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Home Department

Volume 459: debated on Monday 30 April 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Identity Cards

1. When he plans to announce the timetable for the introduction of compulsory identity cards throughout the UK. (134273)

Identity cards can be made compulsory for all United Kingdom residents only after further primary legislation. However, we will start issuing identity cards to British citizens from 2009, alongside compulsory biometric immigration documents to foreign nationals from 2008.

I thank the Under-Secretary for that response. We understand that the cost of the identity card scheme will be more than £5 billion and that, to date, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not given his commitment to the resources necessary to make it compulsory throughout the country. What faith can people have in identity cards or in the Under-Secretary’s timetable when the Treasury could pull the plug on the scheme at the drop of a hat?

The Chancellor, the Treasury and the whole Government support the policy of introducing identity cards and I think that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of that. Perhaps he could tell us why—

Do “foreign nationals” for whom the biometric documents will be issued include citizens of the Irish Republic?

The identity card scheme will apply throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] It is intended to apply to people of any nationality who are legally resident and aged 16 or over. We were in regular contact with the Irish authorities, including the Irish embassy in London, during the passage of the Identity Cards Act 2006. The principle of the common travel area, which covers the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, will be unaffected.

Will the Under-Secretary explain why the ID card cost report, which was due to be published a month ago, did not appear, even though the Government have a legal obligation to ensure its publication?

The costs will be presented, as we are committed to doing, in the cost report, which will be published shortly, and in the Identity and Passport Service annual accounts for 2006-07. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the report will be before him soon.

May I revert to the question that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) asked? Will citizens of the Irish Republic be among the first tranche of people who have the documents— yes or no? Who else will be in the first tranche?

The introduction of ID cards in Ireland is, as the hon. Gentleman knows, a matter for the Irish Government.

Immigration Points System

2. What assessment he has made of the likely impact on numbers of people entering the UK of the new immigration points system to be introduced in 2008. (134274)

On 18 April, I announced the timetable for the points-based system. It will ensure that migrants can come to Britain to work or study only if they have something to give that Britain needs.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but how will the new system affect asylum seekers who are waiting for appeals and deportations, given that he has set new criteria?

As my hon. Friend knows, the number of deportations has hit an all-time high—we now deport somebody, on average, every eight minutes. However, the points system will make it even easier to remove those who have no legal right to be here. Everybody who comes here under the points system to study or work in skilled jobs will need a sponsor. Those sponsors will be required to help us fulfil obligations. However, the commitment is backed by two important changes. First, there is £100 million extra for immigration policing, against which the Liberal Democrats shamefully voted when it came to the crunch in Committee. Secondly, there are the compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals. They derive from a system that I believe that Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition still plan to shut down.

The Government have spun the measure as designed to restrict the number of people coming into this country. Is it significant that the Minister failed to answer the question whether it would do that? In the light of the use of the existing points-based system for highly skilled immigrants in the opposite way to that intended—namely, when it was found that relatively few people who had the number of points applied, the Government simply reduced the number of points required until the numbers increased by a multiple of those under the previous system—what possible ground is there for believing that the Government will use the new system to restrict rather than to pretend to restrict numbers?

The points-based system has a simple objective: it is designed to ensure that those who come to this country from abroad, either to work or to study, have something to give that Britain needs. One of the virtues of the points-based system is that it is easier to move the bar up or down. I happen to think that that is not a decision that should be taken in a dark room in the Home Office. We need a much more open debate in this country about where our economy needs migration and where it does not. That is why we propose establishing a migration advisory committee, so that we can receive that independent advice. I also happen to think that we should take into account the wider impact of migration. That is why we propose establishing a transparent forum in which people can come together to advise us on where migration is having a wider impact on communities up and down the country. Those are measures that I would have thought the right hon. Gentleman would support.

I welcome the points-based system, which is an excellent idea that will improve the quality of immigrants. However, what impact will it have on the 600-odd people who are entering the Bradford district, including my constituency, on the grounds of marriage for permanent settlement?

Like the system in Australia, the points system is designed to apply to those people who seek to come to this country either to work or to study. There are provisions in the immigration rules to reunite British citizens with loved ones from abroad, which is an important objective that we continue to support. However, I say to my hon. Friend, with some gratitude, that we have further reforms to make to the immigration rules on marriage. There is a case for examining whether we should make English a pre-entry requirement, rather than one that is imposed once people are here. We must continue to bear down on forced marriage, an issue on which my hon. Friend has bravely championed her position in this House and beyond.

The Minister said that he wanted an open debate. He then mentioned the migration advisory committee, the creation of which is something that I have welcomed previously. Will he make a statement on the specific, narrow point of the number and type of people the Home Office has assessed are coming in, and where they might be going? The Minister will be aware that the risks and opportunities differ in the nations, the English regions and every local authority area. Will he make a statement to the House and allow questions on that specific, narrow point, so that people from all parts of the country and hon. Members from all parts of the House can have their say on the risks and opportunities that they believe their areas face?

When we finalise our plans for the forum designed to consider the wider impact of migration, we shall of course make a statement to the House and I shall of course be happy to answer questions, either inside or outside the House. Different regions in the country have different needs from migration. That is precisely why the First Minister was right to promote the fresh talent initiative in Scotland. I am not sure whether the scheme has the hon. Gentleman’s support, but it has been enormously successful in Scotland and shows that the immigration system needs to be flexible in order to take account of the different needs of different parts of our economy.

Much as I admire the Minister’s boyish charm, I am sorry to tell him, as I told his predecessor, that the points-based system will simply not work, because it will keep out the very people whom we need in this country. For example, there is a shortage of chefs, who wish to come to our restaurants. He cannot sell the policy unless he sorts out the mess that the Government have created over the highly skilled migrant workers programme. Does he have an answer to the questions put to him by the people he met at the meeting that I chaired in the Committee Room upstairs?

As ever, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his advice. I was grateful, too, to him for bringing together a group of those who had applied under the highly skilled migrant programme, in order to understand the impact of tightening the rules on their opportunities in this country. However, we have an obligation to ensure that only those who have something that Britain actually needs are able to come. The meeting that my right hon. Friend organised was helpful to me in getting the planning of the points-based system right. The system will be introduced in January, so there is still time for some fine-tuning to be made and for some of his observations to be taken on board.

The sheer scale of increased immigration in recent years has made it easier for traffickers and smugglers to bring in women for the purposes of sexual exploitation, to the extent that we are now perhaps Europe’s No. 1 destination for such women. Will anything in the new points system make it easier to identify the traffickers and smugglers, and thereby reduce the trade and prevent that monicker from being applied to this country any longer?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that global migration has changed; it has doubled since the 1960s. Net migration into this country is pretty much in line with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average. Of course, as global movement becomes easier, people will seek to exploit it, and that is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), have brought forward the UK action plan on trafficking. That will have to be backed up by increased resources for immigration policing, which is why our measures are so important. It was a disappointment that the Liberal Democrats opposed them. Biometric identity technology will be important too, because it will help us to understand with confidence precisely who is coming into and leaving the country. That will make the business of enforcement much easier, and I urge the Conservatives to support our plans.

Knife Crime

The Government fully recognise the importance of tackling knife crime. This is a complex issue and we are using a variety of measures, encompassing legislation, enforcement, education and prevention, to address it. Those measures form part of the Home Office action plan on guns, knives and gangs, which is being taken forward through the Home Secretary’s round table.

The recent spate of knife crimes, including those that claimed the lives of two young men in my constituency, might not be an indication of a worsening trend overall, but that is not how it feels on the street. A recent poll found that one in three Londoners thought that knife crime had reached an all-time high. Does my hon. Friend accept that perception is as important as actuality, particularly when it comes to discouraging young people from carrying knives for the purpose, as they see it, of defending themselves? What steps will he take to support the voluntary and community organisations, such as Working with Men, which deal with young people who carry weapons to defend themselves?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is important to get the facts out about knife crime. Without being complacent or underestimating people’s very real fear of knife crime, and given that knives are generally available, the British crime survey reports that only 6 to 7 per cent. of violent crime is knife-related. That figure has remained relatively stable for several years; in 1997, the figure was 5 per cent. However, we need to address the problem of knife crime, and we shall do so using a variety of measures, including tough enforcement of the law, increased police powers and, as my hon. Friend says, working with community organisations to try to address the fear of crime. We have done that through organisations such as the Damilola Taylor Trust and the Boyhood to Manhood initiative, and we are working through the Connected Fund to support more community organisations in getting across the message that knives are dangerous. We are doing all that we can to reassure communities.

In the areas of London where knives are routinely carried, the police could use section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to carry out random stop-searches. Will the Minister tell us why that is not being done, and whether it is a priority for him that it should be done?

It is being done when appropriate and when the police consider it necessary. The hon. Gentleman will also know that we have recently increased the sentence available to the courts for simple possession from two to four years. Knife crime is a problem that we need to address through tough enforcement of the law, through giving the police more powers and through working with communities to try to prevent young people from carrying knives in the first place.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the violent gang culture that generates knife crime also generates the gun crime that we see on the streets of my constituency? As well as ensuring that we have effective policing and the right sentence tariff, the Government need to do more to deal with family breakdown and educational under-achievement, which are partly at the root of the issue.

Of course we need to address the problems that my hon. Friend has mentioned. The Government are considering whether to make membership of a gang an aggravating factor in relation to sentencing. It is clearly a worry for us all that some young people seem to give more credence to the values of their gang than to the values of society in general. We will tackle that problem through a variety of means including increasing police powers and supporting communities. A recent community initiative that I have looked at is the Boyhood to Manhood initiative, which tries to give young black people, in particular, positive role models.

Given the Minister’s earlier comments, he recognises that effective enforcement to stop knives getting into the hands of young people is an essential part of the fight against violent crime. Yet in 2005, the last year for which figures are available, just 19 people were convicted of selling knives or blades to youngsters under 16. What commitment can the Minister give to address the failure in enforcement and to make it clear that there is no knife amnesty for selling blades to those who are under age?

The clearest indication of the fact that the Government take knife crime extremely seriously is the increase in the sentence for possession from two to four years, which we expect to be enforced. The sentence given to anyone charged with that offence and brought before the courts is a matter for the courts. Let there be no doubt, however, that the Government consider possession to be a serious offence, and expect the courts to act accordingly.

Will the Minister support and welcome the “Knives Ruin Lives” campaign run by my local newspaper, The Shields Gazette? Does he agree that the only way to tackle this blight on our streets is to ensure that anyone convicted of carrying a knife serves a jail sentence?

I am happy to congratulate The Shields Gazette on its “Knives Ruin Lives” campaign in Jarrow and beyond. That is just the sort of community initiative that we need. Of course, it is up to the Government to pass tough laws and see that they are enforced, which is what we want. The community and local media must also take action, however, and we must all work together to show that the knife culture in certain parts of some of our communities is not acceptable, and that we will take steps to deal with it.

Net Migration

Not as many as I hope to receive once the migration advisory committee and the migration impact forum are up and running over the next few months.

We all recognise the contribution made by migrants and the undoubted benefits of some migration. As part of the debate, will the Minister accept that recent net migration—running at 400,000 in the past two years alone—has been historically unprecedented, and that the pressure on housing and public services is unsustainable? All of that is due, in no small measure, to Government policy changes. To put it in the Minister’s terms, should the bar be set higher or lower? Under his points-based system, will either he or the migration advisory committee have the power to set a limit?

The hon. Gentleman is right that net migration is up in the UK, as it is across the advanced west—the figure for Britain is the same as the OECD average. When we make migration decisions, we must consider which parts of our economy need migrants and which do not, on which we need independent advice. The hon. Gentleman is right that we must take into account the wider impact of migration on communities. We plan to bring together public services up and down the country so that, when we make migration decisions, we do so in full knowledge of the impacts on communities up and down Britain.

My hon. Friend has the sympathy of the House and the country in the tasks that he is undertaking. We must realise how difficult it is to stop the hundreds of thousands of people across Europe and the rest of the world who wish to make their way to this island paradise—especially after 10 years of Labour Government. But surely he realises that his points scheme deals only with legal immigration, and it is not the legal immigration that is causing problems. Illegal immigration, and bogus asylum seekers, are undermining the status of the legal immigrants, whom we welcome to Britain. Will he assure the House that his methods will reduce the number of illegal immigrants and bogus asylum seekers getting to this island?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. If we are to tackle illegal immigration, we must stop illegal journeys and illegal jobs. That is exactly why we have published plans to set up a second offshore border control to keep our borders more secure, and why we have said that we will increase spending on immigration policing by £100 million next year—a measure that the Liberal Democrats voted against. Both measures, however, must be underpinned by a different way of identifying whether people are who they say they are, which is why biometric identity technology is so important. That underpins biometric visas and compulsory biometric ID cards for foreign nationals. That is why it is such an error for the Conservative party to pledge that it will close that system down.

Will the Minister put the Blairite spin to one side, and tell us by how much the annual number of immigrants to the United Kingdom will fall in the year following the introduction of his new points system? A ballpark figure will do.

I do not know whether I have given the hon. Gentleman a misleading impression, but I am not the general secretary of a Soviet-style central planning system—[Laughter.] I do not sit, together with my colleagues, in an office in the Home Office deciding what the needs of the British economy will be next year. We need to understand where in our economy migration is needed and where it is not, which is why the migration advisory committee is so important, but in setting the bar we must take into account the wider impact of migration, and that is precisely what we plan to do.

The increase in the number of doctors and dentists in my constituency would not have happened had it not been possible to recruit dentists from foreign countries. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that people filling essential posts in this country for which there was no local candidate will still be given fast-tracked immigration status and fast-tracked work permits?

My hon. Friend is right to say that migrants from abroad have performed vital roles not just in our economy but in our public services. In the last couple of years people coming to this country from the new accession countries have provided some 2,500 jobs in the NHS and NHS dentistry, and that is before we take into account the number of people from eastern Europe who are working in our social care sector. If there are roles that cannot be filled locally, both our public services and United Kingdom businesses should have the chance to fill them with the right people from abroad.

Will the Minister acknowledge that the net immigration figures were unacceptably inflated last week by the failure to deport two Libyan terrorist suspects, which even the judge described as a threat to our national security? Is it not time we accepted that the Human Rights Act 1998 is bad law, and that we need a new Human Rights Act that will balance matters involving people’s individual rights against—

Is the Minister aware of figures released last month by the Department for Communities and Local Government which showed that house building is now roughly keeping pace with household formation from indigenous sources, but also that household formation from immigration is due to reach about 73,000 a year? What prospect is there of ending house price inflation and giving people a chance to own their homes at a reasonable price while net immigration continues to run at those unacceptable and out-of-control levels?

The right hon. Gentleman has made an important point, which underlines the need for us to take account of the wider impacts of migration on society when making immigration decisions. The points-based system gives us a flexible way of either raising or lowering the bar that people must cross to come to this country, but I do not think our decision on precisely where the bar sits should be based on an economic rationale alone. We must take account of those wider impacts, which is why the migration advisory committee and the migration impact forum will be so important.

An assessment of the figures relating to people migrating to the United Kingdom for a year or more shows that about a quarter say that their reason for coming here is to undertake a course of formal study. How confident is he that appropriate assessments are conducted in relation to the institutions and courses that a substantial number of people coming to this country are about to attend and undertake?

My hon. Friend is right to underline the contribution that foreign students make to the economy. We estimate that last year foreign students brought in about £5 billion to the education system in Britain, but we have to ensure that the colleges to which people are going are legitimate and that people have the right qualifications in order to undertake those courses. That is why we will be investing up to £20 million next year in a compliance network of Border and Immigration Agency officers to check that colleges are not bending the rules.

The Minister’s widely acclaimed charms cannot disguise the fact that his actions are largely ineffectual, mostly because the Government have no idea how many people have come here. The Office for National Statistics says that only 56,000 Polish citizens entered Britain in 2005, yet mysteriously the Department for Work and Pensions tells us that 170,000 Polish citizens applied for new national insurance numbers in 2005-06. They cannot both be right. Will he admit that, as long as the Government fail to secure our borders and to know how many people are coming here and staying here, immigration policy will remain the single biggest failure in the long-term shambles that the Home Office has become?

That is an absolutely extraordinary claim from the hon. Gentleman, who I hold in the highest regard for the contribution that he has made to Opposition Front-Bench immigration policy—he has injected a degree of humanity into it that was not there a year or two ago. He will not have any credibility arguing that point when it was his party that began dismantling exit controls in 1994, and it is his party that has said that it will shut down the biometric identification system, which will support biometric visas and biometric identification in Britain and which is vital to our counting people in and out. As an alternative, he proposes to set a limit. That limit does not apply to the European Union; it does not apply to asylum seekers; and we have yet to find out whether it applies to family members. Even though I think it has—

Child Abuse (Internet)

5. What further steps he plans to take to stop access to images of child abuse via the internet in response to the annual report of the Internet Watch Foundation; and if he will make a statement. (134277)

The Government welcome the report of the Internet Watch Foundation, which was published this month, and congratulate the IWF and their partners on their work and achievements.

We continue to work very closely with the internet service providers industry in the UK to ensure that blocking mechanisms are in place to restrict access to the sites identified by the Internet Watch Foundation. We are aiming for every ISP to support the blocking mechanism by the end of 2007. Additionally, the Department is supporting work by the British Standards Institution to develop a kite-mark for software products that PC-owners can use to block access to the sites at software level. That will be available by the end of the year.

I congratulate the IWF, mobile phone companies, ISPs, the police, the charities and the Government's taskforce on making the UK a country that has virtually eradicated the hosting of those disgusting sites, but the IWF report showed that an increasing proportion—90 per cent.—are hosted in the US and Russia, and that the images are getting worse and more disgusting. What action can the Government take to encourage and to help those countries to improve their performance in blocking sites? Will my hon. Friend consider discussing with his Foreign Office colleagues organising an intergovernmental conference with Russia, the US, the European Union and the UK to stop children being abused and raped in front of the camera for profit?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question, the sentiments of which I know will be supported by all hon. Members. Just to reiterate the points that she made, 83 per cent. of all illegal child abuse websites that the IWF identified were hosted in the US and Russia, and 90 per cent. of those victims were under 12 years of age. What is increasingly worrying is the severity of the images that are posted on the sites. My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We are looking to work through the EU, the Council of Europe, the United Nations and other international bodies to see what we can do to encourage some of our international partners to take a more effective approach to blocking those sites. Hosting a conference is perhaps one of the ideas that we need to look at.

In his parliamentary answer in February, the Minister said that he would publish the research report on the exploitation and abuse of children in this country by a funded organisation, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre—CEOPC—and that that would give us an idea of the nature and scale of child abuse and exploitation.He undertook to publish it by April. Will he produce the rabbit out of his hat this afternoon?

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot produce the report that he mentions today. However, the report that CEOPC is in the process of producing is extremely important. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will look at it in due course, and we will publish it as soon as possible. It deals with child abuse—as the hon. Gentleman knows, because of his work in that area—but also with child trafficking. The Government want to expand our knowledge and understanding of the extent of this problem and the numbers involved. We will publish the report as soon as possible.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is time that the servers themselves policed such sites as come into this country? People with computers use those servers, and it is time the servers did the policing. Can a hotline not be set up so that complaints can be made about such illegal sites coming through our computer systems? Should not ISPs be forced to put up such information on their sites so that it can be passed on to the necessary people?

We are trying to make progress through self-regulation and, as my hon. Friend knows, we have good relationships with internet service providers and mobile telephone operators. We have a target that by the end of 2007 all of our operators will have blocking mechanisms in place. Good progress is being made: almost 90 per cent. of those images are being blocked by our ISPs. They also provide that if people access such sites a message pops up informing them that they have accessed illegal material. We are considering what message ought to pop up on the computer screen, and examining the possibility of making it a tougher law enforcement message. However, to answer my hon. Friend’s question, what is important is the relationships that we have with our international partners. The key to tackling this problem lies in greater co-operation with other countries.

Police Stations

The management of the police estate and the allocation of resources are matters for each chief officer and the local police authority responsible for assessing needs in each locality.

West Yorkshire police has been closing police stations to the public, not because it wants to or it thinks that that is a good idea, but because it is underfunded to the tune of £15 million a year under the needs-based funding formula that the Home Office set. Shipley constituency now has no police station open to the public at any time of the day. Does the Minister not agree that if there is to be effective neighbourhood policing, there must be neighbourhood police stations that are accessible to the public?

The hon. Gentleman’s starting premise is entirely wrong. West Yorkshire police are closing some access to the public at some stations, as part of a reconfiguration based on their assessment of local needs, and of the most effective way to police the entire west Yorkshire area. I wish to make it clear that no police station in west Yorkshire will be closed as a result of such changes. Patrol and neighbourhood police officers will continue to be based at the same stations serving local communities. A local resident in west Yorkshire recently said that he felt that in his town the public would be better served if there were not a public helpdesk, that having a non-emergency contact point as suggested by West Yorkshire police would be a viable alternative, that in many cases pedestrians and elderly people believed that police stations were not in the appropriate locations, and that the posturing and overreaction to the proposals—

When I served on the police parliamentary scheme in Greater Manchester I visited some disgraceful police stations that were built during the Victorian period. I congratulate the Government on supplying many Greater Manchester police forces with brand-new police stations, including one in my Bolton constituency. I invite my hon. Friend to come to Bolton to see the new headquarters, which is superb.

I have previously tried to arrange such a visit, so of course I will come to Bolton to see how Greater Manchester police are responding to the policing needs of Greater Manchester’s communities. It is not for me to tell any local authority how it should configure its policing, and as I said, I agree with those who suggest—as the individual to whom I referred earlier did—that posturing and overreaction to proposals does not help at all: that individual was a Conservative candidate in west Yorkshire.

After 10 years, the Government must answer for their record. More than 500 police stations have closed, only one in eight stations is now open for 24 hours, one third of all forces have no 24-hour stations at all, the 101 national non-emergency number has been shelved and the promised 8,000 community support officers have been cut. That is at least two manifesto commitments broken. Is this what the Home Secretary meant yesterday when he said that he intended to build better relationships between the police and the communities that they serve?

I can only repeat what we have said many times at this Dispatch Box: there are record numbers of police officers, and in the past 10 years there have been record levels of resources. I repeat: it is not for the Home Office to tell each and every authority up and down the country how best to police their local areas by telling them what police stations should and should not be open. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) made the entirely fair point that we are a good way through the refurbishment and renewal of the police station element of the police estate—after 19 years of sheer and utter neglect under the last Government.

Dispersal Zones

7. What assessment he has made of the impact of dispersal zones; and if he will make a statement. (134279)

Between January 2004 and 1 April 2006, the police used the power to disperse unruly groups in more than 1,000 designated areas. They have succeeded in tackling under-age drinking, joyriding, noise nuisance, the antisocial use of fireworks, the harassment and intimidation of residents, and many other such transgressions. That is yet another example of our commitment to empowering local communities to tackle the blight of antisocial behaviour.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The police in Salford used a dispersal order and zone very successfully to get rid of disorderly behaviour at Ellenbrook shopping precinct, where large groups of youths were gathering and intimidating shop staff and local people trying to shop there. Given that success in Salford, does my hon. Friend agree that we need to continue with dispersal orders and zones, antisocial behaviour orders and parenting orders to tackle such disorder and antisocial behaviour, rather than expressing the somewhat pious hope that we have heard expressed recently that young people might start to behave?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Sadly, I do not have intimate knowledge of the Ellenbrook shopping precinct, but I am sure that it is in a far better position than it was before the use of dispersal zones. We are very clear that the respect agenda, antisocial behaviour measures and broader such powers are liberating communities throughout the country from such behaviour, in ways that simply were not happening before the introduction of the legislation. Anyone who thinks that this is a consensual position, and that it would continue, should listen to the fluff and drivel that we heard last Monday from the Leader of the Opposition.

May I ask two practical policy questions that arose from a meeting with residents of the Sholing area of Southampton, where a dispersal zone has had a marked improving effect on antisocial behaviour since its introduction in October? First, the current rules appear to imply that if a dispersal zone works, the local authority and the police can no longer justify having one. Secondly, there is a need to be able to vary the boundaries of dispersal zones much more flexibly than the current rules allow. In the light of my hon. Friend’s commitment to dispersal zones, will he look at both those policy issues?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments; as usual, they are considered. Again, I do not know anything about Sholing in Southampton, but I am happy to increase that ignorance—[Interruption]I meant to say increase my knowledge, of Southampton—[Interruption.] As the Opposition are saying, I do not need any help with the ignorance. However, I take the point that the import of the existing law is that once a problem has been solved, a dispersal zone is to be shut down, and reinvented only if the situation occurs again; we need to look into that. I also accept that the existing system may well be too bureaucratic to allow such zones’ boundaries to be varied; the practicalities of that issue need to be considered, too. Both my right hon. Friend’s points are well made.

Shop Theft

8. What his assessment is of the proposals in the consultation paper by the sentencing advisory panel on the offence of theft from a shop. (134280)

We will consider the proposals when the Sentencing Guidelines Council comes forward with a draft guideline. The Government’s position on sentencing is absolutely clear: prison should be reserved for serious, dangerous and violent offenders, and we need better ways of dealing with less serious offenders. They should be punished, make reparation to the community and be helped to stop offending, which means that they are normally better punished in the community, with tough sentences that ask a lot of them.

Shoplifters already view their crimes as victim-free, so will the Minister do everything he can to ensure that the crime does not end up as punishment-free? Theft from shops threatens the viability of businesses and pushes up prices for genuine customers. In some of our big cities, children are being used, Fagin-style, in organised theft from shops. Will the Minister do everything he can to ensure that the punishment reflects the serious nature of the crime?

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady. She is right: we have to stop serious shop theft. In 1993 2.5 per cent. of people convicted of such theft were imprisoned, but by 2003 the number had gone up to 19.5 per cent., so the Government have been tough on shop theft. However, we need to work with the British Retail Consortium and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers to support shop workers and retailers in making sure that shopping is safe.

Sixty-five per cent. of people arrested for theft, including shoplifting, test positive for drugs, so the proposal to issue penalty notices to shoplifters will mean that the underlying problems of substance abuse go undiagnosed, and therefore untreated. Does my hon. Friend agree that that will lead to an increase in shoplifting, thus putting shop workers at risk?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who does a tremendous amount of work in that area, supporting USDAW and retailers. She is right. Penalty notices are not given to people with drug problems, because it would be inappropriate, but they are important in low-level, high-volume shoplifting for first offenders. We need to make sure that we look at serious repetitive offenders, but it is sensible for the Sentencing Guidelines Council to look into what is going on and make recommendations. There will then be a period of full consultation.

Is the Minister aware that I have received a letter from Morrisons, the supermarket chain, telling me that the proposals will be a shoplifters charter. What is the Minister’s response to Morrisons?

Clearly, I do not read all the hon. Gentleman’s correspondence, but I am aware of the letter from Morrisons, whose headquarters are in Bradford—my patch. Morrisons and other retailers want us to get the balance right and that is what we intend to do, so it is important that when the advisory panel makes its recommendations to the Sentencing Guidelines Council we can all consider them, and I am sure that there will be an opportunity for full debate.

Departmental Restructuring

9. If he will issue a consultation paper setting out the advantages and disadvantages of dividing the Home Office in two. (134281)

The refocusing of the Home Office will allow the Department to concentrate on personal, community and national security. Today the threat posed to the last of those has again been highlighted. The House will be well aware that this morning five dangerous terrorists were put behind bars, thanks to the hard work of the Security Service and the police. I want to place on record in the House our thanks to the men and women in the police and security services who have worked so hard to ensure that the perpetrators of that plot were brought to justice and that a major terrorist attack, which could have killed and injured many, many people, has been averted. The case reminds us all that the terrorist threat we face is real and severe, and that, given the changes in the world at both global and local level, the advantages—indeed, the necessity—of refocusing the priorities of the Home Office to concentrate on the challenges of today’s world and the priorities of today’s British people are clear.

Unfortunately, my friend did not answer my question. Why should we trust his judgment on splitting the Home Office when former Lord Chief Justice Woolf has called for consultation, as has former Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler? Why do we have to rely on ministerial fiat? Why do we have to rely on the royal prerogative to reconfigure Whitehall? Why does my friend not just ask people whether it is a good idea?

A great deal of consideration has been given to this decision, and the basic reason why we are refocusing the Home Office is quite clear. It is that the nature of the world and the threats that it contains are changing rapidly. The exponential growth in the threat from international terrorism, from international crime and from managing immigration—a subject constantly raised in this House—as well as the social changes in our communities that have led to the necessity to concentrate on tackling antisocial behaviour, have all given us major challenges in today’s world. They are all reflected in the priority placed upon them in opinion poll after opinion poll by the people of this country. We are therefore responding both to those realities and to the priorities of our public.

But which of the two new Government Departments will be responsible for picking up the pieces from yesterday’s dismal decision on the two Libyan terror suspects?

Ultimately, counter-terrorism will be the responsibility of the Home Office. If the hon. Gentleman is asking me to comment on the decision taken last Friday to release two suspected terrorists, I believe that my views on the matter are known. However, we are subject to judicial process, because I have authorised an appeal against that decision as soon as possible. As it is sub judice, I shall say no more on that subject.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the light of the convictions agreed today, the concentration of the reformed Home Office obviously needs to learn the lessons of what happened on 7 July 2005? However, the understandable hurt and distress of the families of the dead and the victims who were injured cannot be helped by an extensive investigation costing large sums of money, when the facts are known, including whatever failings existed. Today, we should thank the security and policing services for saving us, through what is now known as Operation Crevice, from the most horrendous terrorist attack in 2004. They saved us from another distressing and hurtful attack by terrorists seeking to damage our country.

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. He is probably among the few people who have had experience of the recent level of terrorist threat, and is aware of the capacity of terrorists to inflict terrible damage on the people of this country. May I express my condolences to the families of the injured and those who lost their lives on 7/7, as I realise the extent to which today’s events will bring back the hurt and anguish from which they have already suffered?

I am also aware of the demands to conduct a wider inquiry, but I do not believe that a public inquiry is the correct response at this time, because it would divert the energies and efforts of so many in the security and police services who are already greatly stretched in countering that present threat. Our responsibility as a Government is to try to minimise the chances of any other group of families ever having to suffer as the 7/7 families did. Nevertheless, I understand the anguish, which is why I have agreed with MI5 to publish on the web the answers to questions that have been posed before, during and after this trial. That is unprecedented, but I think it is fitting.

In addition, I can tell the House that today I have spoken to the Prime Minister, who has spoken in turn to the Chair of the independent cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee, which previously examined the evidence surrounding 7/7. The Chairman has confirmed today that it has revisited the issues and that the facts in the report still stand. However, the Committee has been asked again, through the Chair, to reappraise all these matters and questions, following the evidence arising from the trial, in order that members of the Committee and others can be satisfied that any questions raised have indeed been answered, and in order to identify any questions that have not been answered, to answer them and to report through this procedure to the Prime Minister. I think that that is a way of answering some of these questions without a massive diversion of resources from our security services, and I hope that it is welcomed by the House.

The Home Secretary has made his case for breaking up the Home Office by arguing that it will improve our ability to deal with terrorism. A former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), followed up on that. The terrorist trial that concluded today has shone a light not only on the terrible world of terrorism, but on the operations of our security services. Like the Home Secretary, we must express our gratitude to the men and women who prevented more atrocities, and I join him in paying tribute to them. But that gratitude must not deflect us from asking the necessary questions about the operation of the security services.

The former Home Secretary said that the facts are known. After the 7/7 bombings, the then Home Secretary told us that the attack came out of the blue. The security agencies briefed the press that the suicide bombers were all unknown to them. We now know that that was not true. Two of the 7 July bombers had been under surveillance for more than a year. MI5 dropped the surveillance. It said that that was unavoidable, based on the surveillance resources available to it. As the Home Secretary has said many times, there will never be a 100 per cent. guarantee against terrorism—and we do not expect that, but some mistakes are inevitable and some are not. His web-based response is not the answer. The ISC does not have the investigative capacity to give the answer. Will he please think again—

Order. I know how serious this matter is, but we have to be careful: the Home Secretary is not making a statement—[Interruption.] It was long, I agree. I allowed some latitude to the Home Secretary and to the right hon. Gentleman. But the right hon. Gentleman can still ask another question, and there are Back Benchers who also want to ask questions about this matter. There is nothing to stop him calling for a statement or asking an urgent question tomorrow, if he feels it necessary.

One of the reasons why we ought to be careful about perpetuating some of the myths in the press on these matters is that, with any amount of sincerity, it is possible to get these matters wrong. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) is wrong to say that the identities of the two people were known to the security services. They were not known to the security services until after 7/7; with the virtue of hindsight and retrospective checking, it was discovered that two people whose identities had not been known at the time turned out to be involved in the later bombing. Notwithstanding the fact that what the right hon. Gentleman said is incorrect, there are legitimate questions to be asked, and I am trying to get them answered in a way that does not divert the short and necessary resources and energies of our Security Service from the continuing fight. I think that I have identified a way of doing that.

I thank the Home Secretary for that answer, but I am afraid that I do not agree with him. What he said does not answer the question of why MI5 did not notify West Yorkshire police special branch of any concerns about Mohammad Sidique Khan after it had trailed him all the way to Yorkshire, even when it had a name, a photograph, a family address and his car registration. We are told—the Home Secretary repeated this—that there were no suspicions about Khan before 7 July. Yes, there were. Those suspicions related to criminal activity in support of terrorism, and they were not followed up by the police or the agencies. Evidence is now available that was not publicly available before the conclusion of the trial. An inquiry is an essential tool. It will not distract the agencies. It will provide the public with the confidence that they need to know that the agencies are doing their job as they should, to the maximum of their ability.

The right hon. Gentleman started with another factual error. I cannot confirm or deny any detail of this, because it is not convention, as he will well know—but on the question of West Yorkshire police, just let me say that the matter was investigated by the Intelligence and Security Committee. It could not be referred to at the time because of the sub judice rule, but I can tell him that, having investigated the allegations that he makes, the ISC was satisfied that there was no wrongful conduct on this occasion. [Interruption.] Well, no mistakes were made—put it that way.

I hope that the House will be satisfied with the way that I have tried to find through this matter. I have tried to balance the need to answer legitimate questions, in the first instance, with the need to address the recommendations that will come from the ISC and the need to retain all the resources towards the fight, to make sure that other families are protected as we all want our own families protected. I hope that the House is also satisfied that not only have five very dangerous people been jailed today, but the judge has now passed sentence and in two cases there is a life sentence with a minimum of 40 years, in two cases a life sentence with a minimum of 35 years, and in one case a sentence with a minimum of 20 years. That begins to reflect the seriousness of this crime.

To go back to the original question, a consultation paper would have been better than a simple assertion without evidence or detail. May I also pay tribute to the work of the intelligence services and the police? They have been extraordinarily diligent and have worked in very difficult circumstances. However, the fact remains that the trial has opened up several areas of questioning from which it is absolutely essential that we learn lessons if we are to protect people effectively in the future. This is within the core responsibilities of the right hon. Gentleman’s Department. I regret that he has rejected the concept of a full inquiry, because an independent inquiry is necessary to examine not only the reasons why the Home Office made it clear that these clean skins, as they were called, were unknown to the police and security services—he has asserted that that was the case—but whether there was proper co-ordination between MI5 and MI6 when it was learned that two of the bombers were—

First, the Intelligence and Security Committee is independent. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that his colleague the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), or the Conservative Committee members—the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) and the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram)—are anything other than independent minds. Secondly, I have not rejected the possibility of an independent inquiry. I have rejected the idea of a public inquiry at this stage, because of the energies and resources that that would divert.

Finally, I understand the legitimacy of concentrating on questions. I speak as someone who has met group after group of families affected by 7/7. I understand their anguish about such questions, because I have met them time and time again. To my knowledge, there are no new questions raised by the trial. Nevertheless, the questions that have already been raised ought to be answered. The Prime Minister has asked the Intelligence and Security Committee to identify whether it can find questions that have not yet been answered. If it does, it will report that to the Prime Minister. I hope that this approach respects the need of the nation to be protected and the need of all those who have lost family members or whose family members have been injured to get answers to their questions.