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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 508: debated on Monday 22 March 2010

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s efforts to counter Islamic extremism. (322938)

12. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy. (322952)

Contest is a world-leading counter-terrorism strategy that endeavours to meet the serious threat this country faces from international terrorism. I have today published the first annual report setting out progress against the objectives in the strategy. Since 11 September 2001, 230 people have been convicted of a terrorism-related offence and more than a dozen terrorist plots have been disrupted. The Prevent strand of Contest is aimed at addressing the causes of terrorism by challenging the ideology of violent extremists, supporting vulnerable individuals and building community resilience.

Does the Secretary of State accept that Islamism is a threat because of its refusal to accept the separation of religion and the state, its social intolerance, particularly as regards the status of women, and its attempted subversion of moderate Islam? If he does, will he undertake not to allow the introduction of sharia law into this country in any form?

First I should say that the threat comes from violent extremism. There are people with all kinds of views with which we may disagree, but it is when those views turn into violent extremism that counter-terrorism kicks in and those views become unacceptable. On sharia law, I should say that the law of this country is absolutely paramount. Where sharia law has been introduced in some small experiments in local communities it does not, in any way, subvert or detract from the law of this country.

Does the Home Secretary agree that we have to work with the Muslim community? In Banbury, the Thames Valley police force consciously seeks to recruit Muslim men and women as special constables, because when the Muslim community has people that it knows working with the police force, it is more likely to talk to them about things that are causing it concern. We therefore need to work with the Muslim community, as well as being suspicious of it on occasion.

I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman. Not only in Banbury but elsewhere, the police and the local communities are working to break down these barriers, and part of that involves working with the Muslim community—indeed, the Prevent strand of our counter-terrorism strategy has about 1,000 projects, where work is being undertaken with 40,000 people in various communities. This is something that politicians and chief constables cannot do from on high; it must be tackled in the community and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, in part by recruiting people from the Muslim community into the police and other authorities.

Does the Home Secretary agree that if by “Islamism” one means people who support the religion of Islam, that is not, in itself, a threat? However, subversive and criminal activity is to be found among some members of the Muslim community. The danger of trying to tar the entire Muslim community with the same brush is that that undermines our efforts to engage with the community, and to fight terrorism and crime.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The only way in which we will succeed in this area is by demonstrating that the vast majority of Muslims just do not buy into the rhetoric of the ideologues and those promoting violence and division. That is the measure of success. It is essential that we in no way give the impression that our counter-terrorism policy is anti-Muslim, because it is not; it is very much pro-Muslim and pro the vast majority of the Muslim community, who believe in peace, justice and freedom.

Is it not absolutely essential, as my right hon. Friend has pointed out, to make the greatest distinction between the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who, like ourselves, totally oppose and detest terrorism, and the very few religious fanatics who distort their religion and glory in death? There is absolutely no link between those two groups, and we should never try to pretend, as some do, that Muslims are any more in favour of terrorism than adherents of any other religion.

Again, I agree with my hon. Friend, who has made an important contribution to these issues while serving on the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The only point that I should make here—this reinforces the one that he has made—is that giving people in Muslim communities, particularly younger Muslims, the arguments and empowering them so that they can try to argue back against what are sometimes very forceful arguments coming from much older people in their community must be an important part of our counter-terrorism strategy. That is why Prevent is the crucial strand that it is.

In the light of the Home Secretary’s efforts to separate Islamic issues from terrorism, I wonder whether he has noted the following written evidence to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government’s inquiry into the Prevent arm of the counter-terrorism strategy:

“Inconsistent and generalised language or loose terms weaken public confidence and hamper the debate around Prevent. In addition and more specifically, they also provide opportunities for Muslim Rejectionists at the grassroots.”

Given that countering Islamic extremism is linked to, but is not the same as, a counter-terrorism strategy, does grouping these issues today not illustrate the point being made to the Select Committee?

The hon. Gentleman talks about grouping these issues, and I think it would be strange if we had a counter-terrorism strategy that did not seek to prevent people from getting involved in terrorism in the first place, just as it would be strange to have a policy on drugs that did not try to prevent youngsters from getting involved in drugs, or to have a policy on knives, guns and gangs that did not have a strand that aimed to prevent people from getting involved in the first place. We have to be very careful about the terminology—that is the hon. Gentleman’s point—but we also have to be careful to realise that there are those who are opposed to Prevent because they are opposed to any voice of reason and to our trying to help vulnerable youngsters, in particular, to argue back against those who seek to persuade them down the route of violence. We must recognise that those people are against our strategy—not our Prevent strategy but against our whole Contest counter-terrorism strategy. We have to be aware of the devices they will use to try to suggest, for instance, that Prevent is about spying when it patently is not.

Dogs (Crime)

The data are not collected centrally but we are aware of the growing concerns about the use of dangerous dogs to harass and intimidate people. This has prompted the Government to introduce the new gang injunction power under the Policing and Crime Act 2009 and to launch a public consultation on managing and controlling dangerous dogs.

Let me get this right: the Home Secretary announces, for a headline in the pre-election period, that he will force all dog owners to take out insurance on their chihuahuas, or whatever their dog might be, but then the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that is absolutely ludicrous because it will penalise all responsible dog owners and it will have no effect on those who already have dogs that are used as weapons. Does the Minister agree with her colleague, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that this was a lunatic idea and take some responsibility on behalf of the Home Office for this ridiculous electioneering?

Let me make it clear that the proposal and consultation are a joint effort between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office. It is right that we consider extending dangerous dog laws to cover places such as private property and give more powers to police and councils, including for dog control orders where necessary. The issue of insurance was raised with the Government because of the horrific injuries caused and so it was included in the consultation, although it has now been ruled out. I have not spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs personally about this but we are still interested, certainly from a Home Office perspective, in views on third-party insurance, particularly if a dog control order is in force.

My hon. Friend will realise that dog owners such as myself get very upset when we hear the term “dangerous dogs”. It is not the dog that is the problem but the ownership and control of the dog. When are we going to start tackling this in the correct manner in this country by considering it a privilege to own a dog rather than thinking that there is an automatic right for irresponsible people to own or train a dog?

I look forward to responses from my hon. Friend and his constituents to the consultation. Responsible ownership is at the heart of what we need to consider. It is the deed not the breed that we are primarily considering but some breeds are bred to be violent. Unfortunately, that is one reason why we have to reconsider this issue. We must consider the full range of options.

In my constituency of Hammersmith and Fulham, this has been an ongoing problem in many of our local parks, including the local park at the end of my road, Normand park. Just today, I have had an e-mail from a constituent of mine, Robert Hardman, who talks about an appalling incident in Normand park next to the playground where his children were playing last Thursday. There was a savage attack on a puppy by a free-range pit bull—we appreciate that it might not actually have been a pit bull—and the owner of the said pit bull hurled abuse and threats at witnesses, the children were distraught and the victim’s owner is now faced with a £3,000 vet’s bill. Is not one of the solutions to all this for the police to be able to deal with the dogs in situ rather than necessarily having to take them off to kennels?

There are a number of issues exactly like that that the consultation seeks to iron out. I can echo the hon. Gentleman’s words from Hammersmith to Hackney: much the same problems are raised with me by my constituents on estates, by gangs and in parks. It is clearly an issue that we need to tackle. There are real problems and that is why I hope the House will back the consultation. I look forward to hearing and seeing the responses.

Some time ago, one of my constituents was savagely attacked by what was clearly a weapon dog. Finally, on appeal, she was granted criminal injuries compensation of £5,000. Only then did she learn that the dog had made two previous attacks, and we still do not know whether it has been destroyed. Whatever my hon. Friend does, will she make absolutely sure that such dogs are taken out of circulation permanently?

Obviously I do not know about that individual case, but I agree that when horrific incidents happen, proper action needs to be taken. If necessary, that sometimes includes destroying the animal.

It has taken the Government a very long time to address this extremely serious issue, only for them to get it badly wrong. Will the Home Secretary or the Minister tell us why a flagship policy of introducing compulsory dog insurance was announced two weeks ago, but then overruled and killed off by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? Surely the Home Secretary should admit that he has been muzzled on this issue.

Clearly the hon. Gentleman does not know the Home Secretary as well as I do, because he is a very difficult man to overrule. Indeed, he is not someone who is overruled. We need to be clear that we all want a solution to this problem, which was looked at in a consultation—let me correct any misapprehension that it was a Government policy. It is important that we should still consider insurance, particularly when dog control orders are in force, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins). We need to consider that, and I hope we can all agree that this vital issue needs to be tackled. It is interesting that the Opposition choose to concentrate more on the process than on the outcome, in which we all have a shared interest.


Since 1997, the Home Office has brought forward legislation as necessary, to address the needs and challenges of the day. When legislation has included criminal offences, these have been proposed only after careful consideration and with the support of Parliament.

That is a cop-out of an answer. The Minister knows that there have been 4,200 new offences over 13 years of Labour Government. Looking back, at the end of that time, does he think we would have done far better to pass far fewer laws and to take far longer to make sure that we got them right? Would not the best legacy that he could leave be a penal code so that people could find all the laws in the same place?

I do not accept that there are too many laws. We have put in place a range of legislation that is designed to protect the public, cut crime and increase confidence. I can name three pieces of legislation that the hon. Gentleman has voted against—measures on DNA retention, the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, and measures on tackling disorderly drinking in the streets. I know that those things matter to people in Southwark and throughout the country, so I am sorry that he voted against them.

Bearing in mind the careful consideration that my right hon. Friend has just mentioned, will he tell the House how many of the new criminal offences that were created by the Labour Government never came into force before then being repealed by the Labour Government?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as ever, for his helpful question. He will know that there are occasions when the situation changes, people look at the legislation and Ministers take decisions accordingly. He will also know that, as a result of legislation that we have introduced, crime has fallen by 36 per cent., violent crime is down, burglaries are down and confidence in policing is up to a record 50 per cent.—all things that never happened before we considered that legislation.

May I suggest that when criminal offences are introduced, great care should be taken not to attach prison sentences to them unless absolutely necessary? We are creating an atmosphere in which prison becomes approved by Government, but we should not do that. We should be sentencing people to imprisonment only when absolutely necessary, and we need to be careful about the penalties that we attach to criminal offences.

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for those comments. He will know that the Ministry of Justice, where I spent two years before coming to this post, is concerned to ensure that we encourage community-based sentences where possible, and to ensure that they will, on some occasions, have a better chance of preventing reoffending than does a short-term prison sentence. We need to consider those issues in the round. Happily, the separation of the judiciary and the legislature is part of the UK’s constitution, so the judiciary will ultimately decide the appropriate sentences for offences.

“Cutting Crime”

6. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the recommendations in the first report from the Justice Committee, “Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment”, HC 94-I; and if he will make a statement. (322943)

The Government are grateful to the Justice Committee for its contribution to the debate on how to cut crime, reduce reoffending and manage some of the most difficult individuals in our society. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice published our response on Tuesday 16 March.

I am delighted that the response is so positive. The strength of the Committee’s report is that it looks across the whole criminal justice system instead of being trapped in one part of it. What victims want—other than not becoming victims in the first place—is not to become victims again. Given that, is it not essential that all parts of the criminal justice system, whatever Department they come under, are clear that they are required to focus on reducing offending and reoffending?

It is absolutely vital that we tackle reoffending. That is key to preventing further offending because, sadly, a number of people still go through the prison and justice systems but then ultimately reoffend. Reoffending rates for both adults and youths have fallen by 20 per cent. since 2000, but we need to do more. I know that there is a consensus on that in the House, and it means we must look at employment opportunities, housing and reintegration, and at ensuring that people leave prison in a better place than when they went in.

I welcome the Government’s positive response, but does the Minister accept that the Home Office has an opportunity to develop strategies that will save people from ever becoming victims of crime in the first place—especially if he is able to get his hands on some of the money that might otherwise be committed to further prison expansion?

One of the key things that I have tried to encourage, both as a Justice Minister and now as a Home Office Minister, is integrated offender management. That means that we look at managing offenders through the system, from prison through release and back into the community, where police and probation services work together with important local authority services to make sure that everyone has an opportunity not to reoffend in the future. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s report. I think that it has some merit, and the Government have responded in what I hope is a positive way.

Administrative Burden (Police)

7. What steps his Department has taken to reduce the administrative burden on police forces in the last 12 months. (322944)

We are committed to reducing police bureaucracy, including the time spent on unnecessary administrative tasks. This is why I have taken steps to reduce the amount of data that we collect from police forces, scrapped the lengthy stop-and-account form and invested in mobile phone technology to allow officers to work in a much more efficient and smarter way.

The Minister will know that, whenever the police are criticised for how they do their job, they invariably say they are hampered by the number of forms that they have to fill in. The Home Secretary said that he would deal with the matter in a radical way. How exactly has he addressed form filling and bureaucracy in a radical fashion?

I take it that the hon. Gentleman has not looked at clause 1 of the Crime and Security Bill currently going through the House of Commons. Has he? I suspect that he has not. If he had, he would have seen that it contains radical proposals, approved by this House, to reduce the stop-and-search form—a measure that by itself will ensure that around 700,000 hours of police time are saved.

In addition, we have accepted 13 recommendations from Jan Berry, the independent adviser on police bureaucracy. We will implement them over the next six to nine months, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep up to speed on these matters.

When the deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Tim Godwin, gave evidence to the Select Committee last Tuesday, he said that only 30 per cent. of his officers had hand-held devices. The Minister will know that we recommended in our report last year that every front-line officer should have a personal digital assistant, as that would help to cut bureaucracy significantly and ensure that police officers are more visible outside police stations. What are the Government going to do to ensure that every officer has such a device?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who will know, I hope, that we have invested £80 million in securing support for mobile data services. They will save an average of 30 minutes per shift for officers who will not have to go back to the station to complete paperwork that the House does not wish them to do. We want to extend that. I was in Manchester this morning, visiting the Stockport police. They are due to receive their hand-held devices in the next week or so, and that positive approach is being rolled out across the country to ensure that we reduce bureaucracy and improve efficiency.

Will the Minister tell us what actions, in addition to those that he has set out, have been taken to introduce voice recognition technology? In his answer, he mentioned the Government’s approach to hand-held computers for police on the streets, but what steps are being taken with regard to hiring civilian staff to help to complete forms over the telephone? What progress has been made in pilot schemes to cut the proportion of officers’ time spent on paperwork?

There are a number of measures. In the Bill currently before Parliament, we have reduced stop-and-search forms, which will save time, and we have invested £80 million in hand-held devices. I am looking at how we can develop still further the use of modern technology to reduce paperwork and, as I mentioned, through Jan Berry’s work in her second year, we will look at implementing the recommendations that we have already accepted to reduce paperwork. There is more that we can do, we have an appetite to do it, and I am confident that that will help support police officers to be more efficient and to reduce the unnecessary paperwork that is being undertaken.

We can all agree on the need to cut red tape, even if we disagree on the speed at which the Government have moved. Despite the latest initiatives, the figures show that England and Wales are under-policed by international standards. We had 264 police officers per 100,000 population, compared with a European average of 357. Does the Minister agree that that is the main reason why our offences per head of population are so much higher than in other countries, and that a real increase in police numbers, such as that proposed by my party, is what is needed to cut crime?

There are 24,000 more police officers than when the Government were elected in 1997—147,000 police officers now. There are 17,000 police community support officers, whereas there were zero when the Government were first elected. Crime is down by 36 per cent., burglary is down, robbery is down and violent crime is down. That is a record worth defending. We can do more, we should do more, and we are committed to support the funding. The hon. Gentleman can always outbid us because he knows he will never be in a position to have to implement any of those decisions.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the role of the on-the-spot fines in reducing bureaucracy and in effective policing?

My right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary are undertaking a review. We hope shortly to be able to publish further details on that.

In a speech earlier this month, the Prime Minister said that the Government’s

“commitment to protecting the record numbers of police officers . . . is clear.”

Can the Minister guarantee to the House that if the Government are re-elected in May, over the course of the next Parliament there will be no reduction in the total number of police officers currently serving in England and Wales?

The hon. Gentleman will know that for 2010-11 we have given a 2.5 per cent. minimum increase, and that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have said that there is no reason whatsoever why police forces should reduce the number of warranted officers or police community support officers because the resources will be available. That commitment contrasts with the position of the hon. Gentleman.

I notice, interestingly, that the Minister did not answer my question. The reason is straightforward. Last week the Home Office published details of progress on its plans to modernise the police work force. Its document specifically refers to it being difficult for forces to use work force modernisation

“as one of their levers to meet the cost pressures ahead if they are not able to reduce officer numbers.”

Why is the Prime Minister promising to protect record numbers of police officers, if the Home Office is quietly working on plans to cut officer numbers?

Let us be clear about this. The Home Office is not planning to cut police officer numbers. The Home Office will support sufficient resources to ensure that the number of police officers and policy community support officers that we currently have can be kept in place, should police chiefs wish to do so operationally. The challenge is for the hon. Gentleman to match that commitment on resources when we go in to the election. Last year the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) would not commit to the funding for next year’s police funding. That is the challenge, and the electorate will see it.

I will be delighted to answer questions from the right hon. Gentleman if we swap sides in the House after the election in May.

The document to which I am referring clearly states “Home Office” on the front of it. Last time I looked, he and his colleagues were Ministers for the Home Office. The document concludes that

“there will need to be constructive engagement”

with politicians and staff associations

“regarding the impact on officer numbers.”

The Government are quietly planning cuts in police officer numbers. Why can they not tell the truth for a change?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a commitment from the Government to maintain the level of numbers if police chiefs wish to have those numbers. We will maintain the resources to do that. We have a record of 24,000 more officers and 16,500 to 17,000 police community support officers. I do not believe that that record would have been maintained if an alternative Government had been in place. I commend that to the House in due course.

Drugs (Young People)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s steps to tackle drug-taking by young people. (322947)

We are committed to preventing and reducing drug use by young people. Drug use among young people has continued to fall over the last decade—

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Under-Secretary, but I think that she is seeking to group this question with Question 11.

Fifteen per cent. of young people aged 11 to 15 used drugs in 2008, compared with 20 per cent. in 2001.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Mephedrone, the substance that contributed to the deaths of two young men last week, is a legal high that can allegedly be bought for as little as £4. Should the Government not take more seriously the threat that legal highs pose? What steps is the Minister taking to get across to young people the consequences of taking such substances?

The hon. Gentleman makes very important points about a very worrying issue. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is reviewing mephedrone and other legal highs as a priority, after a schedule of work that the Home Secretary set last summer. The report on mephedrone is due on 29 March, and if we need to lay an order before Parliament in order to get a measure through, we will do so.

The Minister will know that legal highs are killing young people. She will know also that many headmasters and headmistresses throughout the country believe that consideration should be given to banning these drugs. When will the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report on that matter and, I hope, say that those drugs will be banned, so that young people are not tempted to take them to get a temporary high—and do not kill themselves in the process?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my previous answer: 29 March. However, we seek to continue to educate young people and their parents about the matter, mainly through the Frank website, which has reported on mephedrone issues in particular since September and has regular updated guidance.

Does my hon. Friend believe that the Government invest enough money in early intervention programmes, which result in less criminalisation of so many of our young people later in their lives?

We always keep an eye on that issue, but we already invest more than £55 million each year in tackling young people’s substance misuse, and that includes funding treatment, area-based grant work for under-18s’ misuse, Positive Futures and the Frank website.

At the last Home Office questions in February, when the use among young people of legal highs such as mephedrone was discussed, the Home Secretary said that the consideration of the issue was now an absolute priority for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the Government. Yet it is reported today that the Home Office was advised five years ago of the problem of those synthetic drugs being bought online. Why did the Government fail to act sooner?

The Government have acted, and I shall explain a little of the background to the report to which I believe the hon. Gentleman refers. It was a report on the internet discussing the availability of psychoactive medications only, and our drug laws apply a criminal sanction whatever the route of availability. That report was looking at, and horizon-scanning on, drug futures up to 2025. It set out possibilities rather than realities and made no recommendations to the Government. However, as a result of a number of issues, the Government commissioned more work, and that led last year to the Home Secretary asking the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to look at this, which it is doing to its normal time scales.

Human Trafficking (Lap-dancing Clubs)

13. What recent representations he has received on allegations of exploitation of victims of trafficking in lap-dancing clubs. (322953)

I have not received any specific representations on the exploitation of victims of trafficking in lap-dancing clubs. Human trafficking is a serious offence and the police will of course investigate allegations of trafficking wherever they occur.

I wonder whether the Minister has any plans to ensure that local authorities, which from 1 April have powers under the Policing and Crime Act 2009, will be able to do anything in the 350 relevant lap-dancing clubs that have been identified, bearing in mind the fact that local authorities have no experience of identifying human trafficking victims. Is she thinking of involving the police, or just relying on local authority officials?

The police go into lap-dancing clubs, as necessary, and as the House would expect them to do, in order to catch traffickers. It is important that they work closely with local authorities, such as my own in Hackney, which is getting a real grip on the issue now that local authorities have much more say about the licensing of such premises. It is crucial that in something as important as trafficking the right expertise is deployed, but I do not believe that there are any problems in that direction.

On the human trafficking of youngsters, will the Minister have a word in her Department about the cases where young teenage women who have been transported from other parts of the globe are rescued or identified by the local authority and brought into care, but when they reach the ages of 19, 20 and 21 cannot get any papers regularised in the United Kingdom and are falling between two stools? Will that be addressed with some urgency and dispatch?

We do, on occasion, grant people leave to stay in those situations. Clearly, every case is individual, and I will happily talk to my hon. Friend if he has any particular cases that he wishes to raise.

Yarl’s Wood

14. If he will request Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons to undertake an immediate inquiry into the recent protests at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. (322954)

The UK Border Agency has commissioned a management review of the incident which will report shortly. The investigators have not raised any concerns thus far, so it is not expected that the matter will require further investigation. However, if overriding concerns are identified, we will of course review that decision.

I appreciate the Minister’s answer. I also appreciate the involvement at a personal level of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), which is very helpful. Will the Minister reconsider the involvement of Dame Anne Owers? He will be aware that there is increasing concern about the condition of some of those who have been refusing food, that there were reports that some were taken to hospital last week, and that there have been allegations of suicide attempts. There is a continuing difference between the views of those health issues taken by Serco and the UK Border Agency and by those outside who look after detainees, and that will not be ended unless there is an independent review by Anne Owers rather than a management review.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. This is an issue in his constituency. He wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on 18 March, and a reply is being drafted for him. I take the point that he is making. Thus far, we have found no substance whatsoever in the allegations; indeed, the opposite is the case. If you will indulge me, Mr. Speaker, let me point out that the resident who claimed that she was not a criminal has in fact served time for drug supplying and has attacked two of our officers. CCTV footage is available, and the independent monitoring board, which has written to me and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, was witness to the alleged incidents, but I have an open mind on the hon. Gentleman’s point, because it may be needed to give status—let me put it that way—to these concerns.

Photography Restrictions (Public Places)

16. Whether he has issued guidance to police forces on restrictions on members of the public taking photographs in public places. (322956)

The National Policing Improvement Agency and I have issued guidance and circulars to the police that make it clear that counter-terrorism powers should not be used to stop innocent people taking photographs. I have also written to all chief constables who have section 44 authorisations to reiterate the point.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but I have to tell him that the system is not working. Only last week, a journalist from Meridian Television, Phil Hornby, was threatened with arrest and confiscation and deletion of his tape merely for filming an exterior shot of Worthing station. Other individuals have been stopped for taking sunset photographs of St. Paul’s and photographs of the Christmas lights in Brighton. Clearly, the guidance that the Minister has issued does not seem to be getting through. What further steps will he take to ensure that we do not slide towards east Germany in this country?

I think that the guidance is helpful. However, last week I met my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and a delegation of a range of individuals involved in photography issues. We agreed with Craig Mackey, the chief constable of Cumbria, who deals with these matters on behalf of chief police officers, that we would consider police training issues. I make this offer to the hon. Gentleman: if there are individual cases where there are concerns, we will look at them to see whether the guidance has been followed. If he wishes to send me further details, I will certainly look into them with Craig Mackey.

Student Visas (Language Schools)

17. What assessment he has made of the effects of tier 4 student visa changes on language schools following the review of November 2009 and the further measures announced in February 2010. (322957)

The changes came into force on 3 March, and we continually monitor tier 4 to ensure its effectiveness. Our policy is designed to protect the integrity of our immigration system and the reputation of the UK’s education providers.

The English language industry is worth £1.5 billion a year to the UK economy, which is money we cannot afford to lose. Will the Minister visit with me the many genuine English language schools in my constituency to see the effects that the changes are having on those businesses, many of which are small and family-run?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest. I know he shares my desire to protect the robustness of the immigration system and at the same time enhance the reputation of genuine providers. I do not believe that the changes that we have made to achieve the former are damaging the latter. We continuously review the system—that is part of the strength of tier 4 and the points-based system overall—and although it is probably too early to tell, I have yet to see evidence of a detrimental effect. We have to protect the genuine student, who has sometimes been exploited by unscrupulous colleges.

Would my hon. Friend be a little more precise about the level of English that prospective students on English language courses must attain? Language schools throughout Europe classify their courses as pre-intermediate, intermediate, advanced intermediate and advanced. Can English language schools still teach advanced intermediate courses?

Yes. Some urban myths have been perpetuated in this campaign, so let me be clear that English language courses of six months and below, which are subject to a different visa regime, will be protected. Members of Parliament representing Scotland, which has different terminology, will be pleased to hear that foundation courses are maintained. The problem was with level 5 and below, where there was abuse of the system. As a result of the points-based system, we have significantly cut down the abuse of immigration law and protected the genuine college and, importantly, the genuine student.

The Minister is right to hit the phoney colleges, but we need a rigorous regime that does not hit established colleges and schools as well. As he is wandering around the country over the next five weeks, will he pop up to Ribble Valley with me and come to Stonyhurst college to speak to the headmaster? It is clearly not a phoney establishment, and the headmaster believes that the current visa regime is hitting established businesses.

I will not be wandering around anywhere; I will be purposeful and focused in my travels—wherever the Secretary of State sends me. The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about genuine colleges, and I have been very careful not to say that the private sector is bad and the public sector is necessarily good. There is good and bad on both sides of the divide. We have had support from the sector, because its reputation will benefit. I have established a unit in the points-based system tier 4 to deal with such cases, and it is best to do so quickly. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman wants to invite me up to his beautiful constituency, I would be more than happy to go again.

Special Constables

19. If he will bring forward proposals to increase the number of special constables recruited from businesses. (322959)

In August 2008, a three-year funding programme was announced for the National Policing Improvement Agency to increase the number of special constables in England and Wales through the establishment of nine regional co-ordinator posts. As part of that we have an employer-supported policing programme, which was launched in October 2009, which will ensure further development.

May I urge the Minister to continue the programme for the foreseeable future? I often think that the role of the special constabulary is underplayed. It plays a vital role in the policing of our communities, and the business community getting involved and releasing staff for training provides a vital pool of additional special constables. I encourage the Government to extend that programme.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. We are aiming to get about 20,000 special constables in place in the near future and we are raising our game to ensure that we recruit more. We need the support of the business community to do so. I visited specials in Flint, in my constituency, only three or four weeks ago and saw the wide range of activities and specialist work that they undertake on a voluntary basis in support of the full-time service.

Has the Minister engaged with the devolved Administration in Edinburgh at any point about the successes or otherwise that they have had in recruiting specials?

To be honest, I have not spoken directly to the Minister in Edinburgh, but my hon. Friend makes a good suggestion. We need to co-ordinate, particularly in constituencies such as his, where there are cross-border issues, and the Cumbrian force could equally support those in the south of Scotland.

Front-line Policing

20. What assessment his Department has made of the relationship between the number of police officers in police forces and their effectiveness in carrying out front-line policing. (322960)

The Government’s investment in the police is at record levels. There are record numbers of police officers and police community support officers on the streets. Crime is down by 36 per cent. and confidence in police is increasing. Fifty per cent. of the public agree that antisocial behaviour and crimes that matter to them are being dealt with effectively. I think that that demonstrates the relationship between the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

There are wide discrepancies in efficiency or effectiveness between one force and another. For example, the detection rate for violent crime in the Met is just 37 per cent., compared with more than half in other urban forces. What is the Home Secretary doing specifically to improve lagging forces so that they meet the standards of the best?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman knows that we have encouraged inspections of police forces and police authorities to ensure that we examine discrepancies and value-for-money issues when they arise. There has been a recent police report card from Denis O’Connor, Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary, and there has been the same—and will be again—for police authorities. We want to encourage openness about performance so that we can improve it and understand where forces are failing.

Sentencing (Publicity)

22. If he will provide support to Northamptonshire police’s project to publicise sentencing outcomes from Crown courts and magistrates courts. (322962)

The Government recognise the importance of providing communities with information about those brought to justice. Through the policing pledge, forces have committed to publicising local outcomes regularly. Her Majesty’s Courts Service continues to support that work, including developing a website, which will enable magistrates court outcomes to be accessible to the public online.

If we are to improve the public’s confidence in our criminal justice system, do we not need much less sympathising with and understanding of why criminals commit crime, and much more naming and shaming?

The hon. Gentleman knows that, while not naming and shaming as such, we support visibility of outcomes in the criminal justice system. That is why the Ministry of Justice introduced orange jackets for community offenders 18 months ago, why we are trying to get individuals involved in picking projects for community work, and why we are trying to ensure that the community knows what happens to people—the outcomes of criminality. Those matters are important, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports them.

Topical Questions

In October, I asked every community safety partnership in England and Wales to commit publicly to minimum standards for dealing with antisocial behaviour. I am pleased to report that 99.7 per cent. of local authority areas have confirmed that such standards are either in place or will be in place by the end of March, making clear to the public the response that they are entitled to expect when they report antisocial behaviour.

Does the Home Secretary agree that it is important for local councils to co-operate with the police to fight yobs and antisocial behaviour, particularly in providing fencing and gating, lighting and CCTV in areas where antisocial behaviour is prevalent, such as Richmond car park in Benfleet or King George V’s playing fields on Canvey Island?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Although the police have a responsibility for antisocial behaviour, they share it with other agencies. Indeed, in all the areas where antisocial behaviour has been tackled effectively, the police work in partnership with local authorities, social services and often with local communities that have decided to fight back against those who are plaguing their lives. I therefore agree that such co-operation is an important part of tackling antisocial behaviour—we went through the local crime and disorder reduction partnerships to get that sort of response.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Mr. Ryan Hilton, an events manager with the pub crawl firm, Carnage UK, was convicted in court in Llandudno last week of assaulting my constituent, Mr. Mark Aelwyn Roberts, causing him actual bodily harm? He will be sentenced at Crown court. Will my right hon. Friend please note that North Wales police had objected to that event in Bangor? Does he agree that that vicious assault sends a message to all licensing authorities that Carnage UK is a disreputable organisation, which causes havoc in our university towns?

I was not aware of the individual circumstances that my hon. Friend just outlined. I agree that those disreputable organisations need to be tackled. Indeed, in most places throughout the country, there is a realistic and meaningful partnership between local police and licensees to ensure that licensees do not have their reputations undermined by organisations such as the one that she mentioned.

T2. Pursuant to my recent written question on the number of ID card applications made by residents of Crewe and Nantwich in Cheshire, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who I can see is bursting to answer this question, replied:“The Identity and Passport Service is not able to provide information relating to particular constituency or county for identity card applications.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 123W.]Why cannot a scheme that is designed to assist in identifying individuals provide even basic information such as the uptake in my constituency? (322964)

I forgive the hon. Gentleman for not appreciating that an Act of Parliament passed by this House in 2005—before he was elected—states that it is illegal to interrogate the database to gather such information.

While crime in the west midlands has dropped—in some cases quite spectacularly, particularly burglary—there is still a problem with business crime. On Friday, I visited a business improvement district that had reported a substantial drop in crime as a result of the measures it had taken. What steps is the Minister taking to assess the impact of BIDs and what measures might he contemplate to roll out that prototype in other areas?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who identifies an issue that we need to examine in detail. The Government are firmly committed to working with business and trade associations to find effective solutions. Part of that includes the national retail crime steering group, on which the Home Office and the British Retail Consortium are working together to look at how we deal with crime, particular for those in business communities in town centres. I will certainly look at any particular suggestions that my hon. Friend has, but that is an area on which we need to continue to focus.

T3. Research from the university of Groningen demonstrates that the presence of graffiti encourages other crime. An appropriate penalty is to make someone clear up the graffiti that they have created. Why do the Government still oppose fixed penalty notices for community service for graffiti? (322965)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism said earlier, we are looking at the whole question of fixed notice penalties with the Ministry of Justice, and a report will come soon. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of deterring graffiti. Indeed, up and down the country, community payback is ensuring that those who have engaged in such activity are very visibly and publicly—wearing orange jackets—clearing up the mess that they have made.

I heard what the Minister for Borders and Immigration said earlier about the new visa arrangements for English language schools, but may I just point out that last Thursday I met a young man from Taiwan who was studying English in this country preparatory to going to Sheffield Hallam university and who will need four or possibly even five visas to achieve that? Indeed, under the new arrangements he may even have to go back Taiwan to make one of those applications. Will my hon. Friend at least consider all the material that I have sent to him and to the Secretary of State and reconsider the position?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he is doing—the language schools sector and overseas students are very important parts of his constituency and its economy. The answer to his question is that we very much want to protect that. On the other hand, I am sure that the House agrees that we need to prevent visa abuse. What we have tried to do is provide that seamless route for the genuine student at the genuine college.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker, for not being present earlier. With regard to the specific issue of the use of dogs in crime, will the Minister reassure us that any future bright ideas that the Home Office has will focus on individual owner responsibility and deed not breed, so that responsible dog owners are not punished for the sins of the minority?

I am tempted to say that I refer the hon. Gentleman to my previous answers, which he can read in Hansard. However, as I said earlier and now repeat, we want to look mostly at the deed not the breed, but we recognise that some breeds are inherently violent and we need to take that into account as well. However, responsible ownership is the main line.

Since the beginning of the recession, the number of bogus charity clothes collectors has risen very sharply across the country, taking away much needed revenue from bona fide charity shops, such as Cancer Research UK shops in Barnsley and Doncaster. Unfortunately, many chief constables throughout the country are giving that type of crime a very low level of priority. Will the Secretary of State write to all chief constables in England to ensure that they treat such crimes with a great deal more seriousness in future?

I will talk to chief constables about that. I go on the basis that if my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) says that there is a problem, there is a problem. I am only sorry that he will not be here to raise these important points at Home Office questions after the next general election, and I wish him well.

T4. My constituents, Mr. and Ms Adedoyin, have received a phone call from someone claiming to be a Home Office caseworker wanting cash in return for their documents, which we had previously been told had been lost by the UK Border Agency. The response from the Home Office to my inquiries to date has been very disappointing. Will Ministers look into this issue as a matter of urgency and meet me to discuss the situation? (322966)

Of course we will. The UK Border Agency is, from time to time, subject to mischievousness, but the response must be professional. Of course I will look into this and then meet the hon. Gentleman if that proves necessary after my investigation.

A few years ago, the UK Border Agency shunted a load of old asylum and refugee cases into a pile called legacy cases, which are due to be dealt with by next year. Is the Minister aware that there is a new pile building up of cases that have been overlooked? We will have the same problem all over again with a second pile of legacy cases.

I do not agree with that analysis of the situation. The UK Border Agency will, as my hon. Friend says, deal with the legacy cases by the summer of next year, but as we have explained to the Select Committee we are also in the process of archiving cases that go back—I do not wish to make a partisan point—to 1981. The time to conclusion on asylum is now under six months for 60 per cent. of cases. In 1997—to make a partisan point—the average time to a decision, not a conclusion, was 22 months. The Government and the agency should get some credit for dealing with the legacy problem.

T5. If we are to have a real increase in the visibility of police on the streets of Britain and in the clear-up rate for offences, and a real reduction in police response times and the time that they spend behind closed doors, is not the suggestion this morning by Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, that we should have a full review of policing one that should have the immediate agreement of the Government? (322967)

Sir Hugh Orde was calling for a royal commission. I do not agree with that suggestion, although I am keen to talk to Sir Hugh Orde about this. He is a man of great experience and I respect his views considerably. However, it is not the case that because the last royal commission was in 1962 there has to be another one at intermittent periods. We used to have royal commissions that went on for a long time during which everything was preserved in aspic because nobody knew what would happen next. We should consistently review our methods of policing to ensure that they keep pace with advances in technology and changes around the world, for instance in counter-terrorism, and we are doing that. Ronnie Flanagan’s report, the Green Paper and the White Paper, and many other changes over the last few years have revolutionised the way in which the police do their work. We need to continue to change to meet the challenges of our times.

Several times in the past few weeks, including today, I have heard the claim that mephedrone is killing young people. The cases that I have looked at suggest that the young people concerned were taking more than one drug, including alcohol. Should we not be getting across to young people the fact that if they choose to take a cocktail of drugs, they are putting their lives at risk? Mixing cocaine and alcohol, for example, produces the very toxic cocaethylene.

My hon. Friend, with his usual scientific analysis, is making the case for why we have to wait for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to report on wide-ranging and close analysis of the problem before saying whether mephedrone is a dangerous drug. We might all have views on that, but they should be driven by the scientific evidence. Once that report is made to me—I hope that that will happen as soon as possible after 29 March, when the council’s next meeting is scheduled—then we can make an informed decision.

T6. To return to the issue of dangerous dogs, the Minister will know that the London Mayor, his deputy Kit Malthouse and various local authorities, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, are working extremely hard on the problem. As a follow-up to my earlier question about the incident in Normand park last Thursday, the resident concerned was clear in praising his local councillor, Councillor Sarah Gore, along with Greg Smith and his team. Will the Minister agree to meet Councillor Greg Smith and Kit Malthouse to see how local authorities can do something serious about the problem, rather than using the Government’s failed insurance scheme? (322968)

We are always keen to work with anyone, and I will certainly pass on the request for an invitation to the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), who deals with the issue on a day-to-day basis.

Why did it take over two years to set up the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, and, bearing in mind that it is a mass meeting of 22 members who were appointed in February, what opportunity does it have to report back during this Parliament? What is its current programme and what are the Minister’s expectations?

My answer is that I am rushing off after this Question Time to appear before that very body; it is the first time that it has called Ministers to appear before it. My hon. Friend raises an important point about the role of the Committee. The only thing that I am absolutely convinced about is the need for such a Committee. However, as it is new, and as it deals with such wide-ranging issues, to a great degree it has a major say in how it shapes the way its work will pan out in future.

T7. Does not the recent concern about legal highs demonstrate the contrast between the speed at which new dangerous drugs can come on to the market and kill people, and the slow process of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the Government in taking real action to tackle the issue? Is it not the case that serious questions are now being asked about whether the ACMD and the classification system are fit for purpose? (322969)

The hon. Gentleman is being unfair to the ACMD. For a start, it has led the world on legal highs such as Spice and GBL, and it was there before anyone else. Secondly, the ACMD could have been a lot quicker in bringing its report forward if—

One of the newspapers said that Professor Nutt’s sacking had delayed the report by six months, but as I sacked him only five months ago, that seems a bit difficult. To return to the important point, however, the report could have been done more quickly had the ACMD looked just at mephedrone. However, it decided—this had the support of the House when we discussed the matter—to look at that generic group of drugs, so that when it makes a decision, and if that decision is carried into law, we do not allow the manufacturers of such drugs to make small chemical changes and continue to make them available. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) is doing a disservice to the ACMD, whose vision has enabled us to deal with that whole family of drugs, rather than just one.

Order. I am sorry not to be able to accommodate the remaining colleagues, but time is against us, although, as I am kindly exhorted from a sedentary position, I will not worry.