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Topical Questions

Volume 524: debated on Monday 7 March 2011

The Home Office is committed to protecting the public and to freeing up the police to fight crime more effectively and efficiently. The House will shortly consider the remaining stages of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, which is aimed at empowering the public to hold the police to account for their role in cutting crime, before it moves to consideration in another place. Tomorrow, Tom Winsor will publish the first part of his independent review of police pay and conditions, which will help to ensure that police forces can protect jobs and keep officers on the streets.

Will the Secretary of State join me in praising Greater Manchester police, Rochdale council staff and community mediators who managed an English Defence League demonstration in Rochdale this weekend extremely effectively? It was clearly shown that Rochdale residents stayed away from the protest and that our town has no appetite for the EDL.

I am very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of the Greater Manchester police and the professionalism that they showed in dealing with the EDL march that took place in Rochdale at the weekend. It is in keeping with responses from police forces up and down the country to such marches. I understand that the policing operation was a success and that the demonstration took place with minimum disruption. I also join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of not only the local authority but the Rochdale community and the approach it took to ensure that the protest was largely peaceful and that there was co-operation, tolerance and restraint from community leaders.

T2. With many councils claiming cuts in their Supporting People grants, what action will the Government take to monitor the provision of vital services, and what leadership will they give in providing services nationally? (44066)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Central Government have sent a clear message about the importance and vulnerability of the sector. To send that message and set an example, we have ring-fenced £28 million of funding for violence against women services. We hope and expect that councils will follow suit.

Last week, the Home Secretary confirmed to the House that under her new arrangements, someone who is barred from working with children could still get a job as a voluntary teaching assistant without the school or the parents knowing that they were barred. Now that she has had a few days to think about it and about how concerned parents will be, has she changed her mind?

I think what matters for parents is the decisions that are made about individuals who play any part in dealing with their children, in a school or any other setting. As I made clear to the right hon. Lady last week, information that informs the decisions on barring will be available as part of the check that I would expect employers to make in such circumstances. We have a simple view: employers must take some responsibility for ensuring that they make the appropriate checks and judgments about who should be involved in dealing with children.

The right hon. Lady said last week that employers would get “exactly the same information” as the barring authorities. However, Home Office officials have told some people in the charities something rather different. Will she therefore confirm whether employers will be given “exactly the same information” as the barring authorities? If so, why not give them the barring authorities’ expert recommendation about whether someone should be barred? Parents want to know that the teaching assistant in their child’s classroom has not been previously barred by the experts from working with children. Safeguarding children is too important to have such loopholes. I urge her to listen to the experts and think again.

Of course safeguarding children is important—we all have that as top priority. Of course, the regime that is in place will in future cover those who deal with vulnerable adults as well as children. That is important. The information that informs a decision on barring will be available as part of the check so that a decision can be made. However, as the right hon. Lady has raised a query about that, I am happy to write to her with the detail on it so that she will have that to inform her questions in future.

T3. On a similar theme, law-abiding volunteers and employees in Bedford and Kempston are quite fed up with having to get a new Criminal Records Bureau check each time they change jobs. Can the Home Secretary tell me how those checks will change to avoid that ridiculous duplication that so debilitates so many volunteers and employees? (44067)

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Many people write to me about the problem of having a new CRB check on each occasion. The new system will make the check portable. An employer will be able to go online to see whether an individual, who will have a unique number, ever had any information on them and whether anything has changed since they first had a check. That will make the whole system simple and quick, which will encourage volunteering, which is part of the purpose.

T4. Given media reports that police patrols are being scaled back because of the price of fuel and that Gwent police spend £4 million on their car fleet, including fuel, what action are the Government taking to help our local police officers to keep their patrols on the road? (44068)

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman’s question is about fuel prices, which are not a matter for me, or taxation, or patrols. I repeat, however, that we are committed to working with police forces to maintain, and indeed to improve, the visibility and availability of police officers on patrol by making savings elsewhere in police forces.

T8. At this difficult economic time, what steps is the Minister taking to make it as straightforward as possible for British businesses to take on highly skilled foreign workers, albeit under the auspices of the immigration cap? (44072)

As my hon. Friend knows, we are introducing a new system for tier 1 and tier 2 for work-based visas, and at the same time we are speeding up the visa both for businesses and for more general visitors. The biggest single complaint has been about the delays in the issuing of visas. I am happy to assure him that we are concerned about that. We are already beginning to see improvements, so that in many of the key markets where we need to operate our visa system is working better than ever before, and we are meeting our service standards.

T5. When responding to an earlier question on the trafficking strategy, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), said that it would include elements of prevention, action on the border and policing. Does she recognise that a very important element of any anti-trafficking strategy is victim care, and that victim care is usually provided by voluntary organisations? The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), the chair of the all-party group on human trafficking, spoke of a big society solution. Can we have a big society participation in the anti-trafficking strategy? (44069)

I think we would encourage the big society to get involved at all levels, but as the hon. Lady says, victim care is extremely important. We are providing accommodation and advocacy and all the things that are necessary to help the unfortunate victims of trafficking out of their terrible situation.

The previous Government’s figures demonstrate that only one hour in seven was spent on patrol by the average patrol officer. Given the Government’s anti-bureaucracy reforms, will the Home Secretary advise us on her view of the number of hours the average patrol officer will spend on the beat?

We are absolutely clear, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice said in response to a previous question, that we want the visibility and availability of police officers to increase and improve. The latest figures from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary show that 11% of officers are visible and available at any one time—[Interruption.] Before we get chuntering from Opposition Members, that is not to say that other police officers are wasting their time—of course they are not—but visibility and availability need to improve.

T6. Hundreds of my constituents have signed a petition supporting the reopening to the public of Sowerby Bridge police station. Will the Minister urgently consider the matter, because it is at the very heart of the community and would play a huge role in preventing and tackling crime in the area? (44070)

We do not directly control whether police stations are open—that is a matter for the chief constable and the police authority—but there are other ways in which the police can improve their visibility to the public. For instance, they can set up bases in supermarkets. It is not just about buildings; they can also share facilities with other organisations. However, these are matters for chief constables to decide as they find effective ways to be visible in their communities.

In the past six weeks, the Minister for Immigration has answered about 50 statistical questions from Members, including me. I say “answered”, but in two thirds of these cases, it was not possible for him to provide sound information, either because the data were not recorded or because they were not quality assured and may not have withstood typical audit scrutiny. What assessment has he made of the quality of management information in the UK Border Agency?

I am not sure that my hon. Friend is exactly right. Where an answer makes it clear that the information is management information, it simply means that the data are not Office for National Statistics-quality statistics. However, those answers will include statistical information, even though it might be slightly rough and ready, precisely because I am determined, when we have the information available, to make it available to hon. Members as part of the Government’s commitment to transparency.

T7. Northumbria police force is losing more than 1,000 jobs, including 300 front-line police. As a result, young recruits promised a job last year have now been told that those jobs are no longer available. What guarantee, therefore, can the Secretary of State offer to the people of the north-east that crime will not rise as a result of the cuts? Furthermore, how can she reassure those who have worked so hard to win a job that they will be prioritised— (44071)

I refer the hon. Lady to the response given by the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice to an earlier question on this matter. The Government have made it absolutely clear that there is no simple link between levels of crime and the number of police officers. Indeed, that view has been supported by a report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

Will the Minister responsible for antisocial behaviour assure me—in relation to the review he will be conducting—that when antisocial behaviour is aggravated by the victim’s disability, it will be taken into account when considering the severity of the disposal?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting this issue, which is at the heart of the call handling pilots launched at the start of the year to identify vulnerability, and to ensure that there is better join-up between the police, local authorities and the health service in order to ensure that where there are specific issues, they are identified more speedily and more effectively. Bullying and intimidation linked to disabilities are utterly reprehensible and unacceptable, and the system needs to improve to identify where these problems are occurring.

T9. Will the Minister inform the House of when his Department intends to review the current definition of an air weapon under the Firearms Act 1968? (44073)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Home Affairs Committee has produced its report on firearms generally. We are still considering the issue and will respond to the report in due course.

Residents of Hastings and Rye warmly welcome the additional information from the crime and policing website, but is the Home Secretary aware of the additional service it provides to women who may be coming home late at night and might feel vulnerable? That is particularly important ahead of international women’s day tomorrow.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. I am pleased to tell her that I was able to join the Prime Minister in meeting a group of readers from Company magazine recently who were raising exactly the problems of women walking home at night. I was able to point them to the crime maps as a useful tool.

T10. Will the Minister confirm that the police officers working in Northumbria force’s public protection units dealing with serious crime such as child abuse and domestic crime are classified as front-line police officers? (44074)

This morning I attended the opening of the Kingswood one-stop shop, which includes a fixed police presence. It is the first time that the police have had a base in Kingswood since the previous Government closed the local police station. Will the Minister commend South Gloucestershire council and Avon and Somerset police for their collaborative working to ensure that front-line services are protected, and further consider how police authorities and local councils can work together to ensure that services are shared for public benefit?

I thank my hon. Friend. That provides a very good example of innovative ways of working that can increase the visibility of policing, and the co-operation between the police force and other agencies provides a perfect example of the way we need to go.

When asked to justify the cuts to policing in Greater Manchester, the Minister for Policing, and Criminal Justice said that cuts could be made to the back office. May I tell him that at least 1,600 police staff are being made redundant in Greater Manchester on top of the 1,377 uniformed officers? I ask him again how he can justify that.

We are looking to police forces first and foremost to take cuts in the back office, but that is not just about individuals; it is about improving procurement and collaborating with other forces to make savings. Significant sums of money—hundreds of millions of pounds—can be saved by better procurement, better IT services and collaboration between forces.

It is clear from my own experience of Leeds Rhinos and its legal firm Chadwick Lawrence that the current immigration system for foreign international sports people is inherently biased against rugby league players. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the Rugby Football League to look at the criteria, so that this problem—

I would, of course, be happy to be enlightened about the immigration system as it affects rugby league.