Created: 10 May 2012
I am an avowed monarchist and bow to no one in my support for Her Majesty the Queen, who yesterday gave an excellent Gracious Speech to both Houses and demonstrated once again the wondrous duty she has done for this country over 60 years as monarch. Over the course of this year we will be able to celebrate those 60 years, and not only in this country, but across the Commonwealth and the rest of the world. Later this year, when London hosts the Olympics and Paralympics, millions of visitors to this country will be able to see our pomp and pageantry at first hand. It is one of those things that keeps the traditions of this country fresh and refreshed in everyone’s mind, so it was a matter of great pride to be able to get into the other place this time to witness the Gracious Speech at first hand.
When I campaign on the doorsteps, and not just for the local elections over the past few weeks, but solidly, week in, week out, over many years, the last thing people talk about is reform of the other place. That comes across loud and clear. They worry about their jobs, the economy, feeding their children, their children’s education, care of the elderly and care of vulnerable young people. The key issue that I think was spelt out in the Gracious Speech was that we are putting the economy at the heart of government and putting right what went wrong.
The other thing that comes across loud and clear on the doorsteps is that the people of this country recognise who put the economy into this state and who are getting us out of it. I am sure that the fear on the Opposition Benches is that we are on the right course and that by 2015 the public will have realised that, and that the people who put us in this mess in the first place will not be trusted to run this country again.
The clear issue then, as others have mentioned, is the centrality of the legislation on reform of the other place. I am one of those—I am quite open about this —who, on becoming a Member, believed in a completely elected second Chamber. I thought that appointed or hereditary peers making judgments was an anachronism, but in my two years in this place I have changed my view, because in the other place there are many people who would never be elected or, in fact, selected, but who are absolutely critical to the functioning of government and to scrutinising the minutiae of legislation. We will have an interesting debate about House of Lords reform, but I do not believe that it should clog up the business of this House for any length of time whatever. There are much more important issues on which to centre our attention.
Another issue that comes across loud and clear on the doorsteps is people’s fear of crime and the importance of punishing criminals, and we should review what happened in the previous Session. We passed legislation that introduces much stricter punishments on offenders and, for the first time properly, makes brandishing a knife in public an offence that will be punishable by a period of incarceration. We should remember, however, that the legislation is still being enacted, followed through and will be gradually introduced over this Session for the courts to utilise.
The most important thing is that criminals are caught, processed quickly through our courts and suffer harsh sentences, so that they act as a deterrent to those who might follow them and, equally, so that the public can feel confident that those who would cause them damage are being taken off the streets. That is the other key issue. The legislation has been enacted, so it is now for the courts to ensure that it is implemented.
One thing that has been brought home to me about our courts system, and in particular our magistrates courts, is the failure to provide proper interpreters for either victims or those accused of crimes. Cases often have to be adjourned or dealt with on a different day because courts do not have the right interpreter. That is a huge waste of court time and money—although it is all public money in the first place. Ministers have to get to grips with that issue, but it does not need legislation; it just needs proper organisation and facilities.
I have undertaken the police parliamentary scheme, and I commend it to all hon. Members in order to see at first hand the job that the police do in keeping us safe on a day-to-day basis, and to see the specialist units that combat specific types of crime. I have a concern, however. I promote the increased use of no-strike agreements in the public sector, and I want to see more of them in our emergency services and specialist services on which we depend, but if we have a no-strike agreement, as we do with the police, which makes it illegal for them to go on strike, we must ensure not only that they are on-side and understand their duties and responsibilities, but that we listen to them.
Having met the police on many occasions, I am concerned that we in Parliament are not listening to them properly, so I recommend to Ministers, in particular, that they hold face-to-face talks with the Police Federation, which has come up with plans that would cut the cost of policing throughout the UK, to ensure that we establish a demonstrable and fair position for all police officers, thereby saving in the public sector the money that we all want to see saved. At the moment there is a view among the police that they are not being listened to, and as a natural Conservative I fear that that is not the right place for us to be, so I caution our Ministers to hold proper discussions.
Having seen at first hand many of the specialist units that operate in the Metropolitan police, in particular, I have become much more informed about the risks that we run in this country today. That is why I welcome many of the Bills announced in the Queen’s Speech.
I firmly believe that the protection of vulnerable children is vital, and I commend my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom on her interesting speech on early years development, which is crucial. Another issue is that the police can tell whether a young person aged eight will be a criminal in their teens and 20s. The reality is that such young people have been failed by our system; many have been in care all their lives and have never had parental direction or loving, caring parents. It is vital that we change that—that we speed up the process of adoption and make sure that those vulnerable young people are protected and brought up to understand the differences between right and wrong and what a loving family is all about.
Before I came to this place, I was a councillor for 24 years, during which time I examined the problems of young people and the failure of the local authority to permit any adoptions whatever for an extended period. Early adoption, so that loving parents can take over looking after a baby, is crucial. Adoption used to take place very much quicker if, unfortunately, children were not wanted or their parents were not able to look after them. Now, of course, many thousands of children across the country are left in care for far too long and never get adopted. It is far better for there to be adopted babies rather than adopted young children. That is important.
I am delighted that we will be enshrining in law what the Labour party talked about when in power and we talked about in opposition—making sure that race will not be the single issue determining whether someone can adopt a child.
On the draft communications Bill, having spent 19 years working for British Telecom and having gone around the specialist units of the Metropolitan police, I have seen at first hand the huge increase in the use of mobile phones, texting and electronic data in general. The internet has transformed the whole of society. One issue for those who understand the technicalities is that it is one thing to detect when someone with a fixed internet protocol address joins the internet, but it is quite another when a dynamic IP address is used. If someone is a criminal or terrorist, they are likely to know about those technical aspects and avoid detection. We have to ensure that we do not fall into the trap of changing the law and putting an unnecessary burden on the vast majority of people in the country, while not catching any terrorist at all. That is my immediate concern.
I believe in the fundamental civil liberties of the individual—the right for people to go about their lawful business as they choose, with minimum interference from the state. We recognise, of course, that some liberties have to be given up so that general liberty is preserved. However, I am pleased with the clarification on the Bill—that we will not have a Government database of a huge amount of e-mail traffic. Goodness knows what the size of that database would be if it included the vast growth in e-mail and text messages. At the moment, there is software that will easily do searches of key words and strings of particular words to search all e-mail traffic across the UK. However, I suspect that that would not be helpful, as criminals and would-be terrorists would quickly develop a code that excluded all the tracked words.
I have discussed with the Met police paedophile unit the vast growth in the number of paedophiles who use the internet to groom young people for their horrible purposes. Without going into the details of what the Met police do operationally, they say that they are just capturing the tip of a very large iceberg. We must all be concerned that there are vulnerable young people who are being groomed by those evil people. Let us be clear: they are evil people who need to be caught and punished to ensure that vulnerable people are protected. It is therefore vital that the law is changed to enable the police to do more to trap those people and to make sure that they are suitably punished. That must trump everything else.
On processes for dealing with crime and the courts, I fear that with 43 police forces across the country acting independently, criminals, particularly organised criminals who carry out their crimes across the UK, have the opportunity of not being detected. A national crime agency that will deal with this right across the UK, ensuring co-operation between police forces and taking over responsibility, must be the right way forward.
I am equally of the view that our borders must be protected. A national border force that will ensure that people who lawfully come to this country can enter, but those who try to enter illegally cannot, must, likewise, be the right way forward. Interestingly, the Queen’s Speech suggests no changes to immigration law, and that is right. Instead, we need to ensure that the existing rules are operated properly and thoroughly so as to be fair to everyone concerned. I noted the comments by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee about people entering the UK for family parties, weddings, other celebrations, and funerals, and I share his view that there are serious problems in that regard. However, many of those problems would be solved if the applicants were properly advised to put their application in correctly with all the relevant details to prevent their being not allowed to enter the country and then having to appeal, which is a costly and totally unnecessary process.
One of the key concerns of people who have chosen to live in this country, be they of whatever origin, is that far too many people are entering the country. It is right that people who have relatives in other parts of the world should be allowed, if they wish, to have them here to visit—that is the key word—for a short period and then return. However, those visits can tend to be rather extended, with people overstaying their visas and then no action being taken, over many years, to make sure that they return. These serious concerns are shared by many people right across the various different communities that make up our great British nation. The Government must look into the matter, because the people of this country clearly expect the sheer numbers of people choosing to come to join us and live here to be reduced drastically.
The issue of appeals is interesting. My caseload is similar to that of many other Members. When people are forced to lodge an appeal, it is almost always the case that they have failed to put the relevant information on the application in the first place. If people got their applications right, they would not need to appeal because they would be admitted rather than refused. The clear solution is to have proper advice and a proper process. People gaining permission to come to the UK before they get anywhere near booking flights is the way forward.
It was disgraceful of the Labour Government to leave people for 10 years or more not knowing whether they had a legal right to stay in this country. I have inherited such cases in my constituency. The backlog of cases that had to be dealt with by the incoming Government was immense. There are sharp lawyers—actually, they are not sharp lawyers, but lawyers who are sharp at taking people’s money off them—who, when they have no case whatsoever, will charge people enormous sums of money to write short letters on their behalf. The lawyers who really annoy me are the ones who take money off my constituents and then write to me as their client’s MP asking me to do their job for them. I take the view that immigration rules need to be firm, fair and understood. The previous Government left people waiting, without solving their problems.
I am pleased that we will reform the position on defamation. Many of us who have been involved in public life for a long time know that going through the High Court when one has been defamed is not a cheap option. Anything that reforms that process has to be good. I think that opening up the courts for television, if it is used in the right way, will quickly lose its novelty. I also think that it will help to get rid of the fear that people have of going to court, either as a witness or because of some other involvement in a civil case. We will get to a position quickly where people understand what really goes on in the British courts before they experience it. That is to be welcomed.
Overall, this is a strong Queen’s Speech, particularly in the area of home affairs. It has started a process that we want to see, and it will deliver a safer and more prosperous Britain for everyone who lives here.
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