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Topical Questions

Volume 505: debated on Monday 8 February 2010

In keeping with my departmental responsibilities, I am pleased to announce that, from today, young people aged 16 to 24 who live in Greater London can enrol for a national identity card. Our call centre is taking hundreds of calls a day from members of the public who are keen to get a card, and thousands of application packs have already been requested since the cards were officially launched in November 2009.

On 14 December, here, the Home Secretary pledged to address how plain-clothed police officers should react in public protests. In contrast, the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead on these matters has said that she will not issue guidance because officers should not be deployed in that way, thereby neglecting the fact that 25 such officers were deployed by the City of London police at the G20 protest. Who leads on this issue: the Home Secretary or ACPO?

We have asked ACPO to produce guidance as part of our response to the White Paper of December last year. ACPO is producing guidance that will come before Ministers shortly, of which a key criterion will be that all officers who take part in such activities should be identified by a number. The guidance will be produced shortly.

T3. My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I am applying for an ID card. I want to know the practical effect of abolishing the national identity register. Surely all the information that I must give to get an ID card—my name, address and date and place of birth—has already been given in my passport application. Will not the abolition of one database while the other is left in place make absolutely no difference? (315856)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is one thing for the Conservatives to oppose the ID cards that they supported on Second Reading in December 2004 and that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) also privately supported in a ten-minute Bill in 2002—it is one thing for them suddenly to flip-flop on that—but it is another thing completely for them to say that one can have a biometric passport, which they support, without a national identity register. That is complete and utter nonsense.

T2. What is the view of the Home Office on the right of prisoners to vote in general elections? I know that there are a number of cases pending on this issue, based on human rights grounds, and I should like to know whether I should ask to go canvassing in Shepton Mallet prison next weekend. (315855)

I am tempted to say it is OK if the prisoners vote Labour. Happily, this is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, on which the Home Office does not yet have a view.

T5. Ever since I raised with the Prime Minister the question of policing distribution in Nottinghamshire in early December, I am pleased to say that 84 police have been permanently redeployed to the north of the county. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Her Majesty’s inspectorate, which is currently looking at Nottinghamshire police, look long, hard and deep at why it required an intervention on the Floor of the House before those police were properly redeployed? (315859)

My hon. Friend will know that there has been a redeployment of officers to his constituency and there are still record numbers of police officers in Nottinghamshire. The inspectorate is undertaking a capability review, which I expect to be completed within the next four or five weeks. It will give a view on the potential for future policing of Nottinghamshire.

T4. The Home Secretary will be aware that Kent police have accepted that they behaved inappropriately in indiscriminately using section 44 powers at the Kingsnorth power station demonstration, as well as behaving in other ways that are unacceptable, including assaulting peaceful demonstrators, as I witnessed with my own eyes. What lessons is the Home Secretary drawing from that incident to ensure that police tactics do not replicate it in future? (315857)

There are a number of lessons to be learned from the Kingsnorth incident, and Kent police are looking at those. One of the wider issues has been the policing of protests generally. That is why, in the White Paper before Christmas, we indicated strongly that we needed to examine the issue, draw up guidance, and work with ACPO and authorities to do so. We are in the process of completing that guidance, which I hope to bring before the House after the general election.

The Minister will understand that I take a particular interest in the effectiveness and efficiency of the Home Office and its administration. In the light of the recent capability review, may I extend my congratulations to all those in the Home Office who have brought about such improvements in recent years, particularly in immigration, borders and the treatment of asylum cases, including the backlog? Will he extend the congratulations of the House on the efforts that have been made by the staff in the Home Office?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. For everybody working in the Home Office—all the people who went through a period when, if I remember the description that my right hon. Friend gave, it was probably less than perfect—to come from that capability review, which placed the Home Office, I believe, second from the bottom of all Whitehall Departments to second from the top, is an enormous tribute. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for laying some of the foundations upon which we are now able to build in the Home Office.

T6. On the train this morning I read a document which appeared to suggest that foreign national prisoners who are in prison in the UK are being allowed to leave up to nine months before the halfway point of their sentence, and are being given £5,000 as a present for when they arrive back where they came from. Can the Home Secretary assure me that that document was a malicious forgery and that such a thing could not possibly be happening in Britain today? (315860)

I am glad the hon. Gentleman was reading such a document on the train. I suggest he reads the Daily Mirror in future. He will see in that newspaper this morning that the crime figures are down. Part of the reason for that is the success that we have had in removing foreign national prisoners. We are doing so at record levels. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary reminds me that the hon. Gentleman’s party opposed the measures by which we are doing that, so I hope the hon. Gentleman changes his reading habits.

When my right hon. Friend first took over as Secretary of State for the Home Department, I asked him whether he would consider banning mosquito devices, which send out high-pitched sounds which are very uncomfortable for children and young people. They are so effective and so uncomfortable for children and young people that they are often used to disperse them. If that were any other group, we would cry, “Discrimination!” Now that my right hon. Friend has had a chance to look at mosquito devices, will he ban them?

My hon. Friend is right. I remember well how she stumped me at my first Question Time, because I knew absolutely nothing about what she was saying. That is not uncommon for me, but I have since looked into the matter. There is evidence that shows that such devices can be helpful in the circumstances that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) described in Thirsk, for instance, where people feel that a congregation of rowdy young people is adversely affecting their quality of life. Where other systems to talk to those young people have not worked, those devices can assist the situation. Of course, there are health and safety aspects and the devices have to be used carefully, but I am afraid I am committed to using any device—or rather, devices that do not involve cruel and unusual punishments, but which bring about the improvement in behaviour that we all seek.

T7. What progress is the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), making in addressing small boat owners’ concerns about the proposals in the e-Borders programme to require them to file journey plans when moving between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland? Why are they necessary when people entering Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland will not be listed? (315862)

We are having a lot of discussions with the bodies that represent small yachtsmen, and with yachtsmen themselves. I am dealing with a lot of correspondence on the matter—[Interruption.] I mean people sailing small yachts; I do not mind about the size of the yachtsmen or, indeed, yachtswomen. We continue to look at the matter, because the idea is that e-Borders should not be over-burdensome but do its job and ensure that people meaning harm to this country do not reach our shores.

Police dogs in Yorkshire are entitled to anti-stab vests, yet police community support officers in West Bromwich are not. The Minister knows that procurement is devolved to a regional level, but will he remind the chief constable of the west midlands that the region is now only one of two with police authorities that refuse to issue anti-stab vests to PCSOs?

My hon. Friend has assiduously raised that issue on several occasions, and he will know that ACPO is re-examining the guidance on anti-stab vests for police forces. As he said, only two forces do not issue them. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to look at the matter, and I shall certainly draw his remarks again to the attention of the chief constable.

T8. Can the Home Secretary give an exact figure for the number of asylum seekers who have failed their final appeal but still await deportation? (315863)

With respect, I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact figure. The UK Border Agency chief executive is writing to the Home Affairs Committee—this week, I think—about the current situation. We are now dealing with 60 per cent. of asylum claims within six months, and we have the lowest level of asylum applications since 1993, so good progress is being made.

Some foreign nationals in the UK already have to obtain biometric cards and, I think, pay for them. What advice will the Minister give to a constituent of mine who, when her credit card was stolen and she went to the bank to sort it out, was told that her biometric ID card was not proof of identity?

I shall be very keen to look up that case, because we have had the occasional instance of an ID card not being recognised. In every case so far, however, the relevant national body has said that it recognises the card as a matter of policy but an individual member of staff has, unfortunately, not been aware of that fact. We are working to get publicity out there, and we will continue to do so.

What is the result of the Minister’s review of immigration policy, which was promised in the Adjournment debate on the Floor of the House on 7 December? We hope that the review will mean that asylum seekers who want to make further representations will not have to go to Liverpool to make their case, even if they have no money to make their case, but will be able to go to their regional office. The Minister indicated that he was sympathetic to that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question and for his persistence in getting it in just at the end of today’s session. We did have a very important debate, which I have pondered, and we have established exceptional criteria for those unable to travel, while maintaining the integrity of the scheme.

The Forensic Science Service centre in Chorley is proposed for closure. I was led to believe that the chief constable of Lancashire police had been reassured about the decision and was happy with it. That is not the case: the police are very concerned about urgent casework not being solved, and about where the scientists will be when it comes to future crime. So we have been misled. What is the answer?

I do not believe that anyone has been misled in this regard. People were consulted over the transformation programme. It is important that the FSS undergoes this change in order that we secure the remaining sites. The work that will be undertaken on those sites is a very important part of fighting crime. The transformation process is absolutely essential.

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), some people are stockpiling high levels of “legal high” substances in anticipation of their being banned so that they can sell them on for a profit. What are the Government doing to stop this?

As I said earlier, the first step is to take the advice of the ACMD. The second step is to implement that advice as quickly as we can after consultation. The third step, once those drugs are illegal, and once we have a generic classification, is to deal with the people who are then in breach of the law.