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Topical Questions

Volume 502: debated on Monday 14 December 2009

The Home Office puts public protection at the heart of its work. The pre-Budget report provided good news for the police, recognising their importance to the public and to the Government in delivering safe and secure communities.

Two new groups of street pastors have recently started operating in Caldicot near Newport in my constituency. They are doing a fantastic job helping young people who get into difficulties on nights out, especially in the run-up to Christmas. Does the Home Secretary agree that that is an excellent volunteering initiative and that street pastors offer reassurance and help the police to tackle antisocial behaviour in the night-time economy?

I do agree: street pastors are a crucial part of the community effort in many parts of the country, including Newport, to make our streets safer, especially on busy evenings such as Friday and Saturday. I have met street pastors myself in various locations and my hon. Friend does a service to her area by raising their profile and raising this issue in Parliament. They deserve widespread praise.

T3. The Home Affairs Committee was told that there were no plain-clothes officers deployed at the G20 protests, but we now know that there were at least 25. Does the Home Secretary agree that we need guidelines setting out the roles and responsibilities of plain-clothes officers when they are policing public protests? (306242)

The House will be aware that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary did a very important report on this issue, which was widely welcomed. In fact, I cannot think of a single area in which it was not given a warm welcome. We have carried over those recommendations quickly into the White Paper, and we will implement that in relation to how we police protests, including how plain-clothes police officers react.

I recently wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell) about the case of one of my constituents who was unfortunately burgled and was surprised that the burglars focused almost completely on taking jewellery and other gold. He believes, as do I, that this may have been prompted by the burgeoning of cash-for-gold adverts on our television screens and in our newspapers, often with no identification required to obtain money in exchange for gold. My hon. Friend helpfully replied that he was carrying out a review in this area. May I encourage him to involve trading standards officers in that work and to consider legislation as quickly as possible, perhaps even in the Crime and Security Bill?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this important matter. We are concerned about burglary, particularly in these difficult economic times. We are considering the issue and we would envisage involving trading standards, even though staff are already working hard. If legislation is necessary, we will legislate.

T4. A recent audit report on the UK Border Agency refers to £9.6 million that was incorrectly paid out for asylum applicants following a data management failure, and £1.4 million paid to landlords for properties that subsequently turned out to be empty. Will one of the Ministers tell us whether anyone was prosecuted for that, and may we have a fuller explanation than the two sentences in the report? (306243)

I am of course familiar with the report to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The asylum support system involves more than £100 million of public expenditure—a figure drastically reduced from previous years, as we get in control of the system. The housing element of that is subject to the difficulties, which he will recognise as a constituency Member of Parliament, in the private housing market. That is why we have taken the report so seriously and made improvements.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the lessons of the Cardiff violence reduction project, led by Professor Jonathan Shepherd, were rolled out across the country, that would not only help the police and reduce the number of victims, but make a considerable financial contribution to the national health service? Does my right hon. Friend also agree that the key lesson is not only that of partnership, but that of taking a clinical and scientific approach to understanding why bad things happen? (306241)

My right hon. Friend has made a huge contribution to tackling crime in this country, both in opposition and in his early days as a Home Office Minister of State. He could make no bigger contribution than through the work he has done with Professor Jonathan Shepherd in Cardiff—the results are truly remarkable, and it is now in the operating framework of the NHS to comply with this. I see no argument for a local hospital not submitting data to the police service, given that this is not only important in tackling crime, but crucial, as my right hon. Friend says, in reducing costs to the NHS. This is a win-win situation, which is why the Cardiff model, including the use of polycarbonate glasses, is now being used right around the country.

T6. Estimates are that we have 2,000 irregular migrants in Croydon—a number that might increase as a result of the closure of the Liverpool walk-in asylum centre, given that Croydon is now the only inland asylum centre. How many more irregular migrants will there be in Croydon as a result of that change, and specifically, how many unaccompanied asylum seeker minors? That will lead to extra pressures on public finances. (306245)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the continuing dialogue we are having on that important issue, which comes about, as he knows, as a result of the improvements and changes we made in Liverpool to ensure that further representations need a face-to-face interview. The overall picture is good, because the numbers are coming down. I cannot answer him specifically—of course, time will tell—but we have been in constant contact with his local authority since the announcement was made.

T5. Following on from the strategy that was recently announced to tackle violence against women and girls, which will include some reforms to the criminal justice system, what plans does the Secretary of State have to make comparable reforms to the asylum system in relation to women and girls who have suffered similar forms of violence in their countries of origin? (306244)

That issue was raised during our very wide consultation on violence against women and girls. The publication of our strategy is not the end of the issue; in fact, it is the beginning. We have looked at taking out certain strands, including the issue my hon. Friend mentions, getting much more information on it and tackling it as part of the ongoing strategy.

T7. Following the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s helpful interview recently, will the Home Secretary confirm that the identity card scheme is going to be scrapped? (306246)

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was making it absolutely clear that the ID card will be voluntary. The ID card will be of benefit to people in Manchester and the north-west, and more and more people are seeking to have one. I have one myself—in case nobody in here knows who I am—which I can show the right hon. Gentleman afterwards. Tomorrow we will be making a further launch in Blackburn, to great public enthusiasm.

T10. What is the problem with extraditing to the United States Nosratollah Tajik, the Iranian whom the Americans want under our wonderful extradition treaty? Is it not a fact that there are many people in London, including those in our security and intelligence services, and the banking and financial sector, who do not want him to go to the United States? How is it right to extradite Gary McKinnon and not this fella? (306249)

The issue regarding extradition begins with the courts. It is the courts that decide: the district court, the High Court, the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights, all of which have been open—and are still open—to Gary McKinnon. When the courts make a decision on the forum—the place in which that gentleman should be tried—the process kicks into action.

Will the Home Secretary look at the number and depth of inspections of county constabularies, not least because they impose a huge burden on resources and manpower, and divert time, energy and police officers away from front-line policing?

I will consider what the hon. Lady has said, but the role that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary plays in inspecting police forces around the country is important, as we found out recently with one particular police force where the public had huge concerns. HMIC’s role is to ensure that it can assist police forces in reaching the level of the best. There is always a case for keeping such burdens to an absolute minimum and ensuring the right balance, which we will look at as part of our constant war against bureaucracy in the police force.

Will the Home Secretary guarantee that the new chairperson of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs will be someone of genuine scientific independence who will challenge the evidence-free policies pursued by all Governments since 1971, which have resulted in Britain having the worst drug problems in Europe?

I will of course ensure that the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has those attributes. Indeed, we have agreed to a member of the advisory council being part of the interviewing panel for the new chairman.

T8. Does the Minister not agree that the number of speed cameras in Norfolk should be increased to a level that would allow more of my constituents to benefit from the Norfolk safety camera partnership? (306247)

It is good to hear someone speaking up for speed cameras; indeed, I am delighted. The issue is of course an operational matter for Norfolk police, which I am absolutely sure will be aware of the hon. Lady’s intervention. I, for one, am a big fan of speed cameras.

The number of procedures under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 continues to rise, with 4 million sentient beings the target that we see each year. Is the Home Secretary happy with the effectiveness of the legislation? The policy of reduction, refinement and replacement is clearly not working. What alternatives might there be?

We have a policy of reduction and ensuring that we do not license unnecessary animal procedures. We do not have an upper cap on such procedures, however, and it is important that each application is considered in the proper way on the science available.

When the Home Secretary dismissed David Nutt, the chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, two other independent scientific advisers resigned. When the Home Secretary said that he had no regrets, three others resigned. Is he still of the view that he would do the same thing now, given the outcry from independent scientists, if the circumstances were the same?

I would absolutely do the same thing. The Select Committee on Science and Technology, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who is the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friend, has done us all a service by not concentrating on the past, as he continually does, but by looking to the future, particularly in relation to the contribution made by Lord Rees from the other place.

I had a very useful meeting with the Immigration Minister earlier this summer to discuss my concerns about the administration of the visa system in Pakistan. I wonder whether he can now reassure the House that the administration of visas in that post is up to speed, satisfactory and being carried out with integrity.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those issues as she did; they were important to the process. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary visited Islamabad and gave assurances, which we have now met. There is some work remaining to be done on appeals, where the appeals have been won and the visas have to be issued and we have to contact the individuals concerned, but we are now on top of that situation.

The Home Secretary referred earlier to the HMIC report “Adapting to Protest”, and its relationship to the White Paper. What are the Government intending to do about an HMIC recommendation that has not been carried forward into the White Paper—namely, that the position and status of

“the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) must have transparent governance and accountability structures, particularly when it is engaged in quasi-operational roles, such as the collation and retention of personal data”?

Of course, that is a matter not just for us but for ACPO itself. The new chairman of ACPO is keen to look at how the association can be changed. He has a number of ideas, and it is right that we take that recommendation from HMIC forward in discussions with ACPO. That it not to say that it has been shelved; it is being progressed, but in a different way from the other recommendations that were placed in the White Paper.

The Office for National Statistics projects that, unless immigration is brought into balance with emigration, it will be impossible to keep the UK’s population below 70 million. Is the Home Secretary concerned about that? If so, what is he going to do about it?

I have made it absolutely plain that I do not believe that we will get to 70 million. The projections from the ONS do not take into account the changes over the past few years, and it would be a big mistake to think that the next 10 years are going to be like the previous 10 years in relation to movements around the world, in relation to the conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Indeed, I think that those projections will change over time, as previous projections have done.