Child Support Agency, Britain’s ignominious expulsion from the European exchange rate mechanism, the Millennium Dome, the massive cost overruns and the partial or total failure of IT projects across the public sector, the bungled introduction of home information packs, the abandonment of super casinos, the fiasco of the cost-ineffective Assets Recovery Agency, the collapse of Metronet, GPs’ and dentists’ ill drafted contracts, Northern Rock, the failure of government regulation across the financial sector, the botched marking of last summer’s SATs exams, the mishandling of Post Office card accounts, the shambolic arrest of Damian Green, and a great deal else besides.

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Professor King is not expressing a partisan view. His criticisms are not directed against individual Ministers but towards a system which is producing such widespread concern about the competence of our Government. One factor to which he particularly drew attention was the opinion expressed in a YouGov poll that 70 per cent of the public consider that the unwillingness of politicians of different parties to co-operate in the national interest is a matter of great concern. That line of reasoning lies behind the thinking that a proportional system of election would deal with one of the public’s most serious concerns.

I detect a strong and widespread hope that the Prime Minister is indeed the man for the hour, but even the optimistic observer would do well to reflect on the dangers of deep public alienation from the Government as the fallout of the worsening recession is felt and hits jobs, savings and home ownership. The risk in any democracy is that disappointment and fear lead to distrust and even contempt, not only for the particular individuals holding political power but for the system that has empowered them. The risk is exacerbated when, as seems likely, the Opposition do not appear to offer a better alternative way out.

The consequence flowing from the loss of hope that we must avoid is that public confidence in the capability of our system of governance to find an acceptable way out of our discontent is displaced by deep divisions in our society, a grasping for populist remedies and the weakening of the firm democratic underpinnings upon which the accountability of our chosen leaders depends. My general message today, therefore, is that this is not a time to neglect the measures required to secure the health of our democracy; rather, it is appropriate to continue the process of reform to lead to better and more assured deliberative decision-making by the Government, decision-making that better commands the understanding and acceptance of our citizens. That principle is not wholly denied in the gracious Speech. There is, for example, a reference to creating,

The British public well know the limitations of local decision-making.

Just one example of an overdue reform that is apt for action now, at this time of financial difficulty and crisis, is that when the Government are seeking to stimulate public investment effectively, they must also convince that they are doing so fairly. The Barnett formula and arrangements for the distribution of central government funds to the regions ought to be recast. It is good that the matter is being considered by the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and I commend for its consideration what has been called the McLean/Macmillan formula in the author’s excellent book on the state of the Union. To the Government themselves I suggest that they should not allow the financial difficulties in which this country is languishing entirely to skew their approach to constitutional reform, which the Prime Minister stimulated in his early days and which was so widely appreciated at the time.

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4.53 pm

Baroness Manningham-Buller: My Lords, when I saw the Question tabled today by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, I wondered whether the points I wanted to make in this debate would be covered at Question Time. In fact they were not covered in any detail, so I have two points to make. The first is about the radicalisation of some young British Muslims. “Radicalisation” is an unsatisfactory term, but one that we used in my service in the absence of a better one.

I recall early in 2004 alerting the Government to the increasing concern the Security Service had about some of our citizens who were turning to terrorism and the urgent need to divert them from that. As we studied a wider number of cases we began to understand better the reasons for, and routes of, that radicalisation, not least through the many video wills seized by the police that made it clear why people had gone down that route. Sometimes the process was gradual; sometimes it was frighteningly rapid. One of the most horrid things to watch was the radicalisation, or rather the exploitation, of young boys in being manipulated to become terrorists. It is child exploitation of a cruel and dangerous kind.

Since the beginning of 2004, progress in addressing this issue has been uneven, partly because of uncertainty about what to do. Noble Lords will recall that prevent is the first of the four legs of the Government’s counterterror strategy. The second is pursue, identify, track down and, wherever possible, prosecute terrorists. The third is protect, assuming that, however successful are the first two legs, terrorism continues and we need to protect the most important people and sites in our society. The final leg is prepare, because there will always be terrorism.

Of those strands, the first, prevent, is by some measure the hardest, not least because there is no menu of policies, or lack of them, that is certain to lead to success and deter individuals from the path of terrorist violence. When I retired—which is now 20 months ago, so I recognise that I am out of date—I was concerned that not enough was being done: initiatives needed to be tried, academic and other studies encouraged, community engagement sought, with close co-operation between government departments, local authorities and others, and measure taken of what, if anything, was working.

I do not know quite where we stand today, although the threat is still severe. The comments of the Audit Commission, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, referred, are obviously of concern, recognising that while sensitive intelligence could not be widely shared with local authorities, there is no problem in principle with messages behind that intelligence being shared pretty broadly.

I was encouraged to learn recently of the son of a friend working on the prevent strategy in a borough in London and engaged in a number of different initiatives, but unless we continue to focus on this issue and to try at all levels different ways of deterring terrorist activity, the problem will continue to cause us difficulties for many years to come. Unless we address the attractions of terrorism for admittedly very few but still too many

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of our people, we are in trouble. I shall certainly ask the Minister at later stages what progress he thinks we are making.

My second point—I am conscious of the time; I managed three minutes in my maiden speech, but I have already overrun that—touches on this House’s concern about the use of some surveillance techniques. When RIPA was introduced—those of us in the intelligence community call it “Ripper”, as in “Jack the”, and not “Reaper”, as in “the Grim”; there is no correct pronunciation, but I always call it “Ripper” and so do my former colleagues—I assumed wrongly that the activities authorised by that legislation would be confined to the intelligence and security agencies, the police, and Customs and Excise. The legislation was drafted at the urgent request of the intelligence and security community so that its techniques would be compatible with the Human Rights Act when it came into force in 2000. I can remember being astonished to read that organisations such as the Milk Marketing Board, and whatever the equivalent is for eggs, would have access to some of the techniques. On the principle governing the use of intrusive techniques which invade people’s privacy, there should be clarity in the law as to what is permitted and they should be used only in cases where the threat justified them and their use was proportionate.

In this Session, the House will consider continuing access to core-related data, the future of interception—which I would argue is a more important issue than interception as evidence, important though that is—and DNA, on which the recent judgment is significant, although what it does not address is covert collection of DNA for intelligence purposes. I do not know whether it will still be possible to do that, but if it is not that would be a loss.

My final point is that, when the House, rightly, discusses these issues, we all need to remember that intelligence techniques and methods are fragile. Those who are the target of them wish to avoid the authorities discovering what they do. They take significant steps to avoid detection. If they become too aware of the detail of intelligence techniques, we will lose those techniques. I hope that that does not undermine what I said earlier about the need to have a proper legal basis for all those techniques.

5.01 pm

Baroness Quin: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, whose maiden speech was widely acclaimed but who has shown us today that, far from that being a one-off, it was the first of several significant contributions to your Lordships’ House. I also pay tribute to her in her previous role. Having been, as a Member in the other place, a member of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, I have special knowledge of her outstanding work in that field.

In my contribution, I shall highlight three areas of reform which I would like the Government to address and which come, I believe, under the home, legal and constitutional affairs remit that we are discussing today. Those reforms are prison reform, Lords reform and electoral reform, although by that I do not mean

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embarking down the well trodden path of proportional representation; I mean looking at ways of encouraging voter participation and turnout in our democracy.

Before touching on those three areas of reform, let me permit myself a couple of comments on the issue which has dominated the new Session of Parliament and which a number of speakers have already referred to—the events surrounding leaks from government and the searching of an MP’s office. I believe that the Government are right to be concerned about leaks, which seem to happen more frequently these days and risk undermining the necessary trust and good working relationship between Ministers and civil servants. Of course, it is equally right for Ministers and civil servants to respect each other’s roles and obey the respective codes that govern their proper conduct. However, I find it depressing that in the frenetic world of the 24-hour media there is so much comment when all the facts are not yet known. The result is often a kind of trial by media and, in particular, Ministers being accused of manipulating the police or of knowing things that they have said that they do not know, without any evidence of such malpractice being produced. Having been a Labour Home Office Minister, I feel confident that Ministers respect fully the operational independence of the police.

Secondly, a lot has been written and spoken about the allegedly supine and compliant nature of our Members of Parliament. I do not accept that Members are so different today from what they were in the past. This Government, despite their healthy majorities since 1997, have been defeated, notably on the 90-day rule. On the major policy area of Iraq, the Official Opposition were more enthusiastically supportive than the Government’s own supporters. In any case, is Parliament really so different from what it was? Perhaps we should remember the policeman’s song from “Iolanthe”, which first appeared in 1882, more than 100 years ago. It contains these well known lines:

“When in that House M.P.’s divide,

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too, They’ve got to leave that brain outside, And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to”.

Perhaps continuity of parliamentary tradition is a little more important than we sometimes give it credit for.

Prison reform is the first area to which I shall refer. I note that due to speak later in the debate are the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. I would be surprised if they did not make some allusion to this area of policy, as they are both doughty campaigners for prison reform. Over the past three years, I have had the honour to chair a project initiated by the Prison Reform Trust entitled No One Knows, which specifically looks at the experience of people with learning disabilities and learning difficulties in the criminal justice system. I bring that to the attention of the House because the work of the Prison Reform Trust has culminated in the launch of a report that I believe is important for government Ministers to look at. I was pleased that the Minister, David Hanson, was present at the launch of the report, but I urge Ministers in this House to examine it and report back to us in due course on how they propose to take its recommendations forward.

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Among the recommendations are improved screening and assessment procedures to identify people with learning disabilities and difficulties, better training of staff to recognise these issues throughout the criminal justice system, and simpler language in the literature given out and the procedures in court and prison to avoid misunderstandings or a lack of understanding on the part of the people involved. I will give one telling example. A person with such difficulties was asked in court whether he was remorseful. He answered no because he did not want to admit to something that he did not understand; he was not familiar with the word. That is a good example of a basic thing that can go wrong and that needs sympathetic consideration by the authorities.

There also needs to be better and more accurate sharing of information between agencies and departments and better identification of problems at an earlier stage. I hope that the Government will be able to give attention to this area. It does not necessarily demand new legislation, but effective action can be taken on it throughout government.

My second area of concern relates to reform of your Lordships’ House. While I expect that prison reform is an issue that evokes sympathetic responses in the Chamber, my views on reform of your Lordships’ House, given that I favour an elected House of Lords, may not occasion the same reaction. None the less, I agreed strongly with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, when he said last week that he regretted the lack of any mention in the gracious Speech of further reform of this House. He made a telling point when he said that, if nothing more is done, the present House will, in time, get older. New Members will be added and we will risk having a very large Chamber indeed with perhaps less effective attendance levels than we have now. That is something that we need to take seriously.

In addition, during the summer, we saw the study produced by the think tank New Local Government Network, which once again underlined the glaring regional imbalances and deficiencies in this House, with large swathes of the country, including my own area, the north-east, but also the north-west, the Midlands and Wales, being underrepresented here. That issue needs attention.

My noble friend the Leader of the House confirmed that the Government are not bringing forward any specific proposals in this Session. None the less, I hope that the Government will take their own proposals in their White Paper out to the general public. In due course, there will be proposals by the different parties in their manifestos for the next election and it would be nice to feel that there was better and more information available to voters who will, among other issues, be deciding on that subject. However, I favour the Government’s approach in wanting a lengthy transition in changing the composition of the House. It is possible to argue for reform, as I do, and yet be hugely aware of the strengths and qualities of the current House and wish to preserve them in future changes.

My last area of reform—in view of the time, I shall refer to it only briefly—is that of taking measures to encourage greater voter participation in elections. In

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their early years, the Government pursued a number of initiatives on this and I encourage them to take up that work again. Our system of voting in person on a Thursday was introduced a long time ago, when living and working conditions were different. In those days, people tended to work near home and many women were not in paid employment at all. However, I know from my former constituents that voting in person on a Thursday is not always easy for households with both partners working. In areas that are not perceived as marginal, taking time to vote is therefore not always a priority, even though those people are themselves not averse to voting.

My area had the longest and most continual experience of postal ballots. I report to the House that, in contrast to the perceived problems with this system, we had absolutely no problems at all. No fraud was detected or discovered during that experiment. While time prevents me from developing the argument further, I hope that the Government will neither turn away from all-postal ballots or other ways of increasing turnout nor penalise those areas where those experiments worked outstandingly effectively. It is not fair for those areas to be penalised by problems that occurred with the traditional postal ballot system elsewhere.

Having highlighted those three areas of concern, I conclude by saying that I none the less support the Government’s programme overall and look forward to helping with its passage through this House.

5.12 pm

Lord Waddington: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, will forgive me if I do not follow her in her remarks, although I found them interesting. I know that noble Lords will appreciate it if I do not add to the sea of words about Damian Green, but perhaps I will be forgiven for saying something about policing.

These days, the priorities of the police do not seem to correspond very neatly with the priorities of the public. Chasing around the country to arrest a man for making a tasteless joke at a country fair, questioning a woman for doubting the wisdom of gay adoption, investigating remarks made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and arresting a man the other day for making a bonfire on bonfire night and charging him with arson all seem a daft use of police time.

Of course the police have to respond to complaints and follow procedures, but a little common sense along the way might come in handy. The enthusiasm with which in recent years the police have set about responding to the Government’s often zany priorities and the massive resources employed to hunt down those responsible for leaking government documents that in no way damage national security but expose government incompetence sit rather oddly with the reluctance of the police to deal with offences such as burglary, which really do concern the public, with a plea of a lack of resources. All is not well. I make only one suggestion today, perhaps with my tongue in my cheek. Perhaps it would help if there were fewer sociologists at the top and more down-to-earth coppers such as those whom we are privileged to have in this House.

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In these stirring times, people may be surprised to hear that I have some sympathy with the Home Secretary. She must have been pretty horrified by the latest revelations of incompetence in the Home Office, particularly coming so shortly after she had gone into her office and found the shambles of immigration control there. It is about that shambles that I should now like to speak. I am afraid that I do not at all agree with the remarks made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth.

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