Queen's Speech debate: Home Affairs and Justice

Charles Walker condemns the erosion of our basic freedoms and traditions highlighting restrictions on free speech, removal of trial by jury in some cases and the diminishing role of Parliament with less time to debate new Bills.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the 12th Queen’s Speech debate under the current Government. I imagine that there will be one more—unlucky No. 13. I sincerely hope that is unlucky for this Labour Government, not for the Conservative party, in that the 13th Queen’s Speech will be the last one that we get from them for some years to come.

I will try to stick to the Home Office brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am sure that you will forgive me if I stray slightly. I do not think that a huge number of Members are waiting to speak, so I should not be putting too many noses out of joint, but if I do, I am sure that you will point it out to me.

Before I move on to the substantive part of my speech, I should like to focus on the operational independence of the police, about which a lot has been said over the past two or three days. Let me point out that the operational independence of the police was compromised about three years ago, during the debate over 90 days’ detention, when chief constables from around the country were urged by the Government to write to Members of Parliament asking them to support 90 days. That seemed to break a long-held convention that chief constables did not involve themselves in the day-to-day business of Parliament. From that moment on, the rot set in.

The rot has been particularly noticeable in the Metropolitan police, whose problems have been well documented. The commissioner has just retired early, and of course there are the ongoing problems with last week’s raid on the offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) here, in his constituency and at his home. I hope that the Home Office takes a good long look at the operations of the Metropolitan police, because it seems to be becoming dysfunctional as an organisation, with a group of fiefdoms not talking to one another and pursuing their own different agendas. The public in London are beginning to lose confidence in the Metropolitan police, and we cannot afford for that to happen at the moment, with the Olympics just around the corner, in a little over three years’ time, and the daily threat posed by terrorists.

As regards counter-terrorism and legislation on counter-terrorism, I remain concerned about the erosion of civil liberties. Our democracy, which we have treasured over the past 400 years, has made this country what it is today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) pointed out. We remain one of the richest economies in the world, despite the current difficulties in the financial markets. We have wonderful things that have been brought about by democracy. We have, still, a thriving trade union movement. We have an NHS. We have wealth creation. We have vibrant and open debate. Those things, collectively, have made this country what it is.

I am concerned that over the past few years we have taken many of our traditions for granted and cast some of them aside. We have put aside trial by jury in certain cases—complex cases, admittedly, but our legal system should be capable of rising to the challenge of being put to the test through complex cases. We have seen the introduction of double jeopardy, whereby someone can be tried twice for the same crime. Those sorts of powers have been used by dictatorships through the ages and across the world in order to finally find a jury or judge who will give them the result that they want. Double jeopardy has been used to restrict people’s liberties and to corrupt the legal system.

There have been restrictions on our free speech. This is a well worn example, but it is still highly relevant. A few years ago, a woman stood at the Cenotaph and read out, very gently and quietly, the names of our war dead—the young men and women who had fallen in Iraq and, I believe, Afghanistan, serving their country. She was arrested and detained. That is not a Great British thing to do. It is not the British way, and we should rightly remain concerned about it.

We talk continually, still, about the merits of ID cards. I am implacably opposed to ID cards, as I believe many of my constituents are. This country belongs to me. I was born here. I have a right to be here. I do not have to prove myself to anyone, nor should I have to. Yes, there are problems with the immigration system, problems that I feel the Government are largely responsible for, but the citizens of this country should not pay for the Government’s failings by sacrificing more of their freedoms.

Mr. Mark Field
: My hon. Friend referred to the British way, something which many of us feel strongly in our hearts. It has been the tradition in this country that we have an unwritten constitution. Does he now feel that the time is ripe for a codified constitution to be put in place to protect the liberties that all of us have perhaps taken for granted, but feel at this stage— [ Interruption. ] I am not passing a judgment either way on this matter, but given the concerns that my hon. Friend expressed, does he feel that it would be the right way forward?

Mr. Walker
: I hope that we have not yet reached that stage, but if we are to avoid reaching it, now is the time for Members of Parliament to be big, to stand up and be counted and to fight for the freedoms that we treasure. It does not matter whether we are in the Labour party, the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrat party.

We love this country, we love our democracy and it is up to us to stand up and fight for it and to challenge those forces that would diminish and traduce it.

Today, we have had some welcome news on the DNA database. I cannot believe that the records of perhaps 6 million innocent people are kept on that database. They are people arrested or detained by the police who are not guilty of any crime beyond perhaps being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but their records are retained on the database. We hear this rubbish, this Orwellian nonsense: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” That is something we would expect to hear from the Stasi in eastern Europe. It is a nonsensical statement.

I have a constituent who has committed not a single crime in his life, but on his advanced Criminal Records Bureau check he carries details of a wicked and violent crime committed against a member of his family by a totally unconnected third party. He has nothing to hide, but he has everything to fear. I have taken up his case with the Information Commissioner, the Home Office and the police, and nobody will act to right this wrong. It is an act that would be more at home in Stalinist Russia than in this country.

Mr. Field
: My hon. Friend makes his point with great passion. I very much agree with it, and the contribution made earlier on the matter of the DNA database by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). Would my hon. Friend accept—and I hope that the Minister will take this point on board—that DNA technology is important, but that in 40 or 50 years’ time we will have DNA mark 2 or mark 3 technology that will be considerably superior to what we have now? It will show up many of the deficiencies that my right hon. and hon. Friends have pointed out.

Mr. Walker
: My hon. Friend is right; we are in the early stages of this technology. My concerns about the DNA database rest on the fact that the details of people who have not committed any crime are retained on that database. Whether it is a database operating today or in 30 years’ time, that is wrong, and it must be stopped.

Finally, as we are talking about Home Office Bills, I return to the role of Parliament in scrutinising Bills. Parliament has undoubtedly been diminished over the past decade. We have less time for debate. We have less time to discuss Bills on Second Reading, and to consider them on Report and in Committee. It is important that we get that time back; so often a brief Second Reading debate is truncated because we have one or two statements beforehand. The Bill then goes into Committee, which may meet for six or eight sittings, where whole areas of the Bill remain undiscussed. Then it comes back to this place on Report, and the Government table a raft of new clauses and amendments that no one has had a chance to consider beforehand. So the Bill goes through almost unscrutinised, and again we are left to rely on those in the other place to make up for our deficiencies.

Of course, Members of Parliament are not blameless. A few committed Members of Parliament are in the Chamber, taking part in and listening to the debate. However, too many of us perceive a one-line Whip as an opportunity to go home—yes, to do worthy things, such as spending time in our constituencies on constituency engagements, but our constituents send us here to make their concerns known in this place and to give them a voice in the mother of Parliaments and the cockpit of the country. We must take that responsibility seriously. I hope that I am not getting too many dirty looks from colleagues—they are excluded from my criticisms because they are here and should be congratulated on that. If they would like me to name them for the benefit of Hansard, I am happy to do that.

Our freedoms are important and we need to protect them. Last week, a Conservative Member of Parliament was arrested and his House of Commons office was searched. Next week, that could happen to a Labour Member of Parliament—we hope to God that it will not. Let us remember that only a few months ago the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) had his conversations and private discussions with a constituent who was in prison recorded. The police have form and we need to ensure that proper safeguards are in place so that our constituents, wherever they are, have confidence when they talk to us that those discussions are private.

I will not detain the House any longer. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make a short contribution.

2.51 pm



Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about party fundraising. Why does politics excite people in the United States of America in a way that it is simply not exciting people in this country?

Sir Alan Beith: It is probably mainly to do with a perception that there was a need for change and a means to bring it about. We must all hope that the election of Barack Obama and his Administration satisfies some of those aspirations, which led people to take part. It may not so fully do so, as that is difficult to achieve. In our system, many people assume that nothing they do will make any difference. They have seen the two main parties grow rather more similar in recent years in the ideas and prescriptions that they put forward. That might change again—who knows?

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