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Topical Questions

Volume 468: debated on Monday 26 November 2007

One of the key responsibilities of my Department is ensuring that we secure the benefits of migration, which supports economic growth, to the UK, while protecting our borders and managing the impact of migration on local communities. For that reason, we published on Thursday key parts of our strategy on illegal working. We have listened to employers and others in shaping our approach. Having done that, we will implement a new system of civil penalties and a tough new criminal offence for those who knowingly employ illegal workers. I have proposed that the maximum civil penalty should be £10,000 per illegal worker. To complement that, we will take steps to raise employers’ awareness of the changes through national press advertising and an improved service to support employers in verifying the immigration status of prospective employees. Those measures will complement our other initiatives to control immigration effectively, especially the new unified UK border agency, which the Prime Minister announced on 14 November, and the points-based system, which will be launched early next year.

Now that the Director of Public Prosecutions and the former Attorney-General have expressed serious doubts about the need to extend the pre-charge detention period beyond 28 days, and given that countries such as Russia, France, Turkey and even the United States have detention periods of less than eight days, will the Home Secretary either renounce her ambitions for 56 days or give the Chamber one concrete example of the police taking 56 days between arresting a terrorist suspect and finding the evidence to bring charges?

As I made clear to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the Government do not argue that there is a current case in which detention beyond 28 days has been necessary to charge. Thank goodness for that, otherwise I would rightly be explaining to the Chamber why the Government had not legislated to prevent the release of potential terrorists. However, it is clear from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, from Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, from Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke in The Daily Telegraph today and from the Home Affairs Committee in a report last June, that a wide range of people believe that it is possible, if not likely, in the near future that more than 28 days might be needed to undertake the necessary investigations to charge somebody. It is responsible, proportionate and precautionary to legislate now for that eventuality rather than risking this country’s security by allowing people out who could have been brought to justice.

Given last week’s events involving the Treasury and the Inland Revenue and the use of data, is the Home Secretary satisfied that the necessary protection is in place for any data that would be gathered under the identity card scheme? Is she planning to review that arrangement in view of what happened last week?

The House will know that, where there are lessons to be learned from last week’s events at HMRC, it is right that we learn them. That is why the Prime Minister has asked PricewaterhouseCoopers for an independent review of the matter, the Cabinet Secretary is examining data security in all Departments and the Information Commissioner will be given power to spot-check Departments’ compliance with the regulations.

However, it is also right to ask whether parliamentary oversight of the scheme can be strengthened. The House is the guarantor of our liberties, which include the right to privacy. Hon. Members know that, under the Identity Cards Act 2006, a national identity commissioner will be appointed to oversee the national identity register, reporting annually to Parliament. There is an important question to be asked about who will watch the watchman—or watchwoman—and now is the time to start reviewing the way in which Parliament can play a stronger role in providing such oversight in future.

T3. What assessment has the Department made of the relative effectiveness in reducing gun and knife crime of compulsory ID cards versus fully trained police officers? (167448)

We have of course taken a range of actions to reduce gun and knife crime, including ensuring that there are more police officers on our streets, increasing enforcement activity and introducing stronger sentences for both types of crime, with a minimum sentence for the possession of guns of five years and an increase in the maximum sentence for the possession of knives. However, it is also an important contribution to public protection to ensure that we can be clear about the identity of those who, for example, are arrested and that we can be clear, with the aim of public protection, that the identity that somebody expresses to the authorities is actually theirs. It is through the use of biometric ID management that we can be more confident that that will be the case, but that does not come at the expense of the wide range of other actions that the Government have taken to help to counter gun and knife crime.

T5. My right hon. and hon. Friends will be aware that yesterday was the UN international day for the eradication of violence against women. Can the Minister give the House an indication of what genuinely positive role men can play in tackling that behaviour, which destroys so many families? (167450)

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out that yesterday was the UN international day for the eradication of violence against women, with which the white ribbon campaign is associated, as he will know. Today I had the privilege of being at City Hall for the launch of the Men’s Coalition, an organisation that tries to bring together men on a variety of issues, but particularly on domestic violence. Domestic violence is not, fairly obviously, just an issue for women. The vast of majority of men are not violent, but the vast majority of the perpetrators of domestic violence are men. The Men’s Coalition calls on men to speak out about the issue, so that we can all join together to do as much as we can to end this heinous crime, which so often takes place behind closed doors, without anyone knowing about it.

May I ask the Home Secretary about the subject of identity cards? If the Government give away someone’s bank account details, that is a disaster, but at least they can change their bank account. What, precisely, does someone do if the Government give away their biometric details?

There is of course an important protection in an identity card system, through the use of biometrics. Biometrics will link a person securely and reliably to his or her unique identity. It will therefore become much more difficult for people to misuse other people’s identity, even if full details of their biographical information are already known. The current plan for the national identity register is for biometric information to be held separately from biographical information, thereby safeguarding against the sort of eventuality that the right hon. Gentleman described.

I do not look forward to the day when the National Audit Office or anybody else asks for that information and is sent it. Let us look at the other aspect of identity cards: the question of protection. The Home Office is currently prototyping a European-wide identity card project called Project Stork. How will it prevent a repetition of the disaster of the past few weeks when sensitive personal data are held not by one Government but by 27?

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to give me more information about the particular allegation that he is making, I will of course be willing to follow it up, but the point that I made remains. The advantage of a national identity register is that it enables the linking of biometric information, maintained on one database, with biographic data, maintained on another, thereby strengthening the protection for individuals in circumstances where, for example, biographic data were stolen or went missing. That is a strengthening of the current position, which is why any Government or Opposition who are serious about public protection and identity fraud should be thinking seriously about how we address those issues, instead of making hay.

T6. I welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement that we are to crack down further on illegal working in the United Kingdom. I accept that there is no excuse for illegal working or undercutting wages in any circumstances. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when employers knowingly—I stress, knowingly—hire illegal workers, there should be even tougher penalties, including unlimited fines and imprisonment? (167451)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. An important part of the announcement that we made last Thursday was that we should take a more fast-track approach to employers who have employed illegal workers, perhaps through negligence or through not carrying out proper checks. Such activity is serious, and should involve a civil penalty, but we would also support the ability of those employers to check the status of their workers. There should, however, be a different scale of offence for those employers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants, often for their own personal profit and to the detriment of the welfare of the people they are employing. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there should be the potential for a prison sentence in those cases, and there will be the potential for a prison sentence of up to two years and an unlimited fine in those circumstances.

Last Tuesday, we learned from Home Office figures that the number of failed asylum seekers who have been deported now stands at its lowest level in five years. That comes on top of figures showing that successful appeals against an initial refusal are as high as 40 per cent. for asylum applicants from some countries. Does the Minister not agree that the system is inefficient and inhumane, and that it is now time to take the radical option, as in Canada, of establishing a fully independent asylum applications system? The system in Canada has a rate of successful appeals following refusal as low as 1 per cent.

On behalf of Labour Members, I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the Chamber following his absence. He has been much missed. As he will know, my objection to his proposals relates to the fact that I am extremely concerned about the pattern of behaviour demonstrated by his party on tackling illegal immigration. First, there was his party’s decision in Committee to vote against an extra £100 million for immigration policing. Then, there was its proposal to extend an amnesty to certain people, some of whom would have claimed asylum. That is a policy that—

Order. We are not going to use up this time talking about Liberal party policy. I call David Winnick.

As the Government are clearly in favour of good community and race relations, will my hon. Friend the Minister and the Home Secretary deplore the fact that notorious Nazi sympathisers and racists are being given a platform tonight by the Oxford Union? Should not all the political parties in the House condemn that, as anti-fascist organisations and Jewish and Muslim groups have done? The Oxford Union should know better than to provide a platform for these hooligans.

I thoroughly deplore the sentiments, the expressed views and the actions of both the gentlemen who are due to speak at the Oxford Union this evening. There is already legislation in place, which I hope will be used wherever they speak if they overstep the mark. The Oxford Union is a debating society, and I know that some hon. Members have now, correctly and with dignity, resigned their membership of it. I am pleased to say that, during the three years that I was at Oxford university, I never even attended the Oxford Union, partly because it was simply a debating society. It is up to the society to make its own decisions, but I completely deplore the views and attitudes of those who will be speaking in that debate.

T7. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) asked the Home Secretary about a scheme, it seemed that she was not aware of it. Can she confirm whether she is aware of the scheme that he was talking about? (167453)

I outlined all the details and safeguards already proposed for the national immigration register, including the fact that biographical information will be kept separately from biometric information, and the Minister for Borders and Immigration has already outlined our suggestion that we should look even further into the relevant safeguards. However, Conservative Members should think very carefully if they are challenging us on the need for public protection—particularly for increased protection in respect of illegal immigration and counter-terror—while at the same time proposing the withdrawal of an important method through which we will be able to safeguard people’s identities as well as tackle terrorism and illegal immigration. That is the serious issue here.

T9. The Minister for Borders and Immigration said that migration is bringing new wealth, but also new worries, to Britain. How will the points-based system with no upper limit address those worries? (167455)

The points system will cover a much greater proportion of the inflow of newcomers to this country than the hon. Gentleman’s party’s proposal, which would limit a cap on economic migrants from outside the EU. The important point is that when setting the balance in the points system we must not only listen to the needs of the business community—we know that migration is worth £6 billion to our economy—but look at the wider impact of migration on British public life. It is only by weighing the two that we will achieve the right net balance in migration policy for this country. On that, I believe that there is a degree of consensus between us.

Is my hon. Friend aware of increasing evidence of groups of men in most of our towns and cities—certainly in Yorkshire and probably beyond—who are actively targeting girls as young as 12, 13 and 14 in order to exploit them sexually and get them into prostitution? Is he further aware that when these cases come to the fore, very little leadership comes from the police?

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply—[Interruption.] We are aware of those sorts of crimes and there have already been one or two police operations with respect to them. Indeed, Operation Pentameter II, the new police operation tackling the trafficking and sexual exploitation of young girls—either internally or from abroad—is highly aware of my hon. Friend’s point. It is working hard with local police forces to ensure that when the operation is finished police forces across the country will have that aspect of policing as part of their core business.