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Topical Questions

Volume 474: debated on Monday 21 April 2008

My Department is responsible for the security of our nation’s borders. That is why I launched the new UK Border Agency, which brings together the work of the Border and Immigration Agency, Ukvisas and Customs at the border. In its first two weeks alone, the agency barred more than 800 illegal migrants from boarding planes to the UK or crossing into Britain at juxtaposed controls, and seized more than 50 kg of ecstasy, 40 kg of cocaine and 20 kg of heroin. It is vital for the agency to be fully accountable for its work, which is why I am pleased to announce that I am appointing John Vine as the first chief inspector for the UK Border Agency. Mr. Vine has been chief constable of Tayside police since 2000, during which time he was president of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland. He will take up his appointment in July 2008.

When will the Home Secretary recognise that there is no evidence in favour of extending detention without charge beyond 28 days? It is not just the usual suspects who are saying that; it is being said by Sir Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and by Sue Hemming, who heads the counter-terrorism section of the Crown Prosecution Service. A whole cacophony of informed opinion opposes the Home Secretary on this matter. Sir Ian Blair has said that there has been no case in which the Met police have required a person to be held for more than 28 days. When will the Home Secretary present the House with evidence to support this substantial erosion of liberty?

I have discussed the issue at length, both during my appearances before the Home Affairs Committee and on Second Reading of the Counter-Terrorism Bill. I have provided the House with considerable evidence—as supplied to me, not least by chief police officers—of the growing scale and complexity of terrorist investigations that are now being undertaken, and the nature of those investigations. Because of what may well come to pass if the plots in question are not foiled, it is necessary to step in early.

Those factors have led senior police officers, and me as Home Secretary, to believe that at some point in the future it may well be necessary to investigate for longer than 28 days, which is why we are including in the Bill a reserve power not to extend the period now, but to ensure that the risk is covered in the future. If the hon. Gentleman feels happy to live with the risk, that is up to him. My responsibility as Home Secretary is to do the right thing, on the basis of the evidence, to keep the country safe.

T4. Last week my right hon. Friend made a statement about preventing people from becoming terrorists. As she will know, the Lancashire constabulary already work closely with communities, schools and places of worship. Can she explain how her initiative will take that work further to identify, in particular, young people who might be led astray and prevent them from becoming next year’s or next month’s terrorists? (199747)

My hon. Friend has made an important point. In the short term, it is crucial for us to have the legislation and the ability to investigate and bring to justice people who are now plotting terrorist attacks against our country and our interests, but in the longer term we cannot arrest our way out of the problem. That is why we need to invest in expertise and capacity so that work can be done in our prisons and with the young people cited by my hon. Friend, whether through the provision of extra police officers or through the money that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has made available to community organisations. We need to prevent people from becoming terrorists and supporting violent extremism in the first place. We take this issue seriously because, as my hon. Friend says, in the long term that is how we will prevent the continued and growing threat to this country from terrorism.

T2. The Home Office demands a vast array of statistics all the time from police authority areas and yet has recently decided that it no longer wishes to know how many police officers are injured each year in the line of duty. Will the Home Secretary tell us why she feels that this is no longer an important piece of information to collect? (199745)

The Home Office, working with the 43 police forces, is constantly reviewing the information that it keeps. I think the hon. Gentleman is completely in error; I say that with hesitation, not least because he has recently beaten up the “Pink Pounder”, who is 10 years older than he is. Quite why the hon. Gentleman should be getting in a boxing ring with someone 10 years older is his own business. Those data will be collected; information on police injuries is important to us. The form in which the information is collected may, as he suggests, have changed, but we are constantly reviewing our data. I am happy to meet him to discuss the matter further, but not in a boxing ring.

T10. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern about some of the heavy discounting of alcohol that has taken place recently? Will she work with colleagues in other Departments to look at providing a floor below which discounting could not fall in the interests of tackling some of the worst excesses of binge drinking? (199753)

I know that my hon. Friend is very concerned about the effects of binge drinking in her constituency and across the country, and she will know that the Home Office and the Department of Health are looking at the impact of discounting in supermarkets and elsewhere and the effect that that has on alcohol consumption. That report will be with us in July or August of this year. We look forward to receiving it so that we can determine the best way forward in that important area of work.

Before I ask my question, may I thank the Home Secretary for what she had to say about Gwyneth Dunwoody? She was a very close friend of mine and we will all miss her greatly.

After the aggressive behaviour of the blue-tracksuited Chinese officials guarding the Olympic torch relay through London, I wrote to the Home Secretary to ask what authorisation she had given to these characters to exercise force on the streets of London. She wrote back and said none. But she did not answer the question as to what checks she had made on their background and particularly whether they were members of the Chinese People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary riot control organisation. Will she answer that now? What checks did she do? Were they members of the People’s Armed Police? On what legal basis did they manhandle British citizens on the streets of London?

I made clear in my letter to the right hon. Gentleman that the Chinese torch officials had no executive power in London. The basis of their agreement was that they were to protect the torch, with activity limited to putting themselves between the torch and anyone who was trying either to take it or to do it damage. They were of course issued with visit visas by the embassy in Beijing on the same basis as anyone else would have been in accordance with standard procedures, including biometric checks. I reiterate to the right hon. Gentleman that they had no policing role. I spelt that out at some length and clearly in my response to him.

Well, we note that we still have not got the answer as to who they were. But even the Mayor of London concedes that it was a mistake to subcontract crowd control to Chinese military security. If Chinese military security was not authorised, as she says, what representations has she made to the Chinese Government about the assault on British citizens? Has she made it clear that they cannot behave as though Trafalgar square were Tiananmen square?

There was no subcontracting of responsibilities. Security in London is a matter for the police and the security services. The Metropolitan Police Service was responsible for the safety, security and safe passage of the torch bearer and the torch as it travelled through London. They had the executive power where it was necessary. There was no executive power vested in the Chinese torch officials, who are a standard part, I understand, of any Olympic organising committee and have very limited responsibilities. Furthermore, if there are allegations of unlawful actions, it is absolutely right that anybody who believes that they have taken place should report them to the police, who will investigate.

T8. Ministers promised some time ago that from 1 April this year every community would be served by neighbourhood policing teams. Police in Lancashire have pioneered that policy, along with several other police services. Has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State been able to assess the success of the policy in Lancashire, in particular in rural and semi-rural areas which were not seen as natural homes for community policing when it was first developed in urban areas? (199751)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing made clear, an analysis of the success of neighbourhood policing in some areas ensured that, with the strong leadership of senior police officers and the National Policing Improvement Agency, we were able by the beginning of this month to have neighbourhood policing teams in every neighbourhood in the country. Importantly, those teams can respond and act differently, depending on the priorities and circumstances of local areas. That is why our preliminary evidence is that in both rural and urban areas not only are neighbourhood policing teams helping to bring down levels of crime and antisocial behaviour, but they are helping to increase confidence and the involvement of local people in tackling such issues.

T3. Last year, the Association of Chief Police Officers led a review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and made some 20 legislative recommendations to allow front-line policemen, crime squads and counter-terrorism officers to carry out their jobs more efficiently, and to ensure that terrorism is off our streets sooner rather than later. Why, then, is not one of those 20 recommendations included in the Counter-Terrorism Bill due to be examined in Committee this week? Is not that because the Bill is much more about political posturing than about helping our front-line officers? (199746)

Certainly not, in answer to that last question: the Counter-Terrorism Bill is about the protection and security of the public in this country, full stop. [Interruption.] No, absolutely not; the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) is entirely wrong. Unlike him—as he declared in The Sunday Telegraph some time ago—we do not run counter-terrorism and security policy by focus group; he should be ashamed of himself for that. We take national security more seriously. Many of the 20 recommendations mentioned do not require legislation; many of them—certainly those to do with bureaucracy and paperwork—have been dealt with by ACPO. I agree, however, with the import of the comments of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) that there is still an issue to do with police forces taking full cognisance of ACPO’s guidance; we do not need 16 pages in order to authorise many of the aspects of intervention and surveillance under RIPA, as ACPO says that two will suffice. There will also be a need for further legislation in terms not only of ACPO’s recommendations, but of other aspects of intercept and surveillance more generally. Hopefully, they will be dealt with at a subsequent time, when we find the appropriate legislative vehicle.

Britain’s most senior Muslim police officer, Tarique Ghaffur, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, has confirmed that he believes that 42 days’ detention without charge would be counter-productive and that there is a danger that it will make the police’s long-term job harder. Will the Secretary of State now recognise that, tragically, she is repeating the mistakes of Northern Ireland by going over the top on legal powers of detention, which will only alienate Britain’s ethnic minority communities and dry up terrorism intelligence, and make witnesses more inhibited and convictions harder to achieve?

Let me quote the words of Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur on Friday:

“I do not lead on counter-terrorism matters for the Metropolitan Police Service and I respect the professional assessment of colleagues who deal with counter-terrorism on a daily basis, and who envisage circumstances arising when the current upper limit of 28 days is not going to prove sufficient.”

Those colleagues include Peter Clarke, former head of counter-terrorist command, Bob Quick, assistant commissioner for special operations—whose letter to me is available in the House of Commons Library—ACPO and the commissioner of the Metropolitan police.

I choose, in making a judgment about keeping this country safe, to listen to the police officers whom we task with investigating terrorist offences and keeping us safe in a proportionate and precautionary way. Unlike Opposition Members, I am not willing to live with the risk of not taking action now to keep this country safe.

T5. Last Friday, a constituent came to see me at my advice surgery. On 18 April 2000, he claimed asylum, and despite help from the previous Member of Parliament, his case has still not been decided. Unfortunately, it is not an isolated case. I have a number of constituents who have waited many years for their cases to be decided. Is this fair to the asylum seeker, his family and the taxpayer? (199748)

It is very difficult to speculate on the circumstances of an individual case, but if it helps the hon. Gentleman, of course I shall be happy to see him and discuss it in detail.

T6. My constituent, Mr. Fereydum Bahrami, applied for indefinite leave to remain in 2004, and the Home Office is reviewing its initial decision to refuse. Indeed, in November 2005, it stated that“Mr. Bahrami’s case will now be reviewed as a priority”.Two and a half years later, there is no decision. May I ask the Home Secretary to look at the case and make a decision, and to apologise for the delay? (199749)