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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 447: debated on Monday 19 June 2006

Home Department

Mr. Tawanda Machingura

1. What progress he has made in ascertaining the whereabouts of Mr. Tawanda Machingura, an illegal immigrant imprisoned for sexual assault of a mental health patient whilst working as a nurse in a local NHS hospital. (77870)

I am not able to comment on individual cases within the House. I apologise for the delay in responding to the hon. Gentleman. I was able to update him this morning.

I hear the Minister’s response. This foul crime, committed two years ago, caused much concern locally, and all we wanted to know was the whereabouts of this dangerous individual after he was released. Despite writing to the then Home Secretary in April, asking written questions on 10 May, 17 May and 14 June and phoning the Home Office, I hit a wall of silence. It has taken the Minister being dragged to the Dispatch Box to get a simple answer to a simple question. Given the Prime Minister’s promise of transparency on this issue, will the Minister explain why I received no responses to my named-day written questions? Does this case not show that the Government have failed to reassure the public on the foreign prisoners’ crisis?

The lack of response that was accorded to the hon. Gentleman’s inquiries was completely unacceptable. In my view, it highlighted again some of the failings on which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has briefed the House. The processes to which the hon. Gentleman alludes will be part of the review that we are undertaking over the next month and a half.

I know that hon. Members are standing to be called, but this is a closed question. I must move on to Question 2.

Deportation (Zimbabwe)

The situation remains as set out by the then Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, now the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, on 20 April 2006. We are not enforcing returns to Zimbabwe pending a further hearing listed by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal from 3 to 7 July.

While sex offenders are released and remain untraceable, one of my constituents, Ashleigh McMaster, is stuck in an asylum limbo. Her mother has been attacked and stabbed and her step-father has been hospitalised in Zimbabwe in the past year. Yet this young woman, whose grandfather served in the Royal Air Force for 20 years, and whose father enjoys British citizenship and lives in my constituency, faces the prospect of deportation. I have already asked to have a meeting with the Minister. Will he now agree to meet me to discuss the case of Ashleigh McMaster?

As I have said, I cannot comment on individual cases, but I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. As he knows from correspondence with my ministerial colleague, fresh evidence was submitted by the applicant, which entailed a further review of the case details.

The Minister will be aware of the limbo in which many Zimbabwe asylum seekers live in this country. Zimbabwean asylum seekers will want to return some day to restore Zimbabwe to democracy. As our friends, why are we not treating them as we treated people from South Africa? Why are we not allowing them to work? Many of them are well qualified and, in the meantime, they could contribute a huge amount to this country. Why are we not allowing them to work in this country, to contribute to it and to prepare themselves to go back to a new Zimbabwe?

An important court case is pending that will, I think, change the context in which they are treated. As my hon. Friend knows, it is a valuable privilege to be able to work in this country. We think that it would be wrong to let certain people jump to the head of the queue. A related question has been asked about accessibility to benefits. As my hon. Friend knows, the rights of such applicants are set out clearly in section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

As long ago as November last year we were told that the inquiry into alleged fraud through the ancestral visa route from Zimbabwe was completed. Will the Minister tell me why constituents such as mine, the Mitchell family, have been held in limbo now for more than two years? Those people suffered greatly in Zimbabwe and they just want to get on with their lives. Their parents hold a British passport. It cannot be that complicated for the Minister’s Department to process this case, and many more like it.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, some applications were the subject of extensive fraud. It was important and absolutely right that the immigration and nationality directorate undertook extensive inquiries so that it might make the right decisions. If there are specific cases that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about, we will be happy to correspond with him further about them.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just a matter of policy, it is also a matter of process? He alluded to the statement made by the Home Secretary that he regarded the Home Office as being unfit for purpose. Will he guarantee the resources necessary to ensure that cases to do with people from Zimbabwe, and the other cases at the IND, are dealt with speedily and efficiently so that people can get results, and also that no bonuses will be paid to the senior management of IND until those cases have been cleared?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s advice on human resources policy at IND, and I will take his thoughts into account in the weeks and months ahead. At this stage, I do not have anything to add, either to my own evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs or, indeed, to the evidence of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but the point is well taken.

I call David Davis. [Interruption.] It appears that he does not wish to ask a question, so I call Julian Brazier.

While strongly sympathising with earlier comments by colleagues from all parts of the House, may I raise again the case of Sungaradazzo Mudgyiwa, who is not an asylum seeker but a straightforward illegal entrant from Zimbabwe? She was sent to prison for four and a half years for stealing more than £100,000 from the benefits system and more than £12,000 from the Post Office, but she is still resident in Whitstable and occupies a council house with her teenaged sons, one of whom has recently been served with an antisocial behaviour order for violence and intimidation. Once that case has been heard, will action be taken on deportation?

We made it clear in our evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that enforcement and removals are a critical part of IND business that need to be strengthened. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for reserving my position on individual cases and not commenting but, again, if he would like me to update him on specific details, I am happy to do so.

Under-age Drinking

3. What assessment his Department has made of the case for additional measures to reduce the incidence of under-age drinking; and if he will make a statement. (77872)

The Government are determined to crack down on those who sell alcohol to children. Through almost 17,000 test-purchase operations funded by the police standards unit, increased penalties in the Licensing Act 2003, and Government work with the licensed industry, the rate of sales to children, measured through test-purchase failures, has fallen considerably. Both the on and off-licence sectors have committed themselves to seek to eliminate under-age sales.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. She will be aware that the increase in drinking among the young has caused increased vandalism and antisocial behaviour. Is it not time that we looked at giving proper sentences to the people who retail that drink? Can she look at alcopops in particular, and their effect on the increased alcohol abuse prevalent among the young?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. He will be aware that young people who reported drinking once a week or more committed a disproportionate volume of crime, accounting for 37 per cent. of all offences reported by individuals between the ages of 10 and 17. I can give him some comfort, however, as the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which is proceeding through the House of Lords, will introduce a new offence of persistent selling of alcohol to children, with offenders risking a £10,000 fine and suspension of their licence, or closure for up to 48 hours. The majority of 10 to 17-year-olds who have drunk alcohol in the past 12 months reported that they had obtained that alcohol from their parents, so there is a message both for the industry and for families.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) about alcopops, will the Minister look again at the way in which the Portman Group is supposedly regulating the matter? It is time for Government intervention, because that advertising is targeted at youngsters, creating a problem that should not exist. Will the Government undertake to look again at the way in which the Portman Group is allegedly regulating that activity?

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the document on social responsibility standards for the production and sale of alcoholic drinks in the UK that was released last November includes guidelines on the marketing of those alcoholic drinks and supplements the existing guidelines from the Advertising Standards Authority and the Portman Group’s code of practice on the packaging, marketing and sale of alcoholic beverages. We must keep the matter under review, because those drinks are particularly attractive to young people, but I accept the point made by the hon. Gentleman.

My hon. Friend will know that many retailers take their responsibilities extremely seriously and ask young people for proof of their age when they purchase drinks. However, many young people get older people to buy their drinks, so has the Department liaised with the police to ensure that when youngsters are seen drinking publicly in our communities they are apprehended and their parents find out about it?

My hon. Friend may be aware of the alcohol misuse enforcement campaigns—AMEC—of which there have been four, which have been very successful. They are aimed at shop owners who sell to under-age young people and do not ask for proof of identity. They also target those who are under age and purchase alcohol. Those measures are designed to deal with young people who purchase alcohol and others who purchase it knowingly on their behalf, and it is important that the measures and powers available to the police are used, because when they are used, they have some success. We know, for instance, that the number of young people who report using alcohol has dropped, inasmuch as the proportion of schoolchildren who have never had a drink is at its highest level— 42 per cent. Clearly, there is much more to do in this regard, but the powers exist and we encourage their use both in the AMEC campaigns and outside those campaigns.

My constituent, Blake Golding, was savagely attacked outside a Milton Keynes nightclub by a young person on new year’s eve 2005. Since then, his mother, Marjorie Golding, has run a campaign—which has attracted over 100,000 signatures, is the subject of early-day motion 385 and was the subject of an Adjournment debate in the House last year—to change glasses and bottles in nightclubs to plastic. Does the Minister think such a measure would help to curb the rise in alcohol-related violence?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He will know that among the measures that local authorities and the police have been taking with local public houses in the run-up to the World cup, they have recommended and in some cases insisted that they use plastic glasses. Clearly, the police think that that is a measure that works in public houses where there is a problem. Other measures, such as drink banning orders and alcohol disorder zones, are also being used to deal with unruly public houses.

Child Pornography

4. What further steps he plans to take to stop pornographic images of children being downloaded from the internet. (77873)

We continue to work closely with law enforcement agencies, the new Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, industry and international colleagues, to tackle the downloading of such images. I have recently set the UK internet industry a target to ensure that by the end of 2007, all internet service providers offering broadband internet connectivity to the UK public prevent their customers from accessing those websites.

As my hon. Friend knows, BT is blocking about 35,000 attempts every day to download child pornography from websites. Can he explain whether the announcement that he has just made about the target will be a compulsory regulation for the ISPs, which is necessary in order to cut the market and end child abuse around the world?

We are determined to tackle that abuse, and our abhorrence is shared across the House. We expect 90 per cent. of internet service providers to have blocked access to sites abroad by the end of 2006. The target is that by the end of 2007 that will be 100 per cent. We believe that working with the industry offers us the best way forward, but we will keep that under review if it looks likely that the targets will not be met.

Given that the registration of sex offenders who pose a continued threat to children is as low as 30 per cent. on registers in operation in some states in the United States, whereas the equivalent figure in the UK is well over 90 per cent. on the sex offenders register, does the Minister agree with the Minister for Children and Families, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes) who stated in 2002 that

“making information about sex offenders widely available would hinder child protection”—[Official Report, 15 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 180W.]

precisely because it would drive some of the most serious sex offenders underground? If that is the case, why do the Government seem to be revisiting an idea that was so summarily rejected by the Minister’s predecessors?

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced, we are considering all those matters, and we will reach our conclusions in due course. The Government’s aim is to tackle access to child pornography on the internet, sexual abuse and sex offenders, and we will come up with the best policies to do so.

I thank my hon. Friend for his positive response to my ten-minute Bill. Is he aware that children’s charities and credit card companies are working together to see whether credit cards can be used to block access to child pornography? And will he tell us when schedule 3 to the Data Protection Act 1998 will be amended to allow us to end that despicable crime?

I thank my hon. Friend for pressurising the Government to take further action. The order that she has mentioned was laid on 13 June.


5. How many offences involving the use of knives or other bladed weapons have been recorded by the police in each of the last five years; and if he will make a statement. (77874)

With the exception of homicides, the recorded crime statistics do not separately identify all crimes involving knives and sharp instruments. Of the 4,141 offences currently recorded as homicide between 2000-01 and 2004-05, 1,211 involved sharp instruments. On 24 May, the Association of Chief Police Officers and I launched a nationwide knife amnesty to encourage people to hand in unwanted knives. The amnesty runs until the end of June, following which forces will undertake robust enforcement actions, education and community engagement work. Concurrent with that, the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which is currently before Parliament, contains a number of measures to tighten still further the control of knives.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He may be aware that 10 years ago I worked with Frances Lawrence, the widow of the murdered head master Philip Lawrence, in order to secure action to deal with the scourge of knife crime. At that point, the then shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), assured me that dealing with knife crime would be a priority for a future Labour Government. Since then, public concern about knife crime has risen—in my constituency, one school pupil, Natashia Jackman, was attacked in the precincts of her own school, and we are all aware of the recent tragic murder of Kiyan Prince. Will the Home Secretary tell me what he and his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills are doing in order to ensure the safety of schoolchildren against that particular scourge? And what will he do to honour the promise so freely given by his colleague 10 years ago?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the matter is a major public concern. Although I have been at the Home Office for a relatively short period, I have already indicated that I am reviewing the situation and considering the options on the possession of knives. I am giving serious consideration to suggestions that the maximum sentence for possessing an article with a blade or point in a public place should be increased, which is a measure of the seriousness with which I treat the matter. I would not like the hon. Gentleman to think that we have not acted previously, because we have, but I accept that the level of public concern obliges me to re-examine whether we should make sentencing even more robust in that area.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the perception that knife crime is a serious problem drives many young people to carry weapons where they might not otherwise do so? Although screening, stop and search and deterrent sentencing have an important role to play, prevention must lie at the heart of the response. In my constituency, which incidentally includes St. George’s school where Philip Lawrence was tragically murdered 10 years ago, we are currently seeking charitable funding for a major project that will work with schools and youth clubs to get to the root causes of why so many young people seek to carry weapons as a result of fear and as a way of resolving conflicts. Will he urgently work with the DFES to see whether ways can found to ensure that projects are available in a range of constituencies to work with young people to make prevention a priority?

Yes, I certainly will do that. It is important that, along with other measures, we educate young people out of the idea, which is no doubt fashionable and attractive, that if someone carries a blade or a knife it will somehow defend them from attack. In fact, in many cases it will provoke, and may even be used against them. Education is an important aspect, as are prevention and prohibition. We are also considering banning samurai swords and other weapons used in violent crime. Sanction is important as well, so I confirm to the House that in reviewing sentencing options, I am giving serious consideration to the suggestion that the maximum sentence for having a knife or a blade in a public place should be increased. We intend to make a decision on that before the Violent Crime Reduction Bill is debated on Report in the other place.

Given that it is possible to receive a lengthier jail sentence for stealing a bicycle than for carrying a deadly weapon in the form of a knife, can the public really have confidence that the Government’s priorities are right when it comes to tackling violent crime?

I think that the hon. Gentleman would want to be as honest as possible on the length of sentence that one can get for possessing an offensive weapon, which in the case of a knife could be up to four years. However, there is an incongruity in that in other circumstances the sentence for having an article with a blade or a point would be limited to two years. I am considering that with a view to possibly extending it. Of course, someone who uses a knife in pursuit of another crime can receive up to a life sentence—for instance, in the case of murder with the use of a knife.

When my right hon. Friend is reviewing sentencing policy, will he also consider the Government’s approach to working with young people and acknowledge that the carrying of knives seems to be closely related to gang culture and the organisation of gangs among young people? For all the effort that we have put into working with young people, there is very little focused work by the police or other agencies to tackle and to break up gangs. Perhaps when the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), goes to the USA, he could look at some of its experience in tackling and busting gangs to see whether that can have any effect on the predominance of knife-carrying.

My right hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience, both ministerial and from his position as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I certainly will consider that. I would not like people to think that we have done nothing in this direction. First, in May 2004, we set up the Connected fund to provide grants for small community groups. It now supports more than 200 local groups working on gun crime, knife crime and gang-related issues. I accept that that was a start, but it was a substantial start.

Secondly, we have to deploy a range of measures—for instance, the amnesty that we are carrying out at the moment. The previous amnesty brought in some 30,000 knives. As we announced last Friday, in the first week of the amnesty about 17,700 items were handed in to forces in England and Wales. I do not pretend that that deals with the whole problem, but it is another aspect of tackling it. People should understand that if they are found in possession of such weapons after the interlude during which they can be handed in, they will be tackled robustly.

I will resist the temptation to talk about Zimbabwe.

Given what has been said in questions from both sides of the House, and given that the Home Secretary himself said that he is considering extending the penalty for carrying knives, why did his own Government oppose this exact proposal from the Opposition in November of last year?

The hon. Gentleman is asking me the same question—[Hon. Members: “Right hon.”] I beg his pardon. The right hon. Gentleman is asking me the same question, through a slightly different prism, that he asked a fortnight ago—that is, how I could vote on something with the Government a few months ago. I think that he has served in government, and he will know that there was a different Secretary of State then. [Interruption.] Just as I, as Secretary of State for Defence, made different judgments from those that the current incumbent will make on some matters— the nature of Cabinet Government is collective responsibility—so I have now reached a new position. I have considered what has been said and, rather than being completely focused on the process whereby we reach decisions—which is a legitimate subject—I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also be interested in their substance. I am prepared to consider extending the sentence in one of the examples—indeed, I will go further and invite him to discuss the matter with me. I hope that that process will not upset him unduly.

I promise not to be upset when I discuss with the Home Secretary the sentencing options, which are currently before the Lords, of three, four or five years under the Tory agenda. I am sure that he will accept one of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) made a powerful point about the length of time that the issue has been before the Government and, indeed, the previous Government. Three years have passed since the massive public outcry over the brutal stabbing of the schoolboy Luke Walmsley—I am sure that everyone remembers that. There was a great deal of tough talk from the Government then but little effective has happened since.

Since the Government have been in power, the number of knives in schools has doubled yet the convictions for selling knives to minors—under-16s—run at an average rate of six a year. That is how seriously the issue has been taken. Let me therefore bring the Home Secretary to a practical point about knives, youngsters and schools. When will the Government ensure that all at-risk schools have the resources and facilities to screen all their pupils to ascertain that they are not carrying knives?

First, I take it that the right hon. Gentleman’s response was an acceptance of my invitation to discuss the matter. The public are more interested in that than point scoring about the process.

Secondly, I would not like the House to be misled inadvertently. As I said, with the exception of homicides, the recorded crime statistics do not separately identify all crimes that involve knives and sharp instruments. I therefore took the trouble to examine the incidence of the use of knives in homicides. The figures have stayed roughly the same for the past five or six years—between 29 and 33 per cent. That is around 230 out of 820 homicides. I do not want to give a sensationalist portrayal of the use of knives. Nevertheless, there is great public concern about it and I believe that it should be a cross-party issue, which we ought to discuss with an open agenda to ascertain how we can deal with sentencing. I am more than willing to discuss any related issues, including schools, at the same time.

Alcohol-related Crime

A series of alcohol misuse enforcement campaigns have targeted public violence and disorder caused by binge drinking since 2004. We believe that the success of those campaigns has contributed to reductions in more serious violent crime. For example, during the third campaign, police and local authority partners visited some 27,000 licensed premises, dealt with about 33,000 offences, made 25,000 arrests and issued approximately 8,000 fixed penalty notices for alcohol-related offences. In addition, it is important that the alcohol industry plays an important role in improving standards, especially with reference to binge drinking.

Trends in recorded crime due to alcohol are higher in large cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and, to a lesser extent, Salford. We have happily experienced some improvements in Salford—indeed, 11 local authorities in the north-west have experienced a fall in recorded crime. However, does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities and the alcohol industry need to crack down on the matter, which is a genuine quality-of-life issue in our urban areas, to accelerate those improvements and try to make them more even throughout our regions?

I agree: it is only through such partnerships that these matters can be dealt with successfully. This is as much about education and awareness in schools as it is about licensing regimes, the police, and the crime reduction strategies in each local authority. Partnership is the key to dealing with this issue.

Did the Minister notice the tone of censoriousness that crept into the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), when she said that many children obtained alcohol from their parents? Does the Minister not agree that the best place for children to learn to use alcohol moderately and sensibly is in their family?

Strangely or otherwise, I do agree, although not about the censorious nature of my hon. Friend’s response. The hon. Gentleman will know from a recent survey of drinking patterns that abuse of alcohol is more often than not started by parents giving drinks to their children at an unduly early age. However, he is right. As a starting premise, education and the awareness of a balanced use of alcohol must start at home with the family.

I congratulate the Government on the steps that they are taking to tackle binge drinking, but much more education needs to be given to our young people about its effect on not only their health but their safety while they are out. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Department for Education and Skills? Experience suggests that, while our young people are given a great deal of education on the effects of illegal drugs, they do not always get very much on the effects of over-indulgence in alcohol.

I agree, and the Home Office, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and others are talking far more readily about all these matters in order to address the issues. Local government and the alcohol industry are also participating in the rounded partnership to which I referred in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley). Every aspect of the issues must be covered, as the way in which we deal with them is multi-faceted. I will ensure that the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) are passed on to the DFES and to the Department of Health, as well as to the Home Office.


I remain of the view that strategic mergers are the right way to improve protective police services. However, I am keen to continue the discussion and dialogue that we have begun with police forces and police authorities on the best way to get to that destination. Accordingly, I do not propose to lay any orders for enforced police force mergers before the summer recess. I hope, however, that it will be possible to press ahead with laying the order for the voluntary merger of the Cumbria and Lancashire forces.

I thank the Home Secretary for that response, especially in relation to my own region. I understand his wish to kick this issue into the long grass; I hope that, in the case of Yorkshire and the Humber, it will be elephant grass. As a rule, the Government are keen to have a big conversation with the British people. Will the Home Secretary assure me that in the case of enforced police mergers regional referendums will be held before any such measures are imposed?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is complaining because I have listened and responded to the feelings of many people in the House and outside. Let me make it absolutely clear that I do not believe that the status quo is an option. The destination that has been outlined, particularly in the study carried out by Denis O’Connor and others in Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, is the correct one. It will be better for the strategic-level protective forces and will supplement efforts to put more police on the streets in our neighbourhoods in a visible, accessible and responsive fashion. This will mean that, when a major crisis occurs, we will not have to pull them out to deal with it.

I accept, however, that people want to discuss in greater length and detail many of the questions arising from these proposals. I have therefore decided—along with the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, whom I have asked to deal with this issue—that this merits further and slower consideration. I cannot promise a referendum but I can promise discussion, dialogue and listening throughout.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which will be extremely popular in north Wales. Will he ensure that each merger that takes place in due course is tested rigorously against the criteria set down by Denis O’Connor in the report? I believe that when that test is made in respect of Wales, the proposal originally made will be found wanting. Will there be close and rigorous analysis relating to the proposal for an all-Wales police force?

Yes, that is one area where discussion will take place. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has already opened discussions and has conducted the beginnings of a public debate in Wales.

I repeat that the strategic direction and the ultimate destination—where we are going—are correct and will be illustrated in most cases to be correct, but I am responding to the will of the House, the police authorities and many outside the House to conduct matters in a way that meets the anxieties not only of members of the police service but of local people who want to ensure a degree of local accountability, neighbourhood policing and police on the streets, as well as a sense of their still owning their own police services locally. Those are perfectly legitimate aims and are therefore a perfect arena for further discussion.

I thank the Home Secretary for his thoughtful answer and for listening. Will he perhaps bring before the House, before we rise in July, a realistic, measured timetable that allows for proper, full consultation throughout the country? This is the biggest change to the police force, certainly for 50 years, and arguably for a century or more. May we please take proper time and do it methodically?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will take proper time. I am reluctant to give him today, or indeed to promise in the next few weeks, an adequate timetable—

Because I think that is a legitimate part of the discussion of how this might be done, how it might be handled and what areas it might include.

I have already made it plain that there is no need for anyone to panic over time, because I will not lay orders on enforced change. Where there is voluntary agreement and willingness to go ahead—I hope that that is the case in at least one example—we will lay an order, but the timetable and details will be part of our discussions with people such as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack).

I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows of the statements that the Prime Minister has made in the Chamber on these issues—that adequate time be provided, that the opinions of the communities involved be taken into full account and that all options will be considered, including the co-ordinated co-operation of neighbouring police forces.

Will the Home Secretary give the Chamber an assurance that all those prime ministerial stipulations will be taken into account before any decisions are made?

Of course, all those items will be aspects of the discussions, but I do not want to mislead my hon. Friend into thinking that I start with a blank slate. I am persuaded that the status quo is not an option and that the experience brought to the study by people with many years of operational experience—Denis O’Connor and Ronnie Flanagan are but two of them—is sufficient, along with the coherence of their argument, to convince me that the destination that we want to end up at, which was identified by my predecessor as Secretary of State, is the right one.

In relation to where I am giving a degree of flexibility in the face of requests for discussion and dialogue and of legitimate questions being asked over local accountability, financing and all sorts of other areas, I am saying that the journey from where we are to where I think we should end up might be at a different pace and in a different fashion. We must of course allow for the possibility of changes and nuances, otherwise we would not be acting in good faith. Equally in good faith, however, I can tell the House that I am pretty convinced that we will—and ought to—end up at the destination identified in “Closing the Gap”.

I thank the Home Secretary for his opening comments, but will he explain why, if the status quo is acceptable in Kent, it is not acceptable in Essex? This morning the Essex police authority launched a county-wide consultation. If the verdict of the people of Essex is that they want their own police force and not a merger with the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire forces, will the Home Secretary support that majority opinion?

The answer to that question is simple. There is no template for the exact size, configuration and balance of police services and specialities in any given region, and we should not assume that we will end up with any such uniformly imposed, centrally dictated template. It is, however, entirely possible that some forces are better able than others to stand on their own because of their size, configuration and specialities.

The key point is that unless protective services allow the police in a given area to respond to a crisis, such as a succession of serial murders or a terrorist attack, without continually drawing forces from the neighbourhoods, the whole idea of neighbourhood policing that is visible, accessible and responsive to local people’s needs will not be sustainable. We want the strategic configuration not just because it is suitable at a higher level, but because it supplements our aim of putting a record number of police into the neighbourhoods. The configuration will not be exactly the same in every single area, any more than it is now, but overall the strategic configuration will serve the public better.

I am glad that there is to be further discussion, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the delay may send a signal that alternative suggestions that have been discounted locally may be given credence? Will he knock on the head once and for all the ludicrous notion of splitting the county of Durham in half and merging it with Cleveland, and will he back the idea that a single strategic force for the north-east is the answer?

I entirely accept that. Resolution is sometimes portrayed as obstinacy, as dictatorial or as bullying. On the other hand, when people respond flexibly to the demands of Members of Parliament, that is sometimes mistakenly portrayed as irresolution. I am not irresolute. I do not seek another destination on the map. I am convinced, until persuaded otherwise, that the destination specified by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary is the correct one. I do accept, however, that all the problems and questions that people have raised are legitimate and require further, deeper and wider discussion and dialogue. We will engage in that discussion and dialogue over the coming period, and if a better solution emerges, any open-minded person will consider it; but I do not think that that is where we will end up.

Has the Home Secretary read the report by the head of finance of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which warns that police force amalgamations will contribute to a funding gap equivalent to 25,000 police officer posts nationally? It says that such a cut would

“destroy any realistic hope of developing Neighbourhood Policing”.

Is that not enough reason not just to delay these unnecessary, unwanted and expensive mergers, but to scrap the idea altogether?

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman appears to have written his question before I gave my first answer. I always hate to disappoint the Opposition, but I am not going to withdraw my first answer.

I must confess that I have not read in detail the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but he will be gratified to know that I discussed it in detail with the authors, who tell me that the one example that he gave from a range of speculative options that they were considering was the worst and most extreme that they examined.

The hon. Gentleman is asking me to engage in a discussion about this paper, but I could not have done better than to speak to the people who wrote it; he merely read it. The hype and spin around it, which is some five weeks old now, prior to the Police Federation—[Interruption.] No wonder the hon. Gentleman is laughing; he has tried it on and been caught. The scenario described is unrealistic; it is a speculative, in extremis case, which has been denied even by the authors of the report.

I do not want the Home Secretary to run away with the idea that all police forces are against these amalgamations; only voices against them are heard in this Chamber. May I point out that the west midlands force is very much behind them and says that the worst thing we could do is consult for too long and end up not making a decision, because uncertainty is bad for all forces?

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. If I have found out one thing in the Home Office in the last five weeks, it is that it is very difficult to get anything right, whatever one says. So it is unsurprising to me that, as my hon. Friend legitimately points out, there are people who take a different view, and who reasonably believe that there is such a self-evidently correct destination that we should move to it at a far quicker pace. The design of those who say that they have specific complaints is to stop the whole process.

It may well be that there are two extremes in respect of this matter. There is probably a mainstream position that says, “We are willing to enter into discussions but want clarification of a large number of points about accountability, finance and so on, on the basis of which, we would be prepared to proceed.” It is on the basis of such good faith that I enter into the discussions, and we will see whether that is a flexible and intelligent way of approaching them, or merely the naivety of a young and aspiring politician.


Some 900 additional places are being provided at existing prisons, which will increase total capacity to around 80,400 by the end of 2007. We will of course keep under review the need for additional capacity.

Given that our prisons are bursting at the seams and that one in 10 prisoners are foreign nationals, should not the Home Office redouble its efforts to ensure that, during an early part of their sentence, as many as possible of the 8,000 foreign prisoners in our jails are returned to secure detention in their own countries?

The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the prison population is rising, and he is right to suggest that we have repatriation agreements with many countries. He will know that we have 97 prisoner transfer agreements with particular countries. My right hon. Friend Baroness Scotland has met representatives of other countries, particularly Jamaica, to see what we can do about repatriation. We continue to work in as many ways as we can to get people out of our prisons who do not need to be there, and we are looking at the arrangements.

What effect will the extremely welcome letter that my hon. Friend sent to me on Friday have on prison capacity? He said unequivocally that no sex offenders will go into the Bunbury House bail hostel, thereby reversing a policy position adopted under the Conservatives. Will that have any impact on the prison population?

It clearly will. My hon. Friend is referring to our decision to make sure that child sex offenders will not be in approved premises adjacent to schools, which is entirely sensible and in the interests of public protection. I know that he, like other Members, is concerned about how we deal with what is a very difficult problem, and I look forward to working with Members in all parts of the House on addressing the issue of child sex offenders.

May I say that the hon. Gentleman needs to look at the impact on prison capacity of imprisonment for public protection and extended sentence provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003? There is a very real concern that they will result in many people spending many years in prison, not least because parole boards, against the background of the current tabloid campaign, will be reluctant to release them. Much injustice might be done this way.

The Government’s position is that serious offenders and dangerous people should be imprisoned. That is what we want. Of course, the courts are responsible for sentencing, which is quite right—

As the shadow Home Secretary says, I am responsible for prisons, but I will not be doing any fag-packet calculations about new ones. I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who has many years of experience, that we need look at the wider issues to do with the prison population, including whether the right people are in prison and whether capacity is right. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says, we need to take account of that in the review. It is interesting to note that, since 1997, nine new prisons have been built with an increased capacity of 19,000 and a greater than 50 per cent. rise in the prison population. Those are serious issues that have to be faced, and it is important that the whole House reflects seriously on them to ensure that the right decisions are taken.

Does my hon. Friend accept that one thing we should be doing is ensuring that people in prisons really need to be there? Far too many people are in prison at the moment: they are there fundamentally because they have mental health problems or because in many cases they are on remand. Will my hon. Friend reflect on what happens now as a result of the fact that remand practices vary so much from one court district to another? Prisons as overcrowded as they are now are more difficult to manage and reduce the chances of the work done inside them to stop reoffending being effective.

My hon. Friend, who is noted for the work that he does in this area for the all-party group, is entirely right to say, as I said earlier, that we should reflect on the prison population and consider who is in prison and who needs to be. We also need to ensure that public protection remains at the forefront. I am aware of issues around remand, which will be dealt with in the review.

What the Minister may not realise is that he has just admitted that prison capacity has not expanded at the same rate as the prison population. If he looks at the Prison Service business plan for 2006-07, he will see, as I am sure he knows, that it has seven main priorities, but that increasing prison capacity is not one of them. Since the document can have been published only with the Minister’s and the Home Secretary’s knowledge and prior consent, it follows that, despite their sentencing policy, and despite the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), the Government have no plans to increase prison capacity. Why not?

I wish that the hon. and learned Gentleman had listened to what I said. We will consider all options in the review that the Home Secretary is undertaking, and capacity will feature. I have already said that capacity will increase by 900 by the end of 2007. I have also already said that we are looking at the prison population. Yes, it is at its highest level, but we still have spare capacity in our prisons and we are looking into all the available options.


In this financial year, the Home Office is investing around £2.75 million in services supporting victims of sexual violence, including sexual assault referral centres, independent sexual violence advisers who will provide support through the criminal justice system and specialist sexual violence voluntary organisations providing therapeutic care.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. In a recent report, Portsmouth was cited as the city with the highest number of reported rapes in the country, but that was partly due to the fact that we have an excellent rape crisis centre, offering support to men and women and giving them the confidence to report rapes and bring the perpetrators to justice. Does my hon. Friend agree that such services are important, and will she agree to come to Portsmouth to see for herself the excellent work being done at the rape crisis centre and to use it as a model of best practice?

I thank my hon. Friend and am aware of her efforts and support for the provision of quality services in this area. I hope that a visit can be arranged, as I would be most willing to go to Portsmouth. My hon. Friend will know that we are working across Government to develop an action plan on sexual violence, aimed at preventing such violence by increasing reporting of cases, increasing access to help and support services, and improving the criminal justice system response to victims of sexual violence.

Immigration and Nationality Directorate

11. What steps he is taking to improve the administration of the immigration and nationality directorate. (77881)

I thank the Minister for that question.

I ask him, however, to look at the deportation of husbands of arranged marriages. I know of several examples of women who are being harassed. They have given information to the Department. Even though their husbands’ appeals have failed, the IND has not taken steps to remove them.

I hope that what I gave was something of an answer, rather than a question.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I will be happy to look into it further with him.

One suggestion that the Minister has already made to reduce the backlogs that plague his Department is an amnesty for all illegal immigrants. His predecessor rejected it because he could not give even a rough estimate of how many illegal immigrants there are in Britain. It would be highly irresponsible even to consider an amnesty without knowing the numbers that it would cover. I am sure that the Minister is not irresponsible, so can he give us that number?

The hon. Gentleman talked about an amnesty. It is true that we have asked officials to look at quite a wide range of analysis as we prepare to reform the IND. However, the point that I made to the Home Affairs Committee was clear: we expect the enforcement and removal regime to be strengthened. Therefore, there are no plans for an amnesty, because that would cut against the position and direction of policy that we set out so clearly.