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Home Department

Volume 485: debated on Monday 15 December 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Unauthorised Disclosures

1. When officials from her Department will next meet Cabinet Office officials to discuss measures to reduce the number of unauthorised disclosures of information from her Department. (242963)

3. On how many occasions there have been breaches of security involving the unauthorised disclosure of information from her Department since 2000. (242966)

6. What steps she is taking to prevent the unauthorised disclosure of restricted and confidential information from her Department. (242970)

The Home Office and the Cabinet Office take all breaches of security very seriously. Unauthorised disclosures are both a breach of security and a breach of the civil service code. Home Office and Cabinet Office officials hold regular meetings to discuss these matters. We follow all Government rules and procedures to prevent unauthorised disclosures of restricted and confidential information from Departments and we pursue unauthorised disclosures. I am advised that there have been 43 investigations into alleged unauthorised disclosures of information from the Home Office since 2000.

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that reply. Is she aware that there is a growing consensus that the police handling of the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was disproportionate? Furthermore, it is now apparent that the search of his offices here did not comply with Police and Criminal Evidence Act guidelines. Is she aware that concerns about those two matters have been expressed by the acting commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, by her permanent secretary in his evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs and by the Leader of the House? Does the Home Secretary share those concerns?

I am not clear that the assertion that the hon. Gentleman makes—that those concerns have been raised by the people whom he identifies—is correct, because in each case, those people have been scrupulous about not commenting on ongoing police investigations, as I will be.

Can the Home Secretary explain when a leak of information becomes a criminal investigation? When are the police involved?

In this case, the police were involved because of the systematic nature of the leaking, the concern that numerous leak investigations had not succeeded in finding the perpetrator and, as was spelt out in the Cabinet Office letter to the Metropolitan police, particular concerns about the sensitivity of information that a potential leaker may have had access to.

The 1988 White Paper said:

“The objective of Official Secrets legislation is not to enforce Crown Service discipline—that is not a matter for the criminal law”.

When Lord Hurd presented the Bill to the House, he said:

“We ask the House today to agree in principle that the criminal law should be prised away from the great bulk of official information.”—[Official Report, 21 December 1988; Vol. 144, c. 460.]

Why has that changed under Labour?

As I have just outlined to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), the decision to refer the investigation to the police was made by my permanent secretary and the Cabinet Secretary. The reasons are spelt out in the letter from the Cabinet Office to the police, which is now available in the Libraries of both Houses. Whether criminal charges are laid is of course a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Does the Home Secretary not find this situation rather ironic? Here we are, on almost exactly the 23rd anniversary of the climax of the Westland affair, when the Tory Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was leaking furiously against the Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Heseltine, as he now is. Is she as unsurprised as I am that a party that had more leaks than a Rhondda vegetable show when it was in government should be actively soliciting leaks when it is in opposition, in the disgraceful way that we have seen over recent months?

Well, as I have said before, one of the things that hon. Members in all parts of the House—and certainly any hon. Member whose ambition it is to form part of a Government at any time in the future—should be wary about is undermining the impartiality of the British civil service as laid down in the civil service code, for which Governments of all persuasions have had reason to be grateful and by which the people of this country set quite a lot of store.

The former shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), has said on the record that 50 per cent. of the material that he receives from moles cannot be put into the public domain because it is too sensitive in terms of national security. Does the Home Secretary agree that there is an obligation on the former shadow Home Secretary to return that material to the relevant Departments?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There has been a suggestion throughout the whole of this case that, somehow or other, pieces of information relating to national security never get leaked, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, the former shadow Home Secretary, said:

“In about half the cases we decide not”

to release information

“because we think there are reasons perhaps of national security or military or terrorism reasons not to put things in the public domain.”

In other words, the right hon. Gentleman has in his possession information that has come to him that has national security, the military or terrorism associated with it. I wonder whether he passed it on to his successor, the current shadow Home Secretary, and whether he, in turn, believes that the right thing to do might be to return it to the authorities from which it came.

I want one thing cleared up. The Home Secretary has not yet explained to the House how—on 4 December, I think—there was a difference between what she reported to the House as the reasons for the arrest of the hon. Member for Ashford and what he had received in the documentation from the Metropolitan police. That lack of precision does not increase one’s confidence in the veracity of the Metropolitan police. Will she explain to the House this afternoon why the Metropolitan police gave her duff information, and tell us what she has done about it?

I took it up, as I said I would, immediately with the Metropolitan police. They confirmed that the terms of the arrest were accurate, and I communicated that to the hon. Member for Ashford.

The Home Secretary has made it very clear that she was not informed of the arrests in relation to those leaks prior to the arrests taking place. Will she tell us whether she gave any instructions, written or verbal, to anyone in the Home Office or the Metropolitan police that she should not be informed if arrests were going to take place in respect of that matter?

Has the Home Secretary read the report by the Standards and Privileges Committee of two Sessions ago on the working of the sub judice rule? Does she accept that, in cases such as this where there is an ongoing investigation, the Committee makes it clear that Parliament has always treated that rule with discretion? It has always been a matter for the Speaker in the Chamber, and for individual Committee Chairmen in Committees, to decide how to operate it.

I have not read the specific report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I am sure that he will share my view that, whether inside or outside the House, the operational independence of the police force is important. It is also important, as he says, that we all exercise considerable discretion over ensuring that we do not prejudice police investigations.

I think the way in which the hon. Member for Ashford was treated by the police was disgraceful and if it turns out that my right hon. Friend had in fact been informed of the police action before it took place—something that she has denied—she would have to resign. Correspondingly, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has said to my right hon. Friend, in terms, that she lied when saying that she had not been informed in advance. Does she agree that, if it is proved that she had not been told in advance, the hon. and learned Gentleman should resign?

I have asked the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and others to withdraw the allegations and assertions that they have made against me. It is up to them whether they choose to do the right thing.

There is a good deal of concern about the use of the offence of misconduct in public office in the case of Christopher Galley and the hon. Member for Ashford, particularly given the policy decision to ensure that, from 1989, the only cases in which criminal investigations are appropriate are those that involve national security. How many police investigations of Government complaints referring to misconduct in public office have there been in the past year—or two years or whatever is appropriate—and how many prosecutions and convictions have there been? Is this offence being used to intimidate civil servants, rather than to bring them to justice?

There have been several investigations, and several charges laid on the basis of misconduct in public life. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the specific numbers. The offence has been looked at relatively recently in a case in front of the High Court.

Is not one of the reasons why there are so many unauthorised disclosures from the Home Office the fact that the Department sets an example by engaging in authorised leaking when it suits the Home Secretary’s political purpose? In that context, did she authorise the leak last week of the partial and selective knife crime statistics, in breach of the Government’s own rules and against the protests of the UK statistics authority? Or was that all down to the Cabinet Office and Downing street?

There are plenty of arguments about the definition of a leak, but I hardly think that issuing a press release counts as a leak.

I am sorry that we were, I think, too quick off the mark with the publication of one number in relation to the progress that had been made in tackling knife crime, but I commend the police and their crime-fighting partners on the impact that they are already making through the tackling knives action programme, as spelt out by the other statistics produced last week.

I note that the Home Secretary has not answered the question. Nor has she apologised to the House for this gross and deliberate breach of its own rules. Sir Michael Scholar said that the decision to release the spun propaganda was “corrosive of public trust”. If the Home Secretary was involved, why should she be trusted in future on the basis of what she says? Can she please explain? If she was not involved, does that not show yet again that she is not in charge of her Department and that, in fact, she is incapable of discharging her responsibilities properly?

Sir Michael Scholar did not use the words “spun propaganda”. He pointed out that one figure used last week had been issued prematurely. If the hon. and learned Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me say the words ”I am sorry”: sorry that we had pre-empted the publication of that specific number. However, I hope that he will join me in recognising the considerable progress that has been made—I think that this is the most important issue—in helping to ensure that 17 per cent. fewer young people are subject to serious knife offences, that of the 10,000 extra searches being conducted each month fewer are now finding young people carrying knives, that 179 more offenders are now in prison for weapons offences, and that on average those offenders are receiving almost 40 per cent. longer sentences. That constitutes progress in keeping young people safe on our streets, which I think is the top priority for most of the British public.

Zimbabwean Asylum Seekers

The UK Border Agency only detains Zimbabwean nationals who have committed crimes within the United Kingdom, who are subject to deportation action, and who have been assessed as unsuitable for release owing to their being a threat to the public and/or likely to abscond. Anyone detained under immigration powers has his or her detention regularly reviewed, and can apply for release on bail to the independent Asylum and Immigration Tribunal.

As I am sure all Members know, according to reports from Zimbabwe, the situation is worse than ever, with oppression, political violence, beatings as an everyday occurrence, corruption and, now, the added plight of those affected by the cholera epidemic. In the light of the tribunal’s decision two weeks ago—or, rather, the Government’s response that they would not challenge it—will the Minister tell me what will happen to the other 7,500 cases? Have those people some hope now, and will he examine their situation again?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I think that the whole House will share his sentiments about the situation in Zimbabwe. He referred to the country court judgment. It states that each case can be considered individually, and indeed that must be done. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, not all those presenting themselves as Zimbabwean turn out to be Zimbabwean on examination. That is why we must examine each case properly, within the rules.

In the light of the recent judgment on an Eritrean asylum seeker, will my hon. Friend consider the position of Zimbabweans and others who cannot be returned at this moment but who are not allowed to work?

I hear what my hon. Friend says. When someone cannot be returned through no fault of his or her own, having exhausted all appeal rights, it is our policy for that person to receive section 4 support from the United Kingdom Government. The overall number of people with whom we are having to deal has fallen, but that support is there.

What additional steps has the Minister taken in case the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates dramatically and he is faced with a massive number of people trying to get into this country? What are the Government doing about that?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. There are also British nationals in Zimbabwe, and there is the ever-present danger of more people trying to get into our country illegally. That is why, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates, we review all the procedures not just in that part of the world, but in other countries and other circumstances.

The Minister said in response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) that Zimbabweans who are here and who it is intended will return but cannot currently be returned are eligible for section 4 support. However, the case to which the Minister referred suggested that, in respect of Eritrea, where people cannot be returned and have no source of support, they should be allowed to earn their own support. When will the Minister allow trapped Zimbabweans to work to earn the money to get themselves and their families a decent Christmas?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her points on this important matter. The case to which she refers concerned a gentleman from Eritrea, and the judgment in that case was very specific, looking at the amount of time that had been spent in this country. Having said that, it is not the Government’s policy to provide for blanket exceptions for the good reason that we must look at each case on its merits.

The Minister knows that there is a widespread view held by Members in all parts of the House—it is not a party view—that it is nonsense to require people who cannot go back, and who are qualified and could be further qualified, not to work while they are here when that will not lead to any permanent right to be here, but will give them a chance to improve their skills. Will the Minister be straightforward with the House and confirm that the Government are reviewing this matter, and will he tell us when the review will be concluded and whether he will make the intelligent, sympathetic and widely welcome decision to change the policy?

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his points on this important topic. I am not sure whether he was talking specifically about Zimbabwe or in general, but on the general point we think it is right to look at each case on its merits. Those who argue for a general blanket amnesty—I accept that the hon. Gentleman is not asking for that—have to accept that it can be self-defeating as we have seen in other European Union countries, and that it can, in fact, bring about more misery and hardship and, of course, more profit for the people traffickers.

I sympathise with the Minister on the difficulties facing him, but he must concentrate on the issue of the Zimbabweans who are already in this country. The facts are that there are already more than 10,000 people here, that they cannot be returned forcibly to Zimbabwe and that the Government are preventing them from working legally while they are in this limbo. Does the Minister really think this is either economically sensible or morally acceptable, or is he prepared to use destitution as an arm of his asylum policy?

Let me reassure the House that the Government do not use, and have no intention whatever of using, destitution as policy. Indeed, the Government have on occasion been criticised by Members on both sides of the House for providing support, particularly for those people who, as I said a moment ago, through no fault of their own cannot return to their own country but where it has been deemed that they should do so. However, I repeat the point I made to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that one has to strike a balance between providing proper support within the law and not having a policy that would make the situation worse. That point should be considered by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and his colleagues.

Police Bureaucracy

It is vital that the police are able to deliver for the public in the most efficient way. That is why we are scrapping the time-consuming stop and account form, reducing by up to 80 per cent. the amount of time taken to record crimes, and investing £75 million in new technology to help officers work smarter, thereby freeing up officers to focus on addressing people’s concerns.

I thank the Minister for his reply. More specifically, can he tell me what assessment he has made of the impact of the use of hand-held high technology devices issued to front-line police officers on reducing police bureaucracy?

We think that the fact that we have made increasing numbers of these hand-held devices available to front-line officers has made a significant difference. I was recently in Staffordshire talking to police officers there, and they were demonstrating the use of these devices and talking about the difference that they were making. I should point out that 10,000 extra hand-held devices have been made available to front-line officers, and that figure will rise to 30,000 by 2010.

What specific reforms, if any, is the Minister contemplating to make local police more locally accountable, and how would such reforms allow local people, rather than Home Office officials, to set local police priorities?

If the hon. Gentleman looks at our proposals regarding the crime and disorder reduction partnerships, he will see that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary only recently announced the councillor call for action, which will be implemented from April this year to allow local councillors to have more say in what happens with local police forces. Moreover, the policing pledge talks about the public having more chance to influence the police through face-to-face meetings; neighbourhood policing teams are out there meeting people; police community support officers get out there and deliver leaflets; and e-cops, which we see in Leicestershire, allow people to e-mail their concerns. All those things allow people to influence local policing in their area, and are very much welcomed by everybody I meet.

I thank my hon. Friend for his visit to Stafford a fortnight ago, when he met the chief constable, Chris Sims, and representatives of the senior leadership and the police authority. Crucially, he also met police officers and PCSOs. Does he agree, as a result of that day in Stafford, that Staffordshire police really are now leading the country on cutting out unnecessary paperwork, streamlining criminal justice systems and keeping police officers out on the front line for longer? Is that not why Jan Berry held the first meeting of her group that day in Stafford, to provide recommendations to police throughout the country?

Cutting bureaucracy is an essential part of the work that we are doing, and talking to front-line police officers—as both my hon. Friend and I did that day in Stafford—shows the impact that that is having. It is not me who is saying that it is having an impact, but police officers themselves. Staffordshire is one of the four crime-recording pilots, and Staffordshire police have looked at a whole range of measures—not only the use of hand-held computers, but forms relating to a variety of crimes, including stop and account. Not only Staffordshire but other police forces that have played a part in these pilots are demonstrating to forces across the country the serious inroads that can be made into unnecessary bureaucracy.

I agree with the Minister that communication with our constituents needs to improve, but I doubt whether it will come as a surprise to him to learn that most of my constituents do not see crime as virtual or in e-mails, but in reality. What they want to see is more police officers on the street and less bureaucracy, so it is very concerning that the Minister is talking about e-cops; what people want to see is real cops.

And they do see real cops. I bet that the neighbourhood policing teams in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency demonstrate such visible policing and the presence on the streets that everybody wants to see. By reducing bureaucracy and through the changes that we are making to stop and account forms, through the work that Jan Berry is doing and through crime recording pilots—which have shown that it is possible to reduce bureaucracy in respect of a whole range of crimes—not only will communication between constituents and the police improve, but we will see the increased numbers of police that everybody wants to see on the street.

Four years ago, the Home Office told us that police officers spent only 19 per cent. of their time on patrol. Can the Minister tell us what the latest figure is?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is using one particular measure—an on-patrol measure, which, as he knows, takes no account of any interaction between police officers and members of the public; all that it counts is when somebody is actually out there on the street. It does not account for a police officer who stops and speaks to someone in a car or who speaks to someone whose shop has been robbed. Any of the normal things that we would expect a police officer to do are not counted, which is why we introduced a new measure called the front-line policing measure.

Alcohol-related Crime

The majority of people who drink enjoy alcohol sensibly, but we are determined to take action to reduce the health and social harms caused by those who do not. We have recently announced actions to combat the problem, including a new mandatory code of practice to target the most irresponsible retail practices, a £3 million cash injection for crime and disorder reduction partnerships for enforcement activities in 198 areas and a further £1.5 million for our priority areas to tackle underage sales, confiscate alcohol from under-18s and run campaigns to tell people what action is being taken locally to reduce alcohol-related crime and disorder.

I am sure we all want to find more ways of reducing alcohol-related crime in our town centres, such as the “Behave or Be Banned” campaign that is running in my area. In the light of my talks with the mayor of Llanelli about creating an alcohol-free zone in the centre of the town, may I ask the Home Secretary what success such zones have had elsewhere and what other measures she would recommend to reduce alcohol-related disorder?

First, I commend my hon. Friend for working with her local colleagues to make use of the tools that the Government have put in place—I believe she was referring to a designated public place order in this case. We take very seriously the responsibility to make clear to local partners, such as the ones to whom she refers, the tools that are available. That is why we have been running a series of regional workshops—two have taken place and one more is due to take place—which have been extremely well received. Alongside the sort of local activity that she is talking about, the use of Government-provided tools and the new initiatives that we have recently announced will help to ensure that those people who want to drink sensibly can do so, but those who cause harm to themselves or others will be prevented from doing so.

No, and nor do independent assessments, including the report on the impact of the Licensing Act 2003, which was published in 2008. It showed that the overall volume of incidents of crime and disorder remained unchanged, and that there were signs that crimes involving serious violence may have reduced and that local residents were less likely to say that drunk and rowdy behaviour was a problem. I do believe it is important that the elements of the 2003 Act that provide more opportunities for local partners and police to limit the unacceptable activities of licensed premises should be used more, and that is precisely what we are trying to enable people to do at the moment.

I wonder whether the Home Secretary has time in her busy week to come with me to visit Tesco, where she would be able to see the unacceptable practices still being conducted by the supermarkets. They are selling alcohol very cheaply—three for the price of one—and putting all kinds of promotions before people to enable them to buy more and more alcohol cheaply. That is what contributes to our disorder. Will she not accept that the Government must have a floor price on the alcohol sold at supermarkets in order to tackle this very serious problem of alcohol-related crime, especially at this time of the year?

During my busy weekend, I was able to take a trip to a supermarket. As I think I said the last time he questioned me about this, my right hon. Friend’s Committee made some important recommendations, and those have certainly fed into the proposals we are making to help counter alcohol-related disorder. We carried out a considerable research study with the university of Sheffield on the impact of minimum pricing, and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made clear, given the current economic climate in particular, we do not intend at this moment to introduce the sort of minimum price to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) was referring. However, we certainly have not closed off that option for the future, and the Health Secretary is already undertaking more work into the impact and consequences of that particular form of action.

I disagree with the Chairman of the Select Committee on which I serve, but I accept that there is a point to address about people “tanking up” on cheap supermarket booze at home before unleashing themselves on the streets. I agree that it would be wrong for a Government to set a minimum price for alcohol, but will she encourage the supermarkets, which talk an awful lot in our constituencies about their social responsibility to the community, to think of this issue as part of that responsibility? Perhaps, given our particular problems, they should be encouraged, voluntarily, to be a little more responsible.

Perhaps I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that my visit to the supermarket over the weekend was not made to “tank up” before I hit the streets. However, I agree with his point about the social responsibility of supermarkets—responsibility that I know they also take seriously and which I am sure they would want to manifest publicly.

This weekend, a further five street pastors were commissioned in Bridgend. That brings the total to 46 individuals from 17 churches giving their time to support the police in tackling antisocial behaviour and inappropriate drinking, and helping people who are distressed out on the streets of Bridgend when, on a Friday or Saturday night, they have gone out for a social occasion. Is that not another way in which we can reclaim the streets for ordinary law-abiding people so that people can enjoy a night out without having to be intimidated and threatened?

May I also advise my right hon. Friend that the street pastors are now not only covering that 10 until 4 in the morning slot, but going on to one of my estates and working from 6 until 8 with youngsters, which will also improve life on that estate?

I thank my hon. Friend for inviting me to Bridgend to see the excellent work being done by the street pastors alongside the local police force and the local authority. I was impressed by that partnership. As she says, it was already showing considerable results on the streets and I am pleased to hear that it has been expanded.

Despite the Home Secretary’s promise of more legislation, the Home Office still has not got round to implementing existing alcohol legislation on the introduction of drinking banning orders. Will she confirm whether the Home Office was unable to reach agreement with the Ministry of Justice on the cost of implementing the orders, estimated at £32.5 million under the MOJ’s controls on downstream costs on the courts and legal aid budgets, and whether the Home Office’s legislative hyperactivity is finally catching up with it and it is becoming an unlikely new victim of the economic downturn?

No, because as I announced recently we will be introducing drinking banning orders by application next year.

Migration Advisory Committee

7. What assessment she has made of the recent work of the Migration Advisory Committee on shortage occupation lists. (242971)

We are grateful for the work of the Migration Advisory Committee. The committee provides expert independent advice on where the country needs economic migration and where it does not. The Government have decided to implement the committee’s recommendations in full, and in addition to retain social workers on the UK shortage list while the MAC considers evidence of relevance to their inclusion.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. How does the work of the committee assist British businesses and workers, including in Scotland?

The idea, of course, is that, through the committee’s expert advice, we can identify where there are skill shortages in order to place those shortages on the migration list under the points-based system, but also, crucially, to provide for training and skilling for British workers—for my hon. Friend’s constituents—to get jobs. As part of that approach, we also have specific measures for Scotland to identify those sectors of the economy where there are particular short-term problems.

The Minister will appreciate that Scotland has different population and immigration requirements from the rest of the UK, yet the MAC list has as additional groups only care home nurses and fish filleters. In his assessment, what difference will that make to Scottish population problems? Do we not need significantly more help than that?

The hon. Gentleman is being slightly unfair, as he has missed out quality controllers in the fish processing industry, which in Scotland is extremely important. As I said, the UK list covers Scotland so that within those sectors that apply to Scotland and to the rest of the UK we can provide for training and skilling in skill shortage areas, for the benefit of his constituents. It is a fair and tough policy, but flexible for local economic needs.

Given that more than 70,000 skilled workers have come into the country in the past three years under the skilled workers scheme and that the Home Office does not know where any one of them has found a job or whether they have found skilled jobs, and given that unemployment is now rising, what steps are the Government taking to control the scheme?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question. It is precisely because of the concerns that have been raised that we have introduced the points-based system and the criteria that we can apply to skills within the different tiers of the system. As a result of that system, we can provide reassurance to our constituents that their concerns are being put foremost and we can match the skills shortages with the skills training programmes for British workers while applying the criteria of the tiers within the points-based system to control migration.

What further thought has the hon. Gentleman given to the proposals put to him by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and me arising from the balanced migration campaign and the need to break the link between people’s coming here to work and their apparently now automatic right to settle?

I am grateful to be in the middle of a pincer movement, which is a very effective one, if I may say so. The hon. Gentleman is right. It is important to break the link between people’s coming here to work for a specific purpose under the skills shortage scheme or the high skills scheme, or under other smaller schemes, and their automatic right to settlement. It is very important that we break that link and that is what we are doing.

Asylum Seekers

8. How many asylum seekers supported under section 98 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 were in emergency hotel accommodation in (a) the London borough of Croydon and (b) England and Wales in the last period for which figures are available. (242972)

As at week ending Friday 5 December 2008, there were 156 asylum seekers supported under section 98 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 in the London borough of Croydon and just over 1,000 supported under the same section in England and Wales. Section 98 accommodation is predominantly provided in blocked accommodation, such as former hotels and hostels.

The Home Department should be congratulated on providing such accurate information. In the constituency that neighbours mine—the constituency of the right hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks)—there was an unfortunate incident where an asylum seeker sought to be fed but ended up being involved in a contretemps where he was hit with a chain. What is done by the Government to ensure that reasonable service is provided to section 98 asylum seekers and what is done to oversee the quality of the contracts that are delivered?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. On sight of his question, I asked for information and I shall write to him with the details of that investigation. I am satisfied that our officials and officers acted properly. It would appear that there was provocation and I shall give the hon. Gentleman details in my letter.

Would the Minister not agree that it might be better to house people in emergency or local accommodation where they are allowed to remain for some time? We all come across cases where asylum seekers are frequently moved, which means that schools for children, access to GP services and other essential services that are required are often simply not available or that the lives of those asylum seekers are subject to incredible disruption. Would it not be better if they were given a more stable living?

The best thing to do is to deal with the asylum applications quickly, effectively and fairly. The improvements that we are making in that regard have been quite rightly applauded. On my hon. Friend’s specific point, the section 98 people to whom the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) referred are, of course, immediate applicants. The dispersal policy strives to meet the objectives outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and it is important that we have as many local authorities in partnership as possible in order to achieve that fairly.

Police (Beat)

The Government are committed to delivering a visible and reassuring police presence. At the end of March 2008, 64.9 per cent. of police officer time was spent on front-line duties, the fourth successive annual improvement since 2003-04. Since April 2008, there has been a neighbourhood policing team in every area. The policing pledge includes a commitment for neighbourhood policing teams to spend at least 80 per cent. of their time visibly working on their patch.

What does the Minister think the Government’s Green Paper means when it says that the target culture in the police has created a perverse incentive that is distorting police action?

It means that it is time for us to look at how we measure what the police do and the progress that has been made, particularly in terms of reducing crime across the country, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He will know that as a consequence of review we have a single, top-down target that will simply relate to the confidence of local people in their police. I think that is the target the police want and the target the general public will want as well.

My hon. Friend is aware that the general public—everybody out there—want high-visibility policing. What more can he do to ensure that there are more police on the beat and that there is less form-filling and less time taken locking people up in long-distance lock-up centres instead of using local cells more efficiently to ensure that the police are back on the streets to lock up more problems. Will he do something about it?

My hon. Friend has been a long-time advocate of ensuring that there is a greater visible police presence on the streets. In his area—as in every area across the country—there are now neighbourhood policing teams, with dedicated police officers and police community support officers, out there on the street. He will have heard earlier about the measures we are taking to ensure that we reduce bureaucracy and the amount of form-filling that police officers have to do so that they can spend more time out on the street. The work I saw in Staffordshire, which has also been going on in Surrey, the west midlands and Leicestershire, shows that we can reduce the amount of form-filling. That empowers front-line officers and means that they can spend more time out on the street, where I know my hon. Friend wants them—as indeed we all do.

Topical Questions

Domestic homicide of women is at the lowest rate for 10 years. Conviction rates for domestic violence cases have risen from 46 per cent. in 2003 to 72.5 per cent. in 2008. Between 1997 and 2007-08, there was a 58 per cent. fall in domestic violence incidents. Despite all that, we know we must do more, particularly at the Christmas period when women are at increased risk. For many, Christmas is a family time but for some it is a time of fear, violence and isolation. A new advertising campaign supported by the Home Office, Women’s Aid and Refuge begins today to encourage domestic violence victims to seek support and not to suffer in silence. It supports a Home Office-funded enforcement campaign over Christmas in 10 police force areas; it includes innovative tactics such as the use of body-worn video cameras by police, dedicated domestic abuse response vehicles and increased front-line policing, targeting the highest risk domestic violence victims and offenders.

I was very impressed that a member of the Home Office ministerial team spent a long time listening—not speaking—on the issue of knife killings in Croydon, although mentioning them is unfortunately not a proud boast for any Member of Parliament. Does anyone in the ministerial team feel that there is any good practice that could be copied in terms of providing additional resources for policing in Croydon, bearing in mind that since the Minister visited there have been two more street killings? I know that it is a devolved matter, but by following good practice elsewhere could the formula for funding for extra police officers be changed after such a significant increase in the number of street killings in a particular place?

I was delighted to visit the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and to see him talking to young people in particular about the work they are doing to tackle knife crime in their area. The work done in Croydon shows that the police cannot solve the problem on their own through enforcement. Of course, police enforcement is essential, as we have seen in the success of stop and search and the increased number of people going to prison for possession, but alongside that, we need the involvement of local authorities, local residents and young people. From my visit to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I learned the value that young people can bring to that process. We need to remember that the vast majority of young people are decent—they are not involved in knife crime; but in terms of the solution, if we listen to what they say, they have part of the answer. As much as anything else, that is what I learned from my visit and I know that the hon. Gentleman was impressed as well.

T2. Given the return last week of a charter flight that was taking failed asylum seekers to Iraq—it seems to have been refused permission to land; certainly it did not land—can the Minister tell us which countries are receiving charter flights of people who have been forcibly removed from the UK, and whether there have been other instances of planes being refused permission to land? (242989)

I think that the report to which my hon. Friend refers concerned the joint UK-French flight. The UK is able to return people to both Iraq and Afghanistan in that way, and we continue to work with our partners in the French and Belgium authorities towards that end.

Will the Home Secretary commend Essex chief constable Roger Baker’s policy of ensuring that a police officer attends whenever there has been a crime, and does she think that the policy could be spread to other constabularies as good practice?

I was very pleased to visit Essex constabulary at the beginning of December, and to praise chief constable Roger Baker and the Essex police force for being the first to commit publicly to the police pledge. At the heart of the police pledge is how we can ensure that local people have the information, support and ability to have an input into the policing that they want. Chief constable Roger Baker is doing an extremely good job in Essex.

T4. Has my right hon. Friend considered the damage that could be done to public confidence in policing if direct elections to the police authorities meant a rise in the sort of irresponsible behaviour displayed by the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in Durham? They have sent out leaflets saying that crime has increased massively in the area, but that is not the case. Is my right hon. Friend looking at a range of measures to improve— (242991)

T3. The Home Secretary will remember the House’s overwhelming support for the idea that hon. Members’ home addresses should not be revealed in response to freedom of information requests. A consultation, organised by her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, is under way on whether such addresses should be replaced by just the first half of the postcode, which, at election times, could be included on nomination and other relevant paperwork. Does she agree, from the point of view of her work on fighting terrorism, that that would be a good, sensible compromise that would add to the safety of hon. Members? (242990)

Clearly, I do not want to pre-empt the consultation, but the hon. Gentleman makes a very important point that I know is being borne carefully in mind by my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. He has made it forcefully on numerous occasions, and I think that he has significant support from across the House on the issue.

T6. When people expressed concerns about the vigour shown, and resources devoted, by the police in relation to the Kingsnorth climate camp, we were told that it was justified because dozens of injuries were incurred. We have now found that those injuries were of a more prosaic origin—they were due to things such as insect stings and sunstroke. Unless the protesters are to be held responsible for wasps and the weather, are we not to conclude that the justification used at the time was wholly bogus and vacuous? (242993)

I have written to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) on the issue. I was informed that 70 police officers had been hurt, and naturally assumed that they had been hurt through direct contact, as a result of the protest. That clearly is not the case, and I apologise if that caused anybody to be misled. I can say to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and other Members that the National Policing Improvement Agency is currently considering the lessons to be learned from the Kingsnorth climate camp protest. I will meet the public order lead of the Association of Chief Police Officers to discuss the report, so that we can share the lessons to be learned from Kingsnorth with police forces across the country.

T5. In an earlier answer, the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said that local people’s confidence in the police was a key indicator, so can he tell me why people are increasingly not bothering to report crimes to the police? (242992)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As we have frequently said, local people are one of the best weapons in helping to fight crime. It is precisely to give local people the confidence to report crimes to the police that, working alongside ACPO, we are pleased that the policing pledge, which provides monthly local information, monthly opportunities to feed in concerns, and much better communication between neighbourhood policing teams and local people, will be in place across the country by the end of the year. That will help to ensure that local people know that they can and should play their part in tackling local crime and antisocial behaviour.

T10. We have heard today how much social disorder in town centres is caused by excessive alcohol and irresponsible selling by clubs and bars, which are still doing offers such as “women get in free”, and “drink as much as you can for seven quid”. What is my right hon. Friend doing to make sure that licensing laws are enforced effectively? (242997)

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the sort of irresponsible promotions that she outlined, which is why, having commissioned KPMG to look at how the industry was fulfilling its responsibilities under a voluntary code, it became clear that in some cases those responsibilities were not being fulfilled, so we are now proposing to introduce in the policing and crime Bill the ability to provide a mandatory code, which would outlaw precisely the type of irresponsible promotion that she outlined.

T7. The last time that I raised an issue in topical questions with the Home Office, it was on the subject of a heavily fortified cannabis café that operates in my constituency. Alas, it is still a topical question, because 20 months on, a heavily fortified cannabis café is still a cause of blight for the local community, despite the best efforts of the police. Without going into details, because charges are pending, the café is still operating, so can the Minister give me some assurance that the law can be looked at to make sure that that nuisance can be properly addressed and the police given proper powers, because of the enormous inconvenience and concern in the local community? (242994)

The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue with me on a number of occasions, and what is happening in his constituency is absolutely deplorable, as is the inability of the law—not the police—to tackle that problem and deal with it. If it would be helpful to have a further meeting to discuss with officials what further action we might take to try to bring an end to that totally unsatisfactory situation with the cannabis café in his constituency, I am perfectly happy to have one. Where the law needs to be changed, that should be looked at, and it should be changed.

Returning to the issue of Kingsnorth policing, I thank the Minister both for what he has just said and for the letter that he wrote to me. However, in the light of the new information available to the House, would he care to revise his conclusion that the policing of Kingsnorth was proportionate and appropriate, especially as we also know that large numbers of protesters were injured at the hands of the police, especially by batons?

I have apologised to the hon. Gentleman for that, and as he quite rightly said, I have written to him. I think it would be best for me to wait for the NPIA report on what happened at Kingsnorth, and to review it with the ACPO representative responsible for public order to see what lessons can be learned. I would then be happy to share those conclusions with the hon. Gentleman.

T8. How does the Home Secretary respond to the charge that when she has good news from her Department she rushes out, for example, selective knife crime statistics, but when there is bad news, such as a cut to police funding for North Yorkshire, it is sent out in the most ponderous, opaque and obscure language that no one can understand? (242995)

There has been no cut in funding for North Yorkshire police, so I hope that the hon. Lady will make that clear as well. All police authorities are getting an increase of at least 2.5 per cent., alongside the other grants that they receive.

Does my friend intend to implement the recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that it is quite wrong for DNA to be taken, and held, from people who have not been convicted of any crime?

DNA and fingerprints play an invaluable role in fighting crime. We are carefully considering how best to give effect to the recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, but I remind the House that in 2007-08 there were more than 37,000 crimes with a DNA match, 363 homicides and 540 rapes. We will not rush to judgment, and we will not be rushed, either.

T9. We are all aware that an obesity epidemic is spreading across our country. Not only do police officers appear younger, but many of them appear larger as well. What assessment has the Home Office made of the effect of declining levels of physical fitness on the operational effectiveness of our thin blue line? (242996)

I have seen no evidence that our police officers are not able to carry out their responsibilities fully, actively and with great fitness. I am sure the hon. Gentleman did not mean to imply that, and I do not believe that it is the case.