Yesterday, the Queen opened the 2016-17 Parliament with her address to both Houses of Parliament. The speech is written by the Government and includes an outline of what they want to do in this Parliament.
I spoke in the following debate and there were three aspects to the Speech that I was concerned about and wanted to put on the record how I will be holding the Government to account on those issues. In particular I will be watching the Prisons Bill, the reform of the House of Lords and the Wales Bill.
As a previous Prisons Minister in the last Labour Government and a member of the House of Commons Justice Select Committee I am deeply interested in the Prisons Bill.
It will enact the closure of old, inefficient prisons and the creation of Reform Prisons – ones led by governors with the power to enter into contracts and establish their own Boards with external expertise. Moreover, it will require prisons to produce statistics on areas such as prisoner education, reoffending and employment on release. Labour wants a justice system which puts public safety first, bears down on crime and protects victims. So proposals to give prison governors more autonomy and an increased focus on rehabilitation and prisoner education are welcome. But in order to cut re-offending and truly reform the prison estate, the Government must deal with the chronic problems of understaffing and overcrowding that that developed on their watch. Nothing in these proposals address those priorities. Since the Government has been in power they presided over a cut of 7,000 prison officers and attacks on prison officers have increased by 41%. This is tinkering at the edges what is needed is more prison officers to deliver the rehabilitation needed in prisons.
As you will all know I recently introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill that sought to abolish the hereditary peers in the House of Lords. The Government undertook a review, The Strathclyde Review, of the House of Lords powers in the 2015-16 Parliament. This was because the Lords voted down a large number of the Governments legislation last year. I believe that if a Bill comes forward on this we should take real action in reforming the Lords, not tinkering round the edges. If the Government doesn’t introduce an amendment that seeks to abolish the hereditary peers I will. For too long has our Parliament had unelected representatives passing legislation and being part of Government. I will seek to bring this to an end.
The Government will also be looking to introduce the Wales Bill – which was introduced in draft format last year. This will introduce a new reserved powers model for Welsh devolution (a model that is used in Scotland). Giving the Assembly powers over transport, energy and the Assembly’s own affairs (voting system and number of AM’s for example). I will need to scrutinise the detail of the Bill to determine whether it does propose the long-lasting settlement that we all want to see. As the party that established the Welsh Assembly we welcome the devolution of further powers to Cardiff Bay. We did not support the draft Wales Bill because it rolled back the powers of the Assembly. This Bill was criticised by lawyers, academics and politicians from all parties, including unanimous criticism from the Welsh Assembly. I was pleased when the former announced his intention to withdraw it and start afresh.
As with any Queen’s Speech we will have to wait and see what shape the legislation takes when brought forward, but I can assure you that I will work with my Labour colleagues to ensure that we only pass legislation that is fit for purpose and for the betterment of the many, not the few.
You can read my speech here.