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Topical Questions

Volume 508: debated on Monday 22 March 2010

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.