Skip to main content

Home Department

Volume 404: debated on Monday 28 April 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

The Secretary of State was asked—

Asylum Seekers


What plans he has to establish reception centres outside the European Union for processing asylum applications. [109755]

The Home Secretary presented the Government's proposals for new international approaches to asylum processing and refugee protection to his European Union counterparts on 28 March. Positive and constructive discussions are continuing with other member states, the European Commission and relevant international bodies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We are looking to the Commission to bring back its considerations at the next European Council meeting in June. and we will take a view then on the next steps.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and urge my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to continue to press his proposals. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that Australia uses the island country of Nauru as a centre for processing asylum applications. Is not the great benefit of that system that it has almost resulted in the end of people trafficking into Australia? If we could use such a system to bear down on the trafficking of people into the European Union, could we not speed the processing of applications, to the benefit of genuine asylum seekers, while avoiding the problems that we experience in trying to deport unsuccessful applicants?

Certainly, we developed the proposals in part because we believed that the sum total of countries' asylum systems—the global asylum system—is failing, and particularly failing refugees. Because refugees have to enter countries illegally, one of the perverse effects of the current system is that it has fuelled the rise of criminal gangs that smuggle people for profit. My hon. Friend is right that cutting out the criminal gangs would be an important consequence of processing claims in a third country. It would not only deter people from illegal entry, thereby starving the gangs of their supply, but help reduce both the high level of criminality associated with that activity as well as the risk and misery that often accompany those who have to rely on people smugglers.

With many economic migrants claiming political asylum and making a mockery of our immigration rules, with accommodation centres proving extremely unpopular, as witnessed by the 32,000 signatures on the petition against an accommodation centre at Lee-on-the-Solent, and with the deportation targets now being completely abandoned, is it not clear that the present system is not working and cannot be made to work? if the Government choose to follow Conservative policies on this occasion, we shall not complain but congratulate them.

If we look back over the past 18 years, it is not clear what Conservative policies on asylum were; in fact, it was an abject neglect of asylum policy that led to the current situation. If the hon. Gentleman looks back over the Labour Government's policies, he will see that we are taking action domestically, and jointly with France, to secure our borders and legislating to reduce unfounded claims and deal with them more effectively. As well as improving the efficiency of the system that we inherited from the Conservatives, he will see that those domestic measures and international measures, together with the UNHCR proposals to look again at the implementation of the convention, are the way to deal with the current problem—not the 18 years of neglect that we saw under the Conservatives.

I welcome the proposal that will allow people to make asylum applications from outside the UK. Can my hon. Friend give us more information about how such centres will be set up? What agreements will be necessary with the countries in which they are placed? Who will actually make decisions in those centres? Is it intended that the UNHCR will decide who is to be allowed to come to the UK, or will Home Office or Foreign Office officials be working in those countries when the centres are established?

I thank my hon. Friend for his questions, which are relevant and important. He has clearly given much thought to some of the implications of the proposals. We are considering them and discussing them with other member states and the UNHCR. There are several options on who would determine the claims. It may be important for individual member states to participate jointly in the enterprise to ensure that they have a presence and ownership of decision making. It is equally important to develop a mechanism that has the international credibility that the involvement of the UNHCR, and perhaps of the International Organisation for Migration, would give us, so that all member states can be assured that the centres are operated with a degree of independence and credibility.

I cannot give my hon. Friend detailed answers to his questions, except to tell him that all the details are important and that is precisely what we are exploring at present.

I welcome the hon. Lady's comments and the substantial move that the Government have taken towards a policy that the Conservative party has been advocating. Will the Government go further and consider applying a quota system, which would be much fairer in allowing in larger numbers of genuine asylum seekers while ensuring, through the UNHCR, that the determination of the applications takes place abroad? Has she any comment to make to the House about the amount of money that might be saved by that system and how that money might then be used in the Home Office budget?

I am glad that the Conservative party is hanging on to our coat tails in agreeing that that is a sensible way forward. In fact, the proposals arose from the extensive research that the Home Secretary put in train, which looked in great detail at the situation globally. We do not support the Conservative party's policy of a fixed quota. Clearly, in addition to the status determination issue that I raised earlier, there would have to be an agreement about how the claims accepted in the processing centres would be shared among the participating countries, but that is very different from having an absolute quota for the United Kingdom itself. Of course, a big question that arises with quotas is what happens to the person who comes after the quota has been reached. For example, how would Opposition Members deal with the claimant from Zimbabwe who arrived after the quota had been reached? Would they send that person back? Perhaps they would be interested in answering that.

On costs, we certainly think that the proposal offers a completely different way to use our resources more effectively, not least because it enables us to offer more effective protection and ensure that more of our resources are spent helping refugees throughout the world, rather than processing largely unfounded asylum claims.

Gun Amnesty


If he will make a statement on the gun amnesty. [109756]

The gun amnesty has been a substantial success. By 23 April, the police had taken in 17,216 guns and 483,000 rounds of ammunition. In the west midlands and south Wales, they have taken in two rocket launchers and, in Cumbria, they have taken in hand grenades. We believe that the fact that those weapons are not available for use by criminals is a great success.

I thank the Home Secretary for his decision to grant a gun amnesty, and I congratulate him on the early success on this important issue, which concerns many of my constituents. May I draw his attention to the fact that guns have been used in my constituency and a number of people have been killed? What further steps are the Government taking to address that complex problem?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Criminal Justice Bill will be amended to provide a five-year minimum sentence for carrying a gun, the measures that we have announced on Brocock and converted guns and the new measures in relation to age and other aspects of the ownership of air weapons. Those measures, together with the consultation that we have undertaken across the country, and the work with young people, as well as appropriate communities, are already yielding fruit. The recall of the round table meeting, which will take place this Wednesday, is intended to take that further.

Despite the Home Secretary's words, it is clear that the gun amnesty has been an abject failure in parts of London. Will he make it clear that, rather than putting more statutes on to the statute book, efforts will be made to ensure that we have proper enforcement in London? That involves a vast increase in police numbers, which is what most Londoners now demand.

The two things are not coterminous. The need for additional police in London is undeniable, and we are doing something about it—such as investing more than 6 per cent. this year alone in terms of resources for London. But let me challenge the hon. Gentleman head-on: why does he say that the amnesty been a failure? In three weeks, 17,000 weapons have been handed in, compared with 23,000 immediately after the Dunblane tragedy, when the last amnesty took place. I do not think that 17,000 weapons and 483,000 rounds of ammunition being handed in is a failure; it is a substantial success.

We all welcome the success of the amnesty, but does my right hon. Friend really believe his assertion that it will affect the availability of guns to criminals who wish to use them in the furtherance of crime?

I would not have said it if I did not believe it. The 8,500 shotguns, which are stolen and used to kill other people, are significant. It is true that a percentage of deaths from gun crime, particularly in the Metropolitan London area, involve converted weapons. Converted shotguns and other weapons are included in the 17,000 that have been handed in. Let us rejoice in what we are achieving rather than continually belittling the progress that is being made.

Do the Government have any way of estimating how many guns are held illegally? Is he satisfied that the provisions in the Criminal Justice Bill will be sufficient to ensure a significant downturn in the number of gun crimes, which, as the Home Secretary will know, have gone up by 80 per cent. in the last six years?

I do not believe that the measures in the Criminal Justice Bill alone will achieve the goal. As we have said all along—this was the outcome of the consultation—it requires not only a change in culture but a commitment by those communities most affected by and most likely to be the victims of gun crime. The second issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is whether I believe that the five-year sentence is likely to be successful in deterring people. I believe that it is: not on its own but in sending out a signal. If we can get those messages across, we will encourage communities and individuals to be part of that solution.



What plans he has to increase the protection of jury members from intimidation and threats. [109757]

The Government are making provision in the Criminal Justice Bill for trial by judge alone in cases involving jury tampering and the risk of intimidation. A number of measures already exist to protect jurors and the proposals in the Bill seek to deal with the very small number of cases that those measures cannot address satisfactorily.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response. Does he accept that the protection of jurors and witnesses is vital to the criminal justice system? What discussion has he had with the Labour-led Scottish Executive on providing secure, safe, separate witness areas in courtrooms? Does he believe that such a proposal should be universally adopted?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of providing effective protection for both jurors and witnesses. I have not had any such discussions because those matters are, of course, entirely for the Scottish Parliament. As I am sure he will know, we have already taken a number of steps to tackle the problem, including separate waiting rooms, although that is not always possible in all courts, and enabling people to give evidence from behind a screen or by a television link. The importance of the measures contained in the Criminal Justice Bill is that they will send out a clear message to anyone who thinks that there is benefit to be gained by trying to suborn a jury that it will not succeed. If they seek to do so, the criminal justice system will have an effective response to make sure that justice can be served.

Is the Minister aware of the comments of his noble Friend Baroness Helena Kennedy, who described the proposals in the Bill as a

"wholesale assault on civil liberties"
and a "knee-jerk reaction"? If he does not agree with her, what guarantee exists that the proposals in the Bill will not fundamentally undermine the right to trial by jury?

I do not accept that the proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill to deal with the intimidation of jurors constitute an assault on civil liberties. On the contrary, those who seek to suborn jurors are trying to undermine the criminal justice system, and it is right that we should have effective measures to prevent that.

The second point is that a very strict test has to be passed before the new provisions come into play. In the first instance, there must be a real and present danger that jury tampering would take place, and it must be the case that either the level and duration of the trial would be such as to place an excessive burden on the juror or that any other measures that could be taken, including 24-hour police protection, would not be sufficient, so that, in the interests of justice, the trial should be conducted without a. jury. The House will recognise that that is a strict test to deal with a small number of serious situations in which attempts are made to subvert the course of justice.

Metropolitan Police Force


How many police officers are serving in the Metropolitan police force; and how many were serving in May 1997. [109758]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

The Metropolitan Police Service had 26,868 police officers on 30 September last year, 191 more than in March 1997. The increase should be seen in the light of boundary changes that have reduced the metropolitan area. In addition, the Metropolitan police have 498 community support officers, and the Metropolitan Police Authority's budget for this financial year allows for an increase of 1,200 officers by March next year.

I note that reply and welcome the improvements that have been made and, according to my hon. Friend, will continue to be made. Is he aware that many London Members such as me, who have large ethnic communities in our constituencies, are deeply concerned about the lack of police officers, men or women, who come from an ethnic background? London's police force is totally unrepresentative of its population. Will my hon. Friend and his Department urgently consider the recruitment of ethnic police officers, men or women, into the Metropolitan police?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and it is not only recruitment but retention that we need to bear in mind. The Metropolitan police have 1,286 officers from ethnic minorities, which is 4.9 per cent. of the force strength. That is well above the national average, but of course it is nowhere near a reflection of the community that the force is policing, so we need to continue all our efforts not only to recruit but to retain officers from ethnic minorities.

Ministers will know that the beginnings of the increase in numbers in the Met are very welcome, but is that recruitment at the expense of other police forces in the country? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that six police forces—City of London, Merseyside, Cumbria, Staffordshire, Sussex and West Yorkshire—have between them lost 633 officers in the same time, even though their council tax increase this year is, on average, 29 per cent.? Nine forces have had no increase at all—[Interruption.]

Will my hon. Friend continue increasing police officers in the Met until they number 28,000 and, in due course, 30,000? We recognise that the increase, together with the appointment of street patrols and community support officers, has already borne fruit in the form of the sharp reduction in street crime that the Home Secretary was able to announce last year in Wandsworth.

We intend to continue investing in the crime fighting fund opposed by the Conservative party. The increase in police numbers in the Met is far higher than the 191 that I mentioned because the boundary changes effectively result in 890 officers moving from the Met to other forces. The increase, boundary for boundary, is already of the order of 1,000 and, as I said, the new budget for the coming year allows for the further recruitment of 1,200 officers.

Having recently finished the parliamentary police service scheme, I pay the highest tribute to the quality of officers serving in the Metropolitan police, regardless of their ethnic background. While it is welcome that an extra 1,200 uniformed personnel are expected by March next year, in my borough of Hillingdon we are promised only one extra uniformed officer. Will the Minister therefore consider appointing reserve officers, who will meet exactly the same criteria for training and experience as the regular force, but will be paid only when they serve, not as specials but as regular reservists?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments about the quality of people coming into the Metropolitan Police Service irrespective or their racial background, but may I correct him in one regard? There will be more than 1,200 additional uniformed staff—he and his colleagues like to forget that, as well as those extra police officers, there are already 500 community support officers in the Met, and their numbers will be augmented in the year ahead. The allocation in the Metropolitan Police Service is a matter for the commissioner, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not believe that it is for the Home Secretary or me to tell him where he should deploy that force.

Last year's pay reform package allowed police authorities and, indeed, the Met to make special priority payments to officers where there are recruitment or retention difficulties, greater than average responsibilities or where the needs of the job are more demanding than average. The Police Federation points out that in some cases that has had a perverse effect, leading to constables being paid more than sergeants, sergeants more than inspectors and inspectors more than higher ranks. Does the Minister believe that that is good for the effective organisation of the Metropolitan police?

We wanted to reward police officers on the front line and those whose performance is exceptional, and have sought to do so. Of course, we will keep the way in which those payments have been arranged and made under review, along with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the commissioner and the Metropolitan Police Authority.

In common with every other questioner, I welcome the slight increase in numbers in the Metropolitan police, but does the Minister accept that the lesson of New York is that it is not a slight increase that is required but a step change in the numbers of police officers in London? Does he accept that, as part of a national programme of adding 40,000 extra police officers, we need to add about 8.000 in London to get to the point where the level of policing in London is comparable to that in New York?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] I shall just ask him, if I may, to go back to his figures on New York. He may have noticed that there has been a drop in police numbers there in the past few years. He should not underestimate the number of additional police officers here. As I have said, taking boundary changes into account, there are already 1,000 additional police officers in the Metropolitan area, and there are plans for a further 1,200. The right hon. Gentleman comes up with these ideas but how he is going to pay for additional police officers? Who knows where that money will come from? He belittles the fact that we have record numbers of police officers, something that his party failed to achieve when in government.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving the House a taste of the various rhetorical devices that the Government have used to avoid addressing this question. I wonder whether we can strip away the party political badinage for a moment, because Question Time is a good opportunity to try to get clear answers to difficult questions. It is clear that the Minister has two options, and I hope that he can tell us which one he is choosing. One is that he does not accept, for some reason or other, that a step change is needed in the level of policing in London, and the other is that he accepts that one is needed, but does not have the funds to achieve it because it is not one of the Government's priorities. Which of those two positions is the Minister taking in the face of our proposal for an increase of 8,000 officers in London and 40,000 in the country as a whole?

The right hon. Gentleman should at least accept that, in the 12 months to September 2002, there were an additional 4,337 officers, which is the biggest single increase in any one year since 1976—when a Labour Government were in power. How on earth does he reconcile his promises on police numbers with the insistence of his hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) on a 20 per cent. cut in public service spending? The right hon. Gentleman cannot do so despite his best endeavours.



What extra resources he has committed to combat terrorism in the UK in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. [109759]

The Budget last year allocated £87 million for counter-terrorism. That was supplemented by votes from individual Government Departments. In April this year, I announced a further £330 million, which was allocated from this year's Budget.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. There are much welcomed improvements in Northern Ireland, including the peace treaty, and we hope for longer-term peace following the post-Iraq situation. However, global terrorism remains a threat to the world. There is public concern and concern in the House. Can he give us some reassurance? What are the Government doing to inform the public about counterterrorism activities?

I accept entirely the international action against rogue states. The tremendous efforts of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland continue to build on the progress that has been made in peace in Northern Ireland. There is still a major and outstanding threat from cells and networks that have been accepted throughout the House as being a risk to us. That is why we all have a part to play, and why we set up the website on 19 March: 275,000 pages have been accessed by individuals since then. That indicates that people wish to have information and to be part of the solution.

I welcome the additional money and pay tribute to the work of the intelligence services, the police and other law enforcement agencies in combating a real and extremely serious threat. Does the Home Secretary agree that the threat is not just terrorism from Ireland, and Northern Ireland, but particularly from elsewhere in the world, and that it is a bubbling problem, especially in some of our metropolitan areas? Does he agree that it is important that we regain a handle on who leaves the country, as well as on those who come into it? What plans does he have to deal with that problem?

First, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the nature of terrorism has shifted, so a real threat remains. Secondly, successive Governments have struggled with how best to monitor those who depart, in circumstances where we do not have identity cards, although we have invested quite heavily in the past two years in appropriate surveillance equipment at ports. Unlike many places in the world, we have fluidity in terms of people coming in and out of the country. In the United States, for example, a tiny fraction of the population has a passport, but more than 30 million of our population regularly move in and out of the country, while 90 million travel through our airports. This is a real challenge, and one that we need to examine.

After many weeks of an obvious gap in combating terrorism, will the Home Secretary tell us when he proposes to announce a new Minister of State with responsibilities for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attack? If not, why not?

Until my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister determines a comprehensive reshuffle, the post that was occupied by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) has been occupied by Lord Falconer, who has been working directly to me. I have taken on further responsibilities in addition to the counter-terrorism measures that I already held, including all the work that we do with MI5.

Asylum Seekers


What the expected waiting time is for an asylum seeker to hear whether an application has been successful. [109760]

The targets that we set for reducing the time taken for decisions on asylum claims have so far been met, and most new applicants can now expect to receive an initial decision within two months. The latest period for which there are confirmed statistics is April to September 2002, when 76 per cent. of new substantive applications received initial decisions within two months.

That is, indeed, welcome news, but will my hon. Friend consider ways of improving the flow of information to asylum seekers about the progress of their application? I am sure that she is aware that at present many asylum seekers find that their only source of information is their local MP. That puts a heavy burden on many hon. Members, who have a heavy asylum work load.

I am well aware that many asylum seekers want to use their MP—I have signed a large number of such letters today, as 1 do every week. I understand the pressure that that creates on Members of Parliament. There is an issue for some of the representatives and solicitors of asylum seekers, and the commissioner is looking into the effectiveness of all the people who undertake that duty. Some of the solicitors and representatives are not keeping people fully informed. The inspector of prisons raised that issue recently in relation to people in detention. I am actively seeking to ensure that we provide a good flow of information for people in the detained estate.

Does the Minister accept that the best way of ensuring not just a rapid initial application, but a rapid full process, with deportation for those who fail, is by means of an overseas centre? Will she confirm the reply that she appeared to give me four weeks ago, that the kind of overseas centre that the Government have in mind would consider only applications from abroad, and not from the very large numbers of people still arriving in this country?

As I said earlier, we are considering in detail which asylum seekers who claimed in-country should be transported to a transit processing centre abroad. That is one of the potential benefits of the scheme, but it would not necessarily be the most efficient way of processing every single application. We have already made great progress with, for instance, non-suspensive appeals and the safe country list, which have enabled us to deal quickly with people in those categories. It might not make sense to transport those people; it might make sense to keep them in this country, continue to process them quickly and remove them, as we are doing for those categories.

The biggest obstacle to making sure that we have an end-to-end view of a cohort of people and how long each stage is taking has been the lack of a good computer system. The hon. Gentleman may remember that the Conservative Government's promise to deliver such a system failed and led to some of the problems that we now face.

Can the Minister help with a particular problem that has emerged? Quite often, a successful asylum applicant's solicitor or representative gets a notice stating that they are to be granted indefinite leave to remain. At that point, the National Asylum Support Service withdraws support and the asylum applicant loses housing benefit and any other financial benefit, yet there seems to be a succession of inordinate delays before the status letter is sent out. Thus, successful asylum applicants end up in penury, awaiting a simple letter that will enable them to get benefits, work and somewhere to live. That is causing enormous hardship to a number of successful applicants. Can the Minister do something about it?

I accept that, as my hon. Friend says, that has been a problem in some cases. We are working with the Department for Work and Pensions to find ways of speeding up the process in all cases. It is not an overwhelmingly large problem, but I am aware that it has existed, and I agree that in all cases we must be quicker in getting those status letters out.

Does the Minister accept that the time taken to process and notify applicants is a direct function of the number of them? Is the Prime Minister's pledge to halve the number of asylum seekers by September to be believed? If it is, precisely what impact does the Minister expect that to have on the time taken to process and notify applicants? Will she confirm that the last time the number of asylum seekers was half the level at which it was in September—her baseline figure—the cost was barely more than half the present cost? In other words, the Government will be spending close to £1 billion less if they meet the Prime Minister's targets already announced.

First, clearly, the total volume of the intake of new claims is a significant determinant of how we can manage all stages of the process: initial decisions, appeals and the money required to support people during the process. That is why our top priority, in addition to removing people, is to reduce the intake. On the hon. Gentleman's specific question about our commitment to reduce that to half by September, I can tell him that it is to be believed. I have every reason to believe that we will achieve it with what we have put in place already, let alone measures that are to come on line. That will have significant implications on the amount that we must spend on the whole system.

Community Support Officers


What plans he has to increase the provision for community support officers. [109762]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

Last year, we provided £19 million of funding for 27 police forces. They have recruited 1,338 community support officers. This year, £41 million is available to continue to support the existing CSOs and to provide for further growth. The results of the second bidding round will be announced shortly.

Many of us think that the introduction of community support officers is a very welcome initiative to tackle antisocial behaviour, which is one of the scourges of modern society. When my hon. Friend considers increasing the number of community support officers and their distribution, will he ensure that divisions outside inner-city areas are also considered so that we have a fair distribution of CSOs to tackle antisocial behaviour in all our communities, including my own in south Nottinghamshire?

We have received bids in the second round from forces that did not apply the first time. By the end of that round, the overwhelming majority of police forces throughout the length and breadth of the country will have recruited CSOs in either year one or year two. The way in which forces deploy CSOs is a matter for their operational determination.

Can the Minister explain the anomaly that community support officers—welcome as they are—can be recruited through the crime fighting fund, whereas the recruitment of retired police officers, who are extremely valuable because of their experience and specialist skills, cannot be given the same priority to access that finance?

The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. The crime fighting fund exists for the recruitment of police officers, not CSOs.



What the evidential basis was for his statement in the United States on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. [109763]

The United Kingdom consistently maintained that Iraq continued to pursue the development of weapons of mass destruction. This assertion was based on the first report by the executive chairman of UNSCOM, Richard Butler. Saddam's regime had not provided, and never did provide, any evidence to support its claims that its weapons of mass destruction programmes were no longer active. Refusing unfettered access to unsupervised scientists and constant changes to declarations relating to relevant materials underlined the Government's belief in the existence of such potential.

Could the Home Secretary forgive a tinge of scepticism, as it appears that all that stuff about weapons of mass destruction was got from a website by Mr. Campbell's young things? It was not even run past the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was only 50 yards up the corridor. It would have been very simple to consult the JIC. What happens now about all the accusations of forgery by Dr. el-Baradei in relation to the yellow cake for which Iraq was supposed to have asked Niger? Just forgive us our scepticism.

My hon. Friend is entitled to his scepticism and we are entitled to address the reality, which is that the uranium that he mentions, which was in the Government's assessment last September, was, according to all the intelligence available to us, being sought in considerable quantities from Africa. We have no reason to believe that that intelligence evidence from several sources was incorrect. The priority since the end of the three-and-a-half week conflict has been, of course, to restore civil society, protect the civilian population, restore medical provision and ensure humanitarian aid. The process of finding what Saddam Hussein has been up to will be long and difficult, but I am absolutely certain that the majority of hon. Members believe that we have brought about a situation in which peace in the middle east, and peace and prosperity for the people of Iraq, can be obtained.

Does the Home Secretary agree that it would not be at all surprising if some of the people responsible for either developing those weapons of mass destruction or harbouring or running them were to apply for asylum in this country now that the conflict is over? Does he also agree that it would be quite wrong for anyone associated with the regime or the Ba'ath party to be granted asylum? Will he ensure that that is the case?

I agree with myself on that. We have made it clear that those who have been engaged in any way with the regime and its actions against its people or its threat to others would be automatically disqualified from receiving asylum. That is true under the 1951 convention and our domestic law. We will stick to that, whoever it is and whatever posts they held in the Saddam regime.

Prisoners (Dependent Children)


What proportion of (a) male and (b) female prison inmates have dependent children. [109764]

Information on the number of prisoners with dependent children is not routinely collected. However, surveys conducted between 1994 and 2000 indicated that 59 per cent. of men and 66 per cent. of women had dependent children. The Prison Service works closely with family support groups in maintaining prisoners' family ties.

May I suggest to my hon. Friend that such information should be routinely collected and published? Does he note from the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" trial that the judge stated that he was not going to give an immediate prison sentence to Major Ingram and his wife because they had dependent children, yet many working-class women get immediate prison sentences for relatively minor offences when they have dependent children? Does my hon. Friend agree with the Halliday report that there must be more consistency and, if that principle is to be applied, that it must be done so more broadly? [Interruption.]

I am just waiting for the outbreak of coughing to subside.

I agree that there needs to be greater consistency. On the collection of information, part of the difficulty is that 200,000 or so people pass through prison every year and prisoners may not always choose to give correct information about their family circumstances when they are first questioned. However, we have just completed the second of our resettlement surveys of about 2,000 prisoners who are about to leave prison and who may be more inclined to give accurate information about their family circumstances and those relating to their children. We shall publish that later in the year.

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the importance of maintaining family ties to reduce reoffending is now better understood across the criminal justice system. It is one reason why the Prison Service is working much more in partnership with voluntary organisations to maintain family links. I saw a good example of that at Wayland prison in the eastern region, where, as a result of our partnership with the Lankelly Foundation and the Ormiston Children and Families Trust, it is operating an all-day visits facility for children so that they can spend time with their fathers.

The hon. Gentleman's emollience is all very well, but what plans does he have to stop or minimise the operation of the "churn"—the phenomenon whereby often large-scale movements and transfers of prisoners take place, critically at short or no notice—given that the effect of those disruptive movements damages the chance of training, undermines the prospects of rehabilitation and reduces the links between prisoners and their families?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the disadvantages that the phenomenon of churn, which he accurately described, creates for prisons in trying to work with prisoners and for prisoners themselves. One of the answers is to provide additional prison places so that we can reduce the rate of churn, which is precisely what the Government are doing, as he will be only too well aware.

Identity Cards


If he will make a statement on plans to introduce identity cards. [109766]

We published a consultation paper on entitlement cards and identity fraud on 3 July 2002. We are at the moment making a detailed assessment of the 2,000 responses received to the consultation exercise, which ended on 31 July. Many organisations and individuals have expressed support for a card scheme, and that has been backed up by other research on the public's views, which we will publish alongside our response.

Does the Minister agree with what the assistant information commissioner, Jonathan Bamford, said about the idea of an ID card:

"Do we risk changing the fabric of our society so that the highest level of identification becomes the norm for the most mundane of services"?
Let us bear in mind that, when Labour was in opposition, it said that the cost of such a scheme—some £600 million—would be better spent on extra police officers.

No, I do not agree with those comments. It is interesting that the Information Commissioner himself has said that there are no insurmountable privacy or data protection obstacles in respect of such a scheme and has welcomed some of the Home Secretary's proposals about how legislation might be implemented if the Government decide to take that course of action.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main issues will be whether there are better things to do with the £2 billion or £3 billion cost of introducing ID cards? Will she give an undertaking that any estimates received from IT companies of the cost of introducing them will be treated with great scepticism in the light of previous such estimates?

In terms of the benefits of a particular scheme, my hon. Friend will make up his own mind on the basis of the consultation paper that we circulated and the discussions that have taken place. As I said, the 2,000 responses that we have received from individuals show that ordinary members of the public generally do not share his concerns. The responses have been about 2:1 in favour of introducing a scheme.

I also point out that the proposal does not involve investing large amounts of public money, although some up-front expenditure would certainly be involved. The cost of the scheme would be borne by individuals as they applied for cards, just as people will have to apply for passport and driving licence cards in the fulness of time, as those provisions are also coming on line and people will have to make a payment for them.

Does the Minister not realise that when Australia tried out the proposal to introduce an ID card, it was initially enormously popular, but only until people realised how much personal information Government officials would have access to? As a result, the proposal became the Australian equivalent of the poll tax and was dropped in the face of mass demonstrations and huge public hostility.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has read the consultation paper, but if he has, he will recall that what is being proposed is not a card that would hold large amounts of information. It would be a gateway providing a very secure identity access to other databases for the individual, but the particular databases to which the card might give access would obviously be determined through the process of legislation on which we would embark. It would not be able to add to those through any other mechanism, so Parliament would have its say.

A system of compulsory identity cards would be a very useful tool in dealing with the upsurge and recurrence of football hooliganism. What discussions have taken place between the Home Department and the English Football Association regarding the forthcoming match against Turkey in Istanbul? If the Football Association does not make any tickets available to English supporters, will the Government assist it in ensuring that supporters do not—

Reverting to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), what is the difference between "access" and "gateway"?

I do not think that there is a particular difference in this context, except that providing access to a number of databases would, as I said, be determined by Parliament, so the extent to which the card became a gateway would be as limited or as extensive as Parliament determined.

Illegal Encampments


What guidance he gives the police in addressing the problems posed by illegal encampments. [109767]

The Government recently published for consultation operational guidance for local authorities and police on managing unauthorised camping. The consultation period closes on 23 May and final guidance will be published later in the year. We have also announced that we will introduce new powers of eviction when parliamentary time allows.

I welcome my hon. Friend's answer. Will he reflect, however, on the anger of communities such as Shardlow, Barrow on Trent, Foston, Swadlincote, Castle Donington, in a neighbouring constituency, and elsewhere in South Derbyshire, at the appalling nuisance of unauthorised encampments, and the lack of knowledge that police forces sometimes have of basic environmental protection law? Does he agree that one step might be to ask them to enforce the existing law with more rigour?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I recognise entirely the problem that he describes and, judging from the response in the Chamber, many hon. Members on both sides of the House have direct experience of it. There are already extensive powers, and it is important that they are used effectively. I commend to all hon. Members the consultation paper, because one of the points that it makes forcefully is the need to do precisely what my hon. Friend suggests. I urge hon. Members to look at that document and to let us have their views and comments, because we want to ensure that there are effective powers to deal with the problem and nuisance that my hon. Friend so starkly describes.

As I understand it, the Government are giving the police extra powers to evict illegal travellers' encampments provided that local authorities provide sites for the permanent establishment of travellers' encampments that can be properly designated and run. The trouble is that planning restrictions are not being eased to enable local authorities to build those sites. Will the Minister undertake to examine that weakness in the Government's proposals?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, that is a matter for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but I undertake to draw it to the attention of my colleagues. The benefit of the new powers that we propose to make available is that they would apply without the conditions that affect the section 61 powers that the police have under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. They would also cover, for example, industrial estates and road lay-bys, which are not covered by the current powers, and deal with the phenomenon which I am reliably informed is described as "hedge-hopping", whereby those who are removed from one field can then transfer their encampment to another one. That is what we seek to achieve, provided that the relevant local authority makes the provision that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

As the Minister will be aware, a few weeks ago several thousand of my constituents in Crawley, Round Green and Stopsley presented a petition to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary concerning the midsummer mayhem that they experienced as a result of an illegal traveller encampment that was chased around Luton and South Bedfordshire. Is he aware that there was a very different approach between the Luton police force and that of South Bedfordshire? As a result, residents of Stopsley—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling hon. Members about the different approaches of two forces. That reinforces the point that I made a moment ago—namely, that fairly extensive powers already exist, but we wish to add to them for the reasons that I outlined. It is helpful if forces co-operate, share information and work with local authorities to ensure that they use those powers in the interests of protecting the constituents of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members.

Street Crime


What new measures he intends to bring forward to tackle street crime. [109768]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

The street crime initiative is ongoing. It covers measures such as crime reduction, resettlement of offenders, faster court processes, education and summer activities, as well as police activity to deal with offenders. In the first six months, street crime fell by 16 per cent. in the areas covered, and £25 million of additional money has been allocated to support continued operations against it.

On Friday night, I broke up a fight in which six youths were kicking to pulp another youth outside Benfleet police station in my constituency. There was not a policeman to be found. Does the Under-Secretary accept that the only way in which to tackle street crime, and get on top of crime generally. is to provide the 40,000 additional police officers that only the Conservatives will deliver?

All those that the Conservative party did not provide when it was in government for many years, presiding over a doubling of crime. The street crime initiative has been a phenomenal success and led to substantial reductions in robbery and snatch thefts in the areas covered. We intend to keep it up.