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Topical Questions

Volume 495: debated on Monday 6 July 2009

The Home Office puts public protection at the heart of its work to counter terrorism, cut crime, provide effective policing, secure our borders and protect personal identity.

For the time that he occupies the important and high office of Home Secretary, will the right hon. Gentleman rule out an amnesty for illegal immigrants?

We have no plans for an amnesty for illegal immigrants. That is not part of the work that I have taken over as Home Secretary, and I do not believe that it will be part of the work that I do, however long I am in this position.

T8. Through the excellent work of the police in Halton and the local partnership, we have seen a significant reduction in crime rates. However, one thing that continues to frustrate local people is that when action is recommended and taken to the courts, it is not always supported by the courts. A good example recently was that a shopping centre wanted to ban a shoplifter who had been convicted on a number of occasions, but the court did not support that. What discussions is my right hon. Friend having with the Ministry of Justice about that issue? (283817)

This has been a constant theme of my discussions with the police, and I expect it to be a theme of the Association of Chief Police Officers conference this week. We need to get the balance right, and of course no one is suggesting that there should be any interference with the ability of the courts to judge each case on its merits. However, many police believe that there should be a debate about sentencing law so that those brought to justice are carried through the courts process. That is a matter for discussion between myself and the Secretary of State for Justice. We talk about these issues all the time, and that is a very important part of our ongoing dialogue.

T2. In Crewe and Nantwich, the breach rate of antisocial behaviour orders among those aged between 10 and 17 stands at a staggering 69 per cent. Last week the Home Secretary admitted that the Government had become complacent in tackling louts, but what is he doing for my constituents in Cheshire to ensure that the orders are strictly enforced? Simply handing out more orders faster is not enough. (283810)

There are two points to be made in response to the hon. Gentleman’s very important point. First, his experience in Crewe is not reflected in statistics nationally. Generally, 65 per cent. will comply on the first occasion, with something like 78 per cent. doing so on the second occasion and 95 per cent. on the third. That is in the context of antisocial behaviour that is sometimes going on 365 days a year.

I do not think that there is a need for rafts of new legislation. All the powers are there; they just need to be used. So my second point is that if there is one aspect that we need to look at again—we will do so in legislation in the fifth Session—it is the fact that parenting orders are discretionary, not mandatory, when youngsters come before the courts again for a breach of an antisocial behaviour order. That is one element on which we can usefully fill the gap in legislation.

T9. Animal welfare is a key priority for a civilised society, yet in the United Kingdom, 2007 saw the sixth consecutive increase in the number of animals used in scientific experiments. For the first time in a generation, the figure exceeded 3 million. The 2008 figure will be out soon. Will the Minister ensure that the Government respond formally to the Uncaged campaign’s historic petition, which cross-party colleagues and I presented at No. 10 last Thursday and which was signed by 1.5 million people, calling for the use of animals in the laboratory to be prohibited? (283818)

To some extent, the problem is demand-led, but my hon. Friend is right to suggest that we need a robust framework to ensure that when those practices need to take place, they are carefully monitored. The Government are also keen to find alternatives to animal testing. We are committing to that not only our political will, but increased resources.

T3. Will the Home Secretary act now to deal with growing anger in my constituency and around the country about the plans to extradite Mr. Gary McKinnon to the United States? Mr. McKinnon has no previous convictions and suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Given that there is power to try him in this country, where the offence was committed, will the Government intervene to ensure that that happens and that he is not sent to languish in an American supermax jail indefinitely? (283811)

First, the case is the subject of a judicial review and I do not think that I can say anything helpful about that. However, there were reports this morning that the hon. Gentleman’s colleague in another place had written to me to ask me, as Secretary of State, to use my “undoubted discretion” about the case. I have no discretion over prosecutions. The High Court confirmed that in January, when it said:

“The decision to prosecute is exclusively one for the Director”—

of Public Prosecutions—

“and not in any way for the Secretary of State.”

It is now some months since the points-based system came into effect. I am sure that I am not the only hon. Member who has experienced an increase in immigration casework, not because of the principle of the points-based system, but because the guidance is sometimes not as clear as it might be, simply because the system is new. The Department has probably received a lot of correspondence on the matter. When will the Government review the points-based system to examine the sort of cases that hon. Members are bringing to light?

Even as we speak, the Migration Advisory Committee is considering the matter. The system has worked well; no system is perfect and this one is comparatively new, so I have no doubt that we must ensure that the guidance is clear. We must consider whether people are applying through the wrong tier. There are sometimes problems when people try to come in under tier 1, and they would be much more successful if they applied under tier 5. We can undertake and then publish the results of that useful exercise very soon.

T4. Earlier this afternoon, the Home Secretary said that if one has a biometric passport and changes one’s address, one has a duty to inform the passport office of that change. During the course of questions, inquiries have been made of the passport office, which says that that is not the case. What is the situation? Is it not somewhat daft to be under an obligation to report a change of address when one has a supposedly voluntary ID card, but not if one has a passport? Is not it time the Home Secretary talked to the passport office and sorted out exactly what is—or is not—happening? (283812)

I do not think that we are breaching Magna Carta. One has to have one’s address on a driving licence and inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of any change. The point that I was making about passports is that we are introducing a new biometric system to ensure that people cannot forge the identity of the passport holder. We have a huge problem with that, and it is sensible, sane and rational to ensure that people keep the details of their addresses up to date. Relax: it does not mean the end of thousands of years of British democracy.

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing told the House this afternoon that the Department is putting another £15 million into further clamping down on illegal immigration between Calais and Dover. On what is the money being spent? What is being done to encourage the French to deal appropriately with the encampments in Calais?

The news is hot off the press: my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration has just reached that understanding. We have agreed to invest a further £15 million in strengthening our controls in Calais and other juxtaposed locations in France. Investment will be made on the understanding that the French will effect significant returns of illegal migrants from northern French regions. It is therefore aimed at, first, making the route from France to England secure, and secondly ensuring that France sends back more immigrants from northern France. That looks like a balanced agreement.

T6. The Home Secretary will be well aware of the huge concerns over proposals to close down a number of laboratories belonging to the Forensic Science Service. As Home Secretary, he presumably has the power to step in and prevent that from happening. Will he do so? (283814)

This is about the Forensic Science Service bringing forward a consultation on the future of its business. We will of course work closely with the Forensic Science Service, but it is for the service itself to engage with the work force, stakeholders, MPs and anyone else with a view on such matters, to ensure a viable and sustainable service for the future.

As my right hon. Friend knows, many teenagers feel unfairly punished and humiliated by devices such as the Mosquito and, now, acne lights. Will he look into banning them?

But there is an area where the Secretary of State has discretion, and that is in relation to the Government’s policy towards extradition. Why are we still sending people to the United States under a one-sided extradition treaty? Is it not now time to renegotiate that treaty so as to provide for extradition between our two countries that is firmly based on the principle of reciprocity?

I disagree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have a one-sided extradition treaty. I have looked at it carefully over the past few weeks. An awful lot of hyperbole is spoken about this issue—it is almost as if the US were an enemy of this country. The current extradition treaty with the US ensures equal co-operation between the UK and the Department for Trade and Industry US. This issue comes up periodically; I remember that it came up in relation to the Natwest three when I was at the Department for Trade and Industry. Perhaps hon. Members will remember the marching through the streets in relation to that case, but it all went very quiet—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) says from beyond the Bar that he was one of the people marching, but we did not hear much after the Natwest three pleaded guilty and were prosecuted. I do not believe that we have an unbalanced treaty; I think that it is a fair treaty between the US and the UK, and one that serves both countries well.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is now a big backlog of applications for residency cards from spouses of European Union citizens. What will he be able to do to tackle that backlog?

We are seeking to address the legacy of cases involving families and dependents, and involving asylum seekers, as well as those inherited cases involving nationality. We are making progress—I believe that we have a date, around 2012, by which we would have that backlog completed—at the same time as dealing with current cases effectively. Some 60 per cent. of asylum seekers are now dealt with within six months, and that figure will be up to 90 per cent. very soon.

On the question of unnecessary police paperwork, is the Secretary of State aware that years and years ago, when the Select Committee on Home Affairs was looking into the issue and the Chairman was the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who is now the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Ministers came before the Committee and gave exactly the same answer that the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism has given this afternoon, namely that there might have been problems in the past, but the Government have just taken measures to put everything right? When the Home Secretary comes before the Home Affairs Committee, will he be prepared to quantify the figures that his right hon. Friend has given this afternoon and also explain what the Government—

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that 2007-08 saw the fourth successive annual improvement on the percentage of time spent on front-line policing. If he looks at some of the measures that we have taken, such as scrapping the police time sheet, which has freed up an estimated 260,000 police hours, axing the stop-and-account form and introducing 18,500 extra handheld devices, he will see that the measures that we have taken have resulted in the improvements seen over that period.

What discussions has the Home Secretary had with the Foreign Office in respect of the arbitrary decision by the Premier of Bermuda to allow people from Guantanamo Bay to settle in Bermuda, when that is a matter for the competence of the United Kingdom Government in London and, I believe, the responsibility of the Home Secretary? We need to be told what is happening.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the discussions have been robust, and we are absolutely at one on the basis of what happened. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is raising the matter with the American authorities.

Does the Home Secretary understand the concern of the people of Berkshire about the large number of out-of-court disposals that are taking place, even for serious crimes such as grievous bodily harm? Is not this a worrying diversion from established local justice?

It is sometimes important to use out-of-court disposals to ensure that there is swift and effective justice, and that we reduce police bureaucracy, exactly as the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) has requested. That is why those out-of-court disposals are taking place. They have a positive benefit for the victims. They also have the positive benefit of not criminalising very young people who would otherwise go on to become involved in much more serious crime downstream.

Despite what the Government might say, police officers are spending more time on paperwork. Do the Government disagree with the chairman of the Police Federation, who has said:

“Government red tape is the…obstacle standing in the way”

of increased front-line policing?

I have just given the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) the figures that show that front-line policing has seen its fourth successive annual improvement since 2003-04. The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) will know that Jan Berry and the Police Federation have both been very supportive of the measures that we have taken to date. I am expecting a report from Jan Berry on bureaucracy shortly. The hon. Gentleman will see from the improvement measures that we have taken that there is a real difference on the ground, and that we are putting the police where they should be: on the beat in front of local people.