Friday, November 24, 2006

Debate on the Address

Lord Avebury: My Lords, one of the consequences of a debate such as this, covering the whole of DCA and Home Affairs, is that it is somewhat disjointed. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, will forgive me if I do not follow him in discussing House of Lords reform, except to say that if you reserve a certain number of places for faith communities, as he appeared to suggest, why should not the same be done for, say, the professions, the trade unions or any other group of people who play a significant role in our society? I hope that when we discuss the reform of the House of Lords, we will take that into consideration.

I would like to speak about what the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, referred to as the torrent of Home Office legislation coming down the track towards us, particularly the Home Office Bills dealing with crime and immigration at a time when the ink is not dry on the Acts that were passed earlier this year, to say nothing of the 50 Home Office Bills we have dealt with since 1997. When Mr Blair finally steps off on 26 July next year, he will have comfortably broken the record for the number of Bills passed, and if the criterion was the number of pages in the Bills, he would be miles ahead of all his predecessors put together.

What is the purpose of this immense ziggurat of paper? The number of people in prison, which was 60,000 when new Labour came into office, has zoomed up to 80,000 and counting today, with record rates of reconviction and a Probation Service which is staggering under the load of the numbers it is supervising. Prison and probation officers are never given a chance to catch their breath before another wave of customers hits them. There will be a loss of democratic accountability through the centralising

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tendency of NOMS—an acronym which means “nightmare on Marsham Street” to everybody in the penal system—while the dogmatic commitment to “contestability”, a piece of new Labour jargon I abhor, undermines morale and diverts attention from the real need to make existing services better. I was very impressed by the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, who indicated that a great deal can be achieved without legislation, although probably not while the prisons are, as at present, crammed to bursting point.

We need to address the paradox that while in general crime is being reduced, more people are being sent to prison and are being given longer sentences in spite of the Carter report’s finding that:

“The increased use of prison and probation has only had a limited impact on crime ... there is no convincing evidence that further increases in the use of custody would significantly reduce crime”.

Recently the Lord Chief Justice himself expressed concern about the increased length of sentences for serious offences—and then there was a predictable outcry from certain sections of the media. The pressure on the courts and the parole system created by the lurid accounts in these newspapers of a few crimes of violence committed by ex-offenders has such a harmful effect on sentencing practice. The only way of ensuring that no ex-prisoners go on to commit further serious crime after being released would be to lock them all up for the rest of their lives.

Twenty-five years ago, the Home Office found that a small proportion of violent offences were committed by persons who were classified as “dangerous” by reference to their previous history. Of those people, two-thirds had symptoms of mental disorder. Yet today we still find that the mentally ill or abnormal are clogging up the prisons when they should be in psychiatric institutions. I do not know whether the new definition in the Mental Health Bill that is coming before us will have any impact on that, but I hope that one feature of it—though others have been criticised—will be that that definition enables more prisoners who are suffering from mental illness or disorder to be treated in appropriate institutions and not kept in prisons where nothing can be done for them.

Substance abusers and people with speech, language and communications difficulties to whom the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, referred six years ago should also be elsewhere. It is no wonder that reoffending is such an intractable problem, because prisons and YOIs are the wrong institutions for the special needs of a large proportion of their inmates. The local education authorities and NHS trusts simply do not have the resources even to assess those needs, let alone to provide remedial treatment. If the Government had genuinely set out to be tough on the causes of crime, as in the mantra that goes back to Mr Blair’s Labour Party speech at the conference of 1992, the attributes that predisposed people to commit crimes would have been tackled vigorously by preventive action in the community.

The Home Office reported more than six years ago that alcohol misuse was involved in 76 per cent of assaults and 88 per cent of criminal damage, but it is

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astonishingly complacent about the harm being done by alcohol, which was already costing England £20 billion a year in 2000-01, of which £7.3 billion was accounted for by crime and public disorder. That was according to a Cabinet Office paper of 2003. The Home Office Minister in charge of alcohol crime and disorder, Mr Tony McNulty, said that it would not be practicable to update those figures annually. I should like to ask—as I did today at Question Time, though without getting an answer from the noble Lord, Lord Warner—how otherwise the Government suggest that the public can assess the effectiveness of their alcohol harm reduction strategy. I should like an answer to that question today.

I should also like an answer on the calculations that I submitted to the Home Office which showed that, since the date of the Cabinet Office survey on alcohol harm, the figure has increased by somewhere between £1.9 billion and £8.4 billion, depending on what index is used to measure it and why the Government still refuse to consider using price and availability, which are the only weapons that would effectively dam the torrents of alcohol that are poisoning millions of people.

On immigration and asylum, I very much regret, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, did, that there has been no consolidation four years after we first raised the matter and despite the assurance that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, gave us in January that she would see whether it could be taken forward with the Law Commission. She undertook to discuss the matter with me or put a note in the Library after that discussion with the Law Commission. However, as I reminded her office on Monday, there has been no word about it since then. I hope that the Minister says something about that.

There has been no further news, either, about whether the Government have decided to exercise the power given them by an amendment to the 2006 Act to repeal Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 by which families with children can be deprived of all support at the end of the asylum process. The Minister said that a decision on that matter would be made when the evaluation of Section 9 had been considered, but again we have heard nothing since we discussed that in February or March.

In the new immigration Bill, the Government seek tougher powers to police the border. I wonder how that issue has arisen, given that the previous Bill left us only eight months ago. They say that it will make it easier to deport those who break the law, but the crisis has arisen through administrative flaws and not through a lack of legislation. The foreign prisoners scandal happened last spring because the IND displayed no effective or consistent approach and no coherent or timely planning for what needs to be done at the end of the sentence. Those are not my words; they come from the recent report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons. The IND’s criminal casework team needs to be thoroughly overhauled, and that should be done before we have any further knee-jerk legislation of this type.

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Like my noble friend Lord Dholakia, I hope that the Government will also have regard to what the JCHR had to say in its 32nd report about the legal rights of EEA nationals and the need for proportionality in deciding whether to deport non-EEA offenders.

Finally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, also said, there is no sign of a coroner’s Bill which, as the Constitutional Affairs Committee said in another place, is long overdue. The committee had valid objections to the draft Bill but nine of its 16 recommendations have been accepted by the Government in whole or in part. The delays in hearing inquests of up to six years in the case of Oxfordshire, because of the additional responsibilities on coroners for examining deaths overseas, is utterly unacceptable. I hope that the Government will immediately provide extra resources for the coroners furthest in arrears and produce a revised draft Bill early enough in this Session for the Select Committee to be able to report on the subject again before next summer so that there can be a strong presumption of the final version appearing in next year’s Queen’s Speech.

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