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Topical Questions

Volume 522: debated on Monday 24 January 2011

At the end of last year, Parliament passed the Identity Documents Act 2010, which the Home Office introduced to scrap the previous Government’s regime of intrusive, ineffective and expensive ID cards. In 2011, we will take further steps towards restoring the rights of individuals, eliminating wasteful bureaucracy and making the police service more accountable to local people.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the steps she is taking to sort out the chaotic immigration system that she inherited. Issues of concern include students who come to this country on a temporary basis, but fail to leave; and people who come as visitors, who overstay their welcome and then attempt to transfer to permanent status. What moves is she making to break that link?

We are making a number of moves. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration said in response to an earlier question, we are looking at the student visa route and ensuring that we can stop abuses pertaining to it. We are also looking at stopping people here on a temporary basis moving on to a permanent settlement basis. Last year, 62,000 people who came here to fill temporary skills gaps then moved into permanent settlement. That is not right.

I shall ask the Home Secretary about the counter-terrorism review. On Thursday, the Minister for Immigration had to be dragged to the House to tell us Government policy on pre-trial detention. He told us that emergency legislation would be kept on hand in the Library of the House. The old powers lapse at midnight, yet as of half an hour ago, there was still no draft emergency legislation in the Library. On Sunday, the Deputy Prime Minister told the media that control orders were being abolished and at lunch time today, the BBC—not this House—was briefed that the new measures would include tagging and overnight residence requirements and would look a lot like control orders. This is a chaotic, shambolic and cavalier process. Where is the draft legislation? Will the Home Secretary now tell us what is happening with the legislation and with control orders, and will she take the opportunity to apologise for this shambolic process on such an important issue?

First, may I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new post as shadow Home Secretary? I am sure that she will enjoy the post. She is the third shadow Home Secretary I have faced in my nine months as Home Secretary. For her sake, I hope that she stays longer in the role than her predecessors have.

The right hon. Lady makes a point about process and refers to the 28-day pre-charge detention issue. May I say to her that the previous shadow Home Secretary clearly supported the Government on taking pre-charge detention down from 28 days to 14 days? Earlier today, the shadow Home Secretary was unfortunately unable to answer the question whether she supported 14 days’ pre-charge detention. If she is interested in chaos, she should look at sorting out her own policy.

T3. Will my hon. Friend the Minister meet me and Detective Inspector Snell to learn how Devon and Cornwall constabulary have been able to tackle the growing incidence of child sexual exploitation, so that the Government can develop a holistic plan of action to tackle a most serious situation involving thousands of children in every part of the country? (35116)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the point and for highlighting the work of Devon and Cornwall police on Operation Lakeland, which led to the conviction of six men jailed for sexually abusing girls in Cornwall. I would be happy to meet her and the detective inspector to learn from their experiences. She will be aware of the thematic review that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is undertaking in relation to this area of policy. I am also discussing with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), some of the significant matters highlighted by the recent report by Barnardo’s.

T2. Contrary to the assertion of the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, the chief constable of Greater Manchester, Peter Fahy, has said that £134 million of cuts will have a significant effect on front-line policing. He has gone on to say that police stations across Greater Manchester will now have to close. Does the Minister think that police stations are front-line? Will he tell us which police stations in Greater Manchester will close and when? (35115)

The closure of police stations is an operational matter for the police, but the right hon. Lady should know perfectly well that under the previous Labour Government some 400 police stations closed. What responsibility does she accept for that?

T4. In my constituency, there is a healthy appetite for more policemen actually on the beat. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the fact that the chief constable of Gloucestershire has reorganised his force and has increased the number of policemen on the beat, from 563 to 661? (35117)

I welcome the action taken in Gloucestershire. The chair of its police authority has said that

“we are making sure that what we do is increase our capacity to police and not increase our costs.”

That shows that it can be done. Other forces are either protecting neighbourhood policing or even increasing it. I note that the chair of Gloucestershire police authority is also the chairman of the Association of Police Authorities.

T6. Year after year, my constituents tell me that their greatest concern is fear of crime. That is why they have fought hard to get 10 safer neighbourhood teams. Because of the cuts, the local police force is now consulting not on merging back offices or services, but on cutting those 10 safer neighbourhood teams down to two or three. Does the Minister believe that those cuts will help my constituents fear crime less, or make them less likely to be victims of crime? (35119)

I have had several discussions with the Mayor, the deputy Mayor for policing and the acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner, all of whom are absolutely committed to protecting neighbourhood policing. We are all convinced that it is possible to drive considerable savings in policing, including the Met, in the back and middle office, so that the visible and available policing that the public value can be protected.

T5. I congratulate the UK Border Agency on its work. At the weekend, it caught five illegal immigrants on the French border who had been making their way to my constituency in a lorry. I welcome the increased border policing on the other side of the channel, but what further steps will the Department take to ensure that stronger measures are introduced to deter those who try to smuggle people into the United Kingdom? (35118)

I am delighted to hear that the effective controls that we are reinforcing at the border are having a beneficial effect in my hon. Friend’s constituency. She asked about further measures. I am happy to tell her that only a couple of months ago, at the Anglo-French summit, I signed a new treaty with my French counterpart which commits both countries to increasing the strength of our existing controls in Calais and extending them to other parts of the French coast. That means that we will be equally tough on any activity that is displaced from Calais to other parts of France. We are ensuring that our borders are much better controlled than they were in the past.

T8. Is the Government’s position that the number of police officers and community support officers in this country has no impact on crime levels? (35121)

Both the Policing Minister and I have responded to that point on a number of occasions. We have made it absolutely clear that there is no simple link between the number of officers and the level of crime. There are instances throughout the world in which police forces have increased their numbers and crime has risen, and other instances in which police numbers have fallen and crime has fallen.

T7. Last year, nearly half of all violent crime in Devon was alcohol-related. That represents 4,568 instances of completely avoidable violence. I welcome the introduction of a ban on below-cost sales of alcohol as a first step, but does the Minister share my fear that, because it involves only VAT plus duty, it will not go far enough in tackling this serious problem? What other measures will be introduced to tackle alcohol-related crime? (35120)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the link between alcohol and levels of crime. In fact, 50% of violent incidents are associated with alcohol. Our proposal to ban below-cost sales on the basis of duty plus VAT constitutes an initial package. We will introduce further measures to deal with licensing and other issues involving problem pubs and other alcohol outlets, and also with problem practices. That is precisely what the duty plus VAT element is about.

We will continue to monitor this complex area of policy. In particular, we will consider the rate of duty in the context of super-strength lagers, which have been associated with problematic behaviour.

T10. Why are the Government—unlike the Governments of other European countries which are increasing the support for the victims of trafficking—proposing to reduce the period during which a victim of trafficking will not face deportation from 45 days to 30 days? (35123)

The hon. Lady knows that the United Kingdom is committed to working with others, including our European partners, to tackle human trafficking. She was present for the debate in which I said that later in the year we would announce a new strategy on trafficking as a whole. That strategy will enable us not only to build on the work of the last Government in relation to caring for the victims of trafficking—which I commend—but to become much more efficient at prevention, in particular by acting overseas, so that fewer and fewer people are trafficked in the first place. That is the most effective action that we can take to reduce the incidence of this dreadful crime.

T9. How concerned is the Minister about the increase in family violence towards young women who adopt values that are contrary to the beliefs of their families? (35122)

Obviously the Government are very concerned. Any form of violence is unacceptable, and tackling violence against women and girls is a key priority for us. Work to tackle all forms of honour-based violence is included in the strategic narrative that we launched on 25 November, and further information about our approach to the issue will be provided in the supporting action plan that we will publish in the spring.

Further to the Minister’s answer on safer neighbourhood team policing, will he give a commitment that by this time next year there will continue to be a dedicated ward sergeant for every safer neighbourhood ward team, as now?

The hon. Lady should know that we cannot give commitments like that. The previous Government would not give commitments on police officer numbers. These are operational matters for the police. I point out to her that we have protected the neighbourhood policing fund, including by ring-fencing it for the next two years, because we value neighbourhood policing.

Alcohol disorder zones did not work and they also penalised well-run community pubs that did nothing to contribute to alcohol-fuelled disorder. I am pleased that the Government are listening on this, but can the Minister reassure the House that the new late-night levy will make allowances for late-night community pubs, be that for one-off or once-a-year events, such as new year, or for staying open a little later at the weekends, as my excellent local, the Manor House in Otley, does? Will he assure us that they will not be penalised by a blanket charge?

The hon. Gentleman has rightly highlighted those responsible premises that act appropriately and reflect their communities. Our proposals in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill on the late-night levy are intended to be an additional tool for local communities to decide what is appropriate for their area. We are learning from the cataclysmic failure of the previous Government’s alcohol disorder zones. They were simply incapable of being implemented, and it was therefore not surprising that nobody took them up.

Is the Home Secretary aware that in last Thursday’s exchanges on counter-terrorism there was criticism from those on her side, as well as those on our side, about the leaks to the media? Is it not important that the House of Commons should learn first of these things? That certainly has not happened in this case. Why on earth can we not have a statement today, instead of waiting until Wednesday or some other time?

We made absolutely clear to the House the procedure that we were going to follow on announcing the results of the counter-terrorism legislation review. On 13 January, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House explained that a statement would be made this week, and last Thursday, in my absence abroad, the Minister for Immigration said that a statement will be made on Wednesday. Not only will that statement set out clearly the results of the review, but it will be accompanied by the publication of the review and the report of the independent reviewer, Lord Macdonald.

At my Friday surgery, I had the real privilege of meeting a constituent who volunteers at the local rape crisis centre. I say that not least because she, herself, has been a victim of the horrific crime of rape and has, none the less, given up her time to train and support others. Would my right hon. Friend like to thank volunteers who really do conduct themselves in this impressive way and give back to our communities on this difficult subject?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I think that Members on both sides of the House would acknowledge that volunteers do an incredible amount of work. That is particularly noticeable in the violence against women sector, where so many organisations work closely in small groups, particularly with minority communities. I thank her constituent for the work that she does.

Nottinghamshire is set to lose more than 300 police officers over the coming four years. What guarantee can the Minister give my constituents that crime in our city will continue to fall?

We have answered a similar question on a number of occasions, both today and previously. First, there is no simple link between the number of officers and the level of crime. Secondly, the decisions that the hon. Lady’s local force is taking about the deployment of particular police officers and about the number of officers and staff it has are operational matters for the police to address, within the resources available to them. We know that it is possible for significant savings to be made from the back and middle office without affecting front-line policing.

Order. I could happily listen to my colleagues’ questions and answers all afternoon, but I am afraid that we must move on.