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Home Department

Volume 527: debated on Monday 9 May 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Violence Against Women and Girls

1. What progress has been made on the Government’s action plan for ending violence against women and girls; and if she will make a statement. (54317)

4. What progress has been made on the Government’s action plan for ending violence against women and girls; and if she will make a statement. (54320)

The action plan on tackling violence against women and girls was published on 8 March this year, and we have already delivered in several areas. We have provided more than £28 million of stable Home Office funding until 2015 for local specialist services, £900,000 of which has been made available until 2015 to support national helplines, and we have implemented legislation on multi-agency domestic homicide reviews after every domestic murder.

In the light of our terrible economic position, will my hon. Friend reassure me that the vital work being done by women’s refuges in Northampton will not be cut?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of women’s refuges. The Home Office has sent out a loud and clear message to local authorities by ring-fencing stable funding of £28 million and by saying to them, “You should do the same. These are not soft targets.” It would be a great shame if Northampton council chose to ignore that message.

Further to the Minister’s reply, will she respond specifically on female genital mutilation, which is a significant problem in this country as well as in the developing world? The Metropolitan police are taking it very seriously, but hundreds of women in London alone present every year with appalling complications associated with pregnancy and childbirth. Can we make this matter a priority, and work with all the agencies and charities to eliminate this abominable practice?

Hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree with my hon. Friend—female genital mutilation is a brutal act of child abuse. On 24 February, I launched new multi-agency practice guidelines to raise awareness of FGM. One important symptom that I imagine hon. Members and others do not know of is that girls can be absent when they go to the toilet for a long time—say, 30 minutes. It is important that teachers and nurses understand that, and that we all highlight such symptoms.

Specialist police domestic violence units have saved lives and improved the way in which police forces handle domestic violence across their force areas. What pressure is the Minister bringing to bear across Government so that chief constables are encouraged to protect those vital front-line services?

The message we continually send to forces throughout the country is the importance of supporting the sector and taking action on domestic violence, and I hope chief constables are listening today.

May I press the Minister on domestic violence? I chair Chrysalis, the Liverpool domestic violence charity, and Merseyside police force is one of a number that have cut their domestic violence units. Will the Home Office intervene to ensure funding so that forces such as Merseyside can have domestic violence units?

The Government’s message is loud and clear, but, as I said, it is up to the local chief constable on the ground. I hope chief constables are listening to that important message, which the hon. Gentleman is right to raise.

Is the Minister aware of a campaign with which I am involved to introduce changes to the Protection From Harassment Act 1997 in respect of cyber-stalking? Many young women and girls are terrified by what is happening to them day after day and the law needs changing. Will the Minister meet a small group to discuss where the law is failing and where we need to put it right?

The Government recognise people’s concerns about the legal definition of stalking—cyber-stalking or stalking in other contexts—and about how the 1997 Act is applied. I am happy to meet the group that the right hon. Gentleman mentions.

Police Accountability

The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill will establish directly elected police and crime commissioners in every police area in England and Wales. They will hold police forces to account on behalf of the public and so strengthen the vital link between the public and the police.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Given recent moves to ensure that actions are available to constituents when MPs commit wrongdoings, is such an option being considered in respect of elected police commissioners?

I assure my hon. Friend that any police and crime commissioner who is convicted of an imprisonable offence, regardless of whether they are sentenced to a term of imprisonment, will be disqualified from their post. I think that that answers his question.

Does the Home Secretary plan to listen to the Deputy Prime Minister and delay the introduction of police and crime commissioners?

Starting on Wednesday, when the House of Lords Committee stage of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill begins, there will be proper and due consideration of every aspect of the Bill. However, it is our intention that police and crime commissioners will be introduced across England and Wales.

Accountability of police forces to the public is essential, but so are robust checks and balances to challenge the actions of any commissioner who exceeds their powers or seeks to interfere in operational policing matters. Will the Home Secretary consider seriously the request from the other place that the new accountability arrangements be piloted and the checks and balances strengthened?

As I said in response to the previous question, there will be proper and careful consideration of all these issues as the Bill goes through Committee and its further stages in the House of Lords. I am aware that issues have been raised about the police and crime panels and how they use properly the checks and balances in place to hold police and crime commissioners to account. It is our intention to introduce commissioners across England and Wales.

The Home Secretary will know that on the Bill’s Third Reading five weeks ago we called on the Government to stop and think about the plans for police and crime commissioners, given the deep concerns about the lack of checks and balances in this American-style reform, but she refused. She will have heard Liberal Democrat Front Benchers’ plea to listen. The Deputy Prime Minister has now said that he supports pilots first, his parliamentary aide said this morning that this is the key area, in addition to the NHS, on which Liberal Democrats want to see changes, and Liberal Democrat peers are proposing a two or three-year pause for proper pilots to take place. Will the Home Secretary tell the House whether she is indeed listening, and whether she will consider amending the Bill to introduce pilots first?

I have to tell the right hon. Lady, after that lengthy question, that I answered the point about our intention regarding pilots in response to the previous two questions. I gently remind her that this is not an idea of which we have no experience: the Labour Government made the Mayor of London responsible for overseeing the Metropolitan police and therefore acting as a pilot for police and crime commissioners.

So this, it seems, is the Home Secretary’s answer to the Liberal Democrats: they have done a pilot and it was the Mayor of London. In fact, as she will know, the Mayor of London works under a completely different arrangement, and I am not sure that the Liberal Democrats will see that as the Prime Minister’s so-called listening mode. These American-style plans concentrate considerable policing power in the hands of one person without putting in place the proper checks and balances. They are opposed by crime and policing experts and are deeply illiberal and not very British. The Deputy Prime Minister says he wants to hear a louder Liberal Democrat voice. It sounds like they are shouting, but she is not listening. The so-called new business relationship is just business as usual: the Conservatives take the decisions, the Liberal Democrats take the blame.

It was a coalition agreement commitment that we would introduce directly elected individuals to oversee police forces and to hold them to account, and that there would be proper checks and balances. Far from there not being proper checks and balances, as the right hon. Lady suggests, the police and crime panels will provide real checks and balances to the police and crime commissioner. Perhaps she needs to speak to the shadow policing Minister, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who a couple of years ago said that

“only direct election, based on geographic constituencies, will deliver the strong connection to the public which is critical”.

We agree with him.

Student Visas

3. What estimate she has made of the likely effect of her policy on student visas on the number of visas issued in the 12 months following its implementation. (54319)

The policy will be fully implemented by the end of 2012. From then on, the estimated reduction is about 70,000 main applicant visas a year, plus a further reduction in student dependants of about 20,000.

I thank the Minister for that response. Will he add to it by telling us what responses he has received from universities on the student visa changes?

This is an important point because when we proposed this radical change the universities were understandably worried. Following our announcement, however, we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the university sector. Indeed, Universities UK has said that the reforms

“will allow British universities to remain at the forefront of international student recruitment.”

I am delighted that the policy has been so welcomed by the sector.

In view of the importance of overseas students to the finances of British universities and to the wider UK economy, does the Minister agree with the Home Affairs Committee that students should not be counted within migration numbers?

The problem with the approach of the Home Affairs Committee, which, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, I always take very seriously, is that this is not my definition or the Government’s definition; it is an international United Nations definition that an immigrant is someone who moves to and settles in a country for more than a year. Any attempt to solve the immigration crisis that the Government inherited simply by changing the definitions would not be credible with the British public. People know that we have an immigration problem, and they want stern, robust action to be taken to solve it. That is what the Government are providing, and it is much more effective than changing definitions.

Is the Minister aware that, according to a number of stories, in addition to bogus colleges, there are colleges that engage in corrupt practices such as asking students for money in return for certificates? Will the Government take steps to crack down on those colleges as well, as they are often licensed by the Home Office?

Indeed we will. My hon. Friend makes a good point. This is about not just bogus colleges colluding with bogus students but bogus colleges conning would-be genuine students, both of which need to be stamped out. In the past 12 months we have revoked 21 tier 4-sponsored licences and suspended more than 70. We are also increasing our enforcement activities to drive out the widespread abuses we have found.

The Home Secretary and the immigration Minister have told us that the policy of reducing the number of student visas is an integral part of their overall policy to reduce net migration by tens of thousands by 2015, but the reality is that the policy is in tatters. The Home Secretary and the Minister say that that is the policy, but the Business Secretary and the Lib Dems say that it is not. The Prime Minister said recently:

“No ifs, no buts. That’s a promise we made to the British people.”

Will that promise be kept, given the agenda and proposals on visitors and relatives, and will he get the Lib Dems’ agreement?

I think there was a question in the middle of that. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that we will of course meet our commitment to reduce net immigration to the tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament. If he is going to talk about confusion, he should talk to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who said that immigration was coming down in the last years of the Labour Government, although the figures that we have published show that it was going up. The points-based system without a limit was not solving the immigration crisis that her Government created, and this Government are taking effective action across the board that will resolve the crisis that we inherited.

Community Policing

Reconnecting the police with the communities they serve is at the heart of our police reforms. Regular beat meetings and new local crime maps are already enabling communities to hold their local police to account. We will build on this through the introduction of police and crime commissioners, providing an even more visible and accountable link between the police and the public.

Sir Robert Peel, who founded the police force and represented Tamworth, said that the police needed to ensure that they had public support to perform their duties. That is as true today as it was in the 1830s. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Staffordshire police on doing just that? By cutting their back office and reorganising their organisation, they have been able to ensure that front-line services are not cut.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. Staffordshire police is a very good example of a force that has taken the decision to make savings while protecting neighbourhood policing. In so doing, it is ensuring the continuation of that visible presence that the public value.

Under the current system, only 7% of the public understand that they can approach a police authority if they are dissatisfied with the standard of service provided. Will my hon. Friend outline what he is doing to improve this democratic deficit in police governance and end Labour’s woeful legacy on police complaints?

I agree: we are strengthening the police complaints system, while also proposing to strengthen police accountability through a democratic reform. Police authorities are invisible to the public. That will change when directly elected police and crime commissioners are elected by the people who will be able to hold their force to account; at the same time, the operational independence of chief constables will be protected.

The Minister will be aware that Avon and Somerset police have had a difficult job recently in having to police disturbances in the city of Bristol. What help can the Department give that force as it tries to rebuild relationships with the community? More particularly, the cost of the policing operation over the bank holiday period was astronomical, so will any help be available for the force to cope with it?

We of course support the action the police took to uphold the rule of law. I particularly want to pay tribute to officers who were injured: violence against anybody is unacceptable, but it is totally unacceptable when it is used against police officers, and I am sure that the whole House will wish to support the police in their action. There are established procedures whereby forces can apply if they have incurred exceptional costs, and I am sure this force will know how to do so.

My borough has been privileged to have an outstanding team of safer neighbourhood sergeants, who provide consistent contact with local communities, yet we are told that it is those sergeants who are most likely to be cut as the number of London police is reduced. Will the Minister assure me that safer neighbourhood sergeants, who take the lead in local communities in bringing the police and the public together, will be protected?

The hon. Lady knows that these decisions are taken by the commissioner of the Met, the Metropolitan Police Authority and the Mayor, and the Mayor has said that he wishes to begin recruiting again to maintain officer numbers and to protect safer neighbourhood teams. The force proposes to share sergeants between some of the smaller boroughs; that is a matter for them as they seek to ensure value for money and to keep officers on the streets, where the public want to see them.

Antisocial Behaviour

Alongside our proposed reforms to police and partners’ powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, we plan to give communities the right to force agencies to take action where they have failed to do so. Elected police and crime commissioners, and street level crime maps, will also increase the focus on the issues that matter most to local people.

I thank the Minister for that response, but seek assurances on what the Government are doing to help ensure that persistent antisocial behaviour is dealt with by local authorities, the police and other agencies, and in particular on how the Government plan to support existing schemes such as Test Valley borough council’s CREW—community respect and environment week—initiative.

Clearly, antisocial behaviour is, at its core, a local issue, so it lends itself to local solutions. As 10,000 incidents are reported every day, I doubt whether any Member will not have a constituency case that touches on the subject. The powers on which we are consulting until 17 May are very much about local communities and equipping local agencies to deal with the problems they see, trusting their judgment to get on with the job.

Further to the Minister’s response, how will constituents in my York Outer constituency be able to use the proposed community triggers to force police authorities and local councils to tackle antisocial behaviour?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the proposal on which we are consulting, which aims to enable communities to ensure that the police and local councils come together to respond to complaints that perhaps are not being addressed effectively. This is a positive way to deliver action, responding to the problems of antisocial behaviour in communities. We think that this is an important reform and we propose to take it forward.

What additional programmes will be introduced to stop perpetrators of antisocial behaviour bringing misery to communities that just want safe streets and the rule of law and order?

My hon. Friend makes his point very well. We have been working closely with the housing Minister to ensure stronger powers to evict those who are most responsible for antisocial behaviour on housing estates. There must be proper deterrents to ensure that relief is given to hard-pressed communities that are suffering as a result of such behaviour.

The police in Great Yarmouth have done excellent work in preventing antisocial behaviour by early intervention with voluntary local groups such as the Kickz project. Does the Minister agree that such intervention can have a hugely beneficial impact, and will that be reflected in the new proposals?

I congratulate the communities in my hon. Friend’s constituency on the practical measures they are taking to prevent antisocial behaviour. When interventions, orders and sanctions are required, it is important that they can be obtained speedily. As that has not happened in the past, the need for the police and local authorities to be able to secure the orders they require quickly is at the core of our proposals.

Fiona Pilkington and her daughter committed suicide after suffering years of abuse from youths in Leicestershire. As the Minister will recall, the inquest jury noted that they had contacted the police 33 times, but that no link had been made between the complaints that had been made. The Government are rightly examining police performance. Will the Minister assure the House that this issue will remain a priority? The only way of preventing such tragedies is to ensure an immediate and serious police response.

I agree very much with the right hon. Gentleman. We have taken practical measures with police forces around the country to ensure that when complaints are made issues of vulnerability and repeat calls are picked up quickly, and so that tragic cases such as that of Fiona Pilkington can be identified much more efficiently and effectively. The provision of that practical relief is an important part of the changes we are seeking.

I am sorry, but all this talk about community triggers and community maps is just a load of guff. The South Wales police force area contains two large cities that have to be policed. A large number of royal occasions and sporting events have to be policed. The last problem to which any time is devoted, especially when major cuts are being made to the South Wales police budget, is antisocial behaviour in areas such as the Rhondda. What will the Minister do to ensure that the police are given the instructions they need to tackle the real problems that people face, and that there is money with which to tackle it?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman got to the question in the end. I remind him again of our responsibility and of the problems the Labour party left us, because there is still no recognition of that. We are giving the police the power they need to respond to the problems in the hon. Gentleman’s community and the communities of other Members throughout the House.

The Minister wants to introduce some form of direct election to improve accountability in local policing. Is he listening to the people of Greater Manchester, where the Government’s cut of nearly 1,400 police officers, which would have a disastrous effect on the battle against antisocial behaviour, was rejected so resoundingly on 5 May?

Here is another hon. Member who is still in denial. We believe that the financial settlement is fair and manageable, and that it need not have an impact on the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour on our streets. We are giving the police and local authorities the powers they need to respond to the problem, and, unlike the Labour party, which failed to deal with it in so many ways, we are committed to taking action to provide relief for our communities.

Given that the proposed criminal protection injunctions will weaken the sanctions available to the courts to punish and deter those engaging in antisocial behaviour, is it not clear that, at least in this instance, the “soft on crime” Liberal Democrat voice is being heard loud and clear in the Home Office?

The hon. Lady is wrong on that point, and I remind her of what the victims commissioner, Louise Casey—the antisocial behaviour tsar under the previous Government—said when we launched our consultation on the new antisocial behaviour powers:

“I am heartened by the announcement of the new proposals today that put tough enforcement action against perpetrators at the centre.”

The hon. Lady might not see or recognise it, but that is the case.

Nottinghamshire police have made good progress on antisocial behaviour over the past 12 months by getting police officers out from behind their desks and on to the streets, but does my hon. Friend agree that they are not assisted by being bound to their 25-year private finance initiative contract, signed by the previous Administration?

As my hon. Friend makes clear, a number of the PFI and other contracts that were entered into did not necessarily deliver good value for money. On the costs that fall locally, we are working with forces to identify savings in operational PFI projects, including the option of renegotiating contracts to ensure ongoing value for money and service to our community.

Cannabis

We do not recognise cannabis in its raw form to have any medicinal purposes; cannabis is a harmful drug. However, Sativex, a cannabis-based medicine, has been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency as a safe and effective medicine for patients with multiple sclerosis.

In Canada, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, Israel, Spain, Portugal and parts of the United States, patients can take medicinal cannabis in its natural form safely and legally. Why are seriously ill patients in our country, particularly those suffering the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, forced to break the law when they want to use their medicine of choice?

The advice we have received from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs confirms that cannabis is a significant public health issue. I certainly sympathise with anyone suffering from a debilitating illness, but we do not condone any illicit drug taking, for whatever reason. As I have indicated, GPs may prescribe Sativex in the circumstances mentioned. That is available, and we are dealing with its regulation.

That is not the most significant medical issue in relation to cannabis. In its higher form in particular, there are significant risks to young people, such as the probable causal link to mental illness, especially psychosis and schizophrenia. Will the Minister reassure the House that the Government will continue to take a tough line and ensure effective enforcement of the law on possession of cannabis?

I know that my hon. Friend takes these issues incredibly seriously, and has focused on drugs policy for some time. I assure him that our position is that the classification of “illegality” can influence behaviour and be a meaningful factor when people are contemplating taking drugs. That is why we do not have any proposals to change the classification of cannabis, and why we place so much importance on the current legal arrangements in ensuring we reduce supply and deal with these problems. There is no change of policy.

Alcohol Sales (Children)

10. What legislative proposals she plans to make for further restrictions on the sale of alcohol to children. (54326)

The Government do not tolerate the sale of alcohol to children. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill will double the maximum fine from £10,000 to £20,000, delivering on a coalition agreement commitment, and will extend the minimum period of voluntary closure that can be given for persistent under-age sales. We are also committed to working with the Sentencing Council and the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute those found guilty of persistent under-age selling and to use the full range of sentences available.

In England alone, about 36 children every day are admitted to hospital as a result of alcohol-related harm. Will the Home Secretary consider making the reduction of alcohol-related harm an objective, and prioritise it in licensing decisions?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, particularly given her experience as a general practitioner. I recognise the picture she paints, and I would add that half of all violent assaults are believed to be alcohol related, so there is a real issue with alcohol that we need to consider. We think there is merit in making health a material consideration under the Licensing Act 2003. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill will make certain health bodies responsible authorities under the Act. We are talking to the Department of Health about what we might do to ensure that the health aspects of alcohol are properly taken into account.

Will the Government’s proposed moratorium on regulation for micro-businesses apply to these regulations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. No, it is not intended that it relate to licensing.

Child Protection

11. What progress the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has made in its investigation into the grooming of vulnerable teenage girls for sex. (54327)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Good progress has been made since CEOP commissioned its thematic assessment of localised grooming in January. A range of responses has been received from a variety of sources, including police forces, charities and local safeguarding children boards. Analysis of the data is ongoing and the final report is expected to be published in June.

I thank the Home Secretary for her answer. Whether or not CEOP forms a discrete part of the new national crime agency, what steps will be taken to work with mosques and Asian communities to make this organised exploitation of young girls culturally unacceptable?

My hon. Friend’s question enables me to say how strongly we support CEOP’s work. We want it to be a lead law enforcement body in protecting children nationally, so I am pleased to announce that it will form part of the new national crime agency and will continue to build on the work it is doing. In examining the issue of grooming, it is important to wait for CEOP’s thematic report, see the extent of this problem and, obviously, take CEOP’s advice on any action that needs to be taken in relation to particular communities, but I do not think we should see this as an issue that relates only to particular communities.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. I cannot give her an exact date, but fairly shortly we will be launching a consultation exercise in response to issues that have arisen concerning the sex offenders register. The question of online identities was raised in this House when I made the statement on the response to the F and Thomson case, and we are taking it on board, so I ask her to wait for that consultation.

Immigration and Asylum Law

12. What her policy is on measures to ensure that children born overseas to unmarried male British citizens before 2006 are treated in a manner equivalent to those born after 2006. (54328)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House of this odd hangover from previous legislation. Children born overseas to unmarried British fathers before July 2006 were unable to acquire citizenship by descent from their father. However, the UK Border Agency will register such people as British citizens if an application is made before their 18th birthday.

I thank the Minister for those comments. He was also sympathetic when my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) raised this matter two years ago. Will he seek a legislative opportunity to correct this situation by statute rather than rely on discretion, which may or may not be applied to children who may or may not be inside the country?

As I said, my hon. Friend makes a valid point. There is, however, an established registration route for children born to British unmarried fathers under section 3 of the British Nationality Act 1981, which allows the Home Secretary to register any child under the age of 18 as a British citizen, and this discretion has been used for many years. Of course those who are not able to register because they are over the age of 18 can instead naturalise as British citizens if they are resident in the UK and meet the requirements for naturalisation. As he says, any change to the nationality law would have to be made through primary legislation and there is no appropriate vehicle before the House at the moment.

Police (Regulation A19)

Chief officers are responsible for managing the resources and staff available to them to ensure effective policing. Operational decisions, including on the impact of using their powers under regulation A19, are rightly a matter for them.

What kind of answer is that? There is a seasonal saying at this time of year: “Cast not a clout till May be out.” Why are decent, hard-working, brilliant, experienced police officers in my area, in Nottinghamshire and across the country being forced to give up their jobs because of this Government, when my community and others want to keep them and when they want to keep working?

From the hon. Gentleman’s outrage, hon. Members would not know that under the previous Labour Government Nottinghamshire police numbers fell between 2004 and 2009. This is a procedure used by chief constables that the previous Labour Government chose to renew. The fact is that officers ordinarily retire after 30 years and they do so with a full and generous pension.

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has discussed this matter with the chief constable of Nottinghamshire, but I did on Friday. Does the Minister agree that it is imperative that when chief constables make these difficult decisions they should consult not only their communities but the Police Federation to ensure that we retain the best front-line officers?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Let me put this in context. I understand that some 130 of some 2,500 officers in the force may be retired under this provision. The independent Winsor review of pay and conditions recommended that this procedure should continue to be available to chief officers.

Approximately 2,000 police officers across the country with more than 30 years’ experience are being forced to retire under regulation A19 because of the 20% front-loaded cuts imposed by the Government. As we have heard from my hon. Friends, these include front-line beat officers, response officers, detectives and firearms specialists, although some, as we know, have been asked to return as volunteers. I want to ask the Minister a specific question: has he carried out an assessment of the cost implications for the Home Office, along with any other associated costs, of forcibly retiring these 2,000 experienced officers? Did any such assessment show that the cuts really were in the interests of the taxpayer?

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that these decisions are made by chief constables in the interests of the efficiency and effectiveness of the force. This is a procedure that the previous Government chose not to change. The fact is that the total number of officers retiring with more than 30 years’ service who might be eligible for this procedure is about 3,000 of a total 140,000 officers. The question that the Labour party simply cannot answer is how it would have achieved the savings of more than £1 billion a year, which are the cuts it says it would have imposed on the British police.

Asylum Seekers

A system that makes timely decisions and removes people who have no right to stay in the UK is the biggest deterrent to false claims. The Government are committed to increasing the speed and quality of the processing of asylum claims, and the UK Border Agency is making faster decisions and removing people more quickly.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Bogus asylum claims result in a huge cost to the taxpayer through asylum support. What will the Government be doing to reduce the amount of money spent on asylum support?

I am happy to tell my hon. and learned Friend that we have reduced the cost of asylum support by more than £100 million from the 2009-10 total, delivering substantial savings to the taxpayer. That is the result of action that has been taken to ensure that we clear up the legacy of old asylum cases, speed up the processing of asylum claims and remove more quickly those not entitled to protection. Our asylum improvement project aims to go further.

National DNA Database

17. What assessment she has made of the potential effects on the number of crimes solved of proposed changes in the national DNA database. (54334)

The changes we propose to limit the retention of the DNA profiles of people not convicted of any offence are based on the coalition agreement commitment to introduce the protections of the Scottish system in order better to balance public protection and individuals’ rights. The statistics show that simply increasing the number of DNA profiles on the DNA database does not necessarily increase the number of detections made via that database.

There are already 150,000 crimes in which a DNA sample has been taken at the crime scene and not been matched to anybody on the database. Surely the Minister accepts that having fewer people on the database will mean that fewer matches will be made and fewer criminals will be brought to justice. Will he explain how having more dangerous criminals on the streets enhances my freedoms?

I know that my hon. Friend looks at the facts and circumstances, so I ask him to look at what has happened in the past five years. Since 2004-05, an additional 2 million individuals were added to the national DNA database but there were 4,000 fewer detections as a consequence.

Northumbria Police

18. What discussions she has had with Northumbria police on the appropriate level of policing over the period of the comprehensive spending review. (54335)

I have regular discussions with chief constables and police authorities on a range of issues about policing. Decisions about the number of police officers and other police staff engaged by Northumbria police are a matter for the chief constable and the police authority.

Recorded crime across Tyne and Wear fell by 14% in 2010 and has fallen by 47% since 2003. That has made a real difference in the lives of my constituents, but they are now naturally worried to learn that this Government apparently regard the big society as a substitute for proper policing. What reassurance can the Minister offer?

I hope the hon. Lady will be reassured by the comments of the new chief constable of Northumbria, who was previously the temporary chief constable. She said recently:

“I am determined that we will continue to reduce crime and protect police services that local communities across Northumbria want”.

She went on to say that her absolute priority was to improve front-line policing and the service delivered to communities.

Topical Questions

As I have previously informed the House, the first duty of Government is to protect the public. Following the death of Osama bin Laden, the overall threat level from international terrorism remains at severe and there is a continuing need for everyone to remain vigilant and to report suspicious activity to the police. Last week’s verdict from the coroner’s inquest into the London bombings on 7 July 2005 reminds us of the real and serious threat from terrorism. I have made a written ministerial statement on the verdict this morning. Across Government, we are carefully considering the current recommendations and we will respond in due course, at which time I would expect to make a further statement to the House. Nothing will ever bring back the 52 people who were murdered on that day, but I hope that the comprehensive, open and transparent inquests that have been held have brought some measure of comfort to the families and to all those affected.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. May I press her a little further? One of the coroner’s key findings was about the need for better co-ordination between Transport for London and London’s emergency services. Does the Home Secretary agree that there is a real need to reassure Londoners that if a tragic incident of this sort ever happened again, there would be better co-ordination than there was on this occasion?

My hon. Friend has made a very important and valid point. Of course, a number of the recommendations refer to Transport for London and to emergency responders. The proposals that have come specifically from the coroner will be looked at in great detail and with great care because it is absolutely right that we ensure that the lessons that can be learned from 7 July 2005 are learned.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s words about the 7/7 inquest and add our thanks to Lady Justice Hallett and the team. That inquest brought out the heroism and the tragedy of that terrible day. The moments of bravery shown by the emergency services, many members of the public, those who were directly affected and their families will be remembered, as will the tragic loss of the 52 people who were killed.

It is important that Lady Justice Hallett’s recommendations are taken forward and that the relevant services have the resources to do that. May I ask the Home Secretary when she expects to be able to report back to the House on the detail of her response to those recommendations? Can she give the House a sense of whether she expects to be able to support the broad thrust of the recommendations because they were each considered in great detail and it is important that they can be taken forward?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. On the issue of timing, the formal position is that anybody to whom recommendations are made is given 56 days to respond to the coroner’s report and recommendations. We will be responding within that timescale but, as I indicated in my previous answer, I intend to do so within a timescale that will enable me to make a statement to the House about that response. I am sure she will understand that as the recommendations were made to a number of bodies across government, as well as Transport for London, it is necessary to co-ordinate that response and make sure that all considerations have properly been taken into account.

On the right hon. Lady’s final point, significant improvements have already been made since 7 July 2005, but the Government are always looking to learn lessons from that incident and any other incidents that take place—should they do so. In doing that, of course we always put at the forefront of our thoughts the intention of ensuring that we can provide the highest level of public security and safety possible, but sadly we can never guarantee that no further terrorist incident will take place.

T2. What is the Home Secretary doing to ensure that all four Yorkshire police forces work much more closely together to reduce costs? (54343)

Collaboration by police forces is important both to improve operational effectiveness and to save money. A study by Deloitte a couple of years ago found that Yorkshire and the Humber could realise savings of some £100 million over five years by co-operating more effectively. That is the kind of thing that we want all forces to do.

T3. Can the Minister confirm that student visitor visas, which have recently been increased to 11 months, will not be included in general immigration statistics? (54345)

Yes, as indeed I made clear in answer to a previous question. The definition of an immigrant is somebody who comes here for more than 12 months, so student visitor visas, like tourist visas, are for visitors, not for immigrants. They therefore do not come under immigration limits.

T6. May I press the Home Secretary a little further on the 7/7 inquest? Like so many MPs in our constituencies on Friday, I was listening to the wall-to-wall coverage of the inquest and was struck by the harrowing stories of the survivors and the surviving family members. It has been nearly six years since the event. Can my right hon. Friend tell us, while we wait for the end of the formal response period, what lessons the security services have learned since the event? (54348)

As I said in response to the shadow Home Secretary, the Security Service has indeed made some changes since those events on 7 July 2005, has looked again at what is coming out of the inquest and will look with great care at the two specific proposals that are aimed at the Security Service in relation to the potential for further lessons to be learned. I draw the attention of my hon. Friend and the House, however, to Lady Justice Hallett’s words when she said that there was no evidence at all that the Security Service knew of and therefore failed to prevent the bombings on 7/7.

T7. Is any Minister capable of answering a question without blaming the last or the next Labour Government? Can the Home Secretary explain who is responsible for the 350 job losses in Gwent? Efficiency savings will save 20 of them; what about the other 330? (54349)

I assume that the hon. Gentleman was speaking about the police, although I do not think the word passed his lips. He asked whether any Minister can get up and not make reference to the mess that we were left by the previous Government. The reason savings are being requested from police forces, and the reason across government we are having to make cuts in public sector spending, is the deficit that we were left by the Labour Government. Had Labour been in government, it would be cutting £7 for every £8 that we are cutting. The issue for the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends is where they would make those cuts.

T9. The Minister is aware of the 60 or 70 Yemeni Jews who are trapped in Yemen. What can he do to help to facilitate the visa applications of those families with strong British links? (54351)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing up this issue. He will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to provide a running commentary at the Dispatch Box on individual applications for asylum or any other form of immigration, but I am aware that he has written to me about the matter and I will reply to him shortly.

T8. Will the Minister say a little more about how happy the universities were about the new visa system, and in particular what he would say to Glasgow Caledonian university, which has been suspended from sponsoring foreign students and had a 28-day suspension imposed on it? What would he say to the university, which finds the situation difficult and the sentence disproportionate? (54350)

I would say to Glasgow Caledonian university, and to the hon. Gentleman, what I would say to any university: all tier 4 sponsors who are given the privilege of bringing people to this country must ensure that they fulfil their sponsorship duties and that their students comply with the requirements of the immigration rules. As he knows, the tier 4 licence was suspended on 20 April following concerns about abuses of the immigration system. The university was given 28 days, from the date of suspension, to make representations against the decision. We are still within that 28-day period and obviously are in dialogue with the university. I hope that he will endorse the fact that we have immigration rules in this country and that they need to be enforced.

It will soon be 50 years since the last royal commission on policing, during which time the challenges faced by our police forces have changed dramatically, as have the expectations placed on them. Will the Minister consider the case for a fresh royal commission?

I think it was Harold Wilson who said that royal commissions take minutes and waste years. More recently, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has said that there is no time for a royal commission. There are important and urgent decisions that we need to take in relation to police financing and enhancing accountability, which is what the Government intend to do.

Ministers have confirmed in parliamentary answers that in the period 2010-12, 45 individuals with terrorist convictions will be released back into the community. Can the Home Secretary assure the House that all relevant agencies will work closely together, that they will have the necessary resources to manage those offenders back into the community and that she and the Justice Secretary have a clear understanding that anyone in breach of their licence conditions will be returned to prison immediately?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. It is, of course, essential that the various agencies involved work together. I can assure him that they will be working together, as they have been. One of the developments of recent years, which is very welcome, is the way in which the Security Service and the police have worked together on counter-terrorism matters. They will continue to do so and are very conscious of the issues relating to the release of offenders who have completed their prison sentences.

A year ago, I was approached by a whistleblower with an allegation that there had been criminal misuse of CCTV and automatic number plate recognition information by the Home Office and a part of the Metropolitan police. I established that the individual knew the insides of the organisations concerned and ongoing operations and that he had no obvious reason for malice or deceit. I sent the information to the Home Secretary. Since then, despite a number of reminders, I have had no response from the Home Office. Will she now tell me when that investigation will conclude?

I will go back and ensure that the matter is brought to my attention and that I am able to give my right hon. Friend a response as soon as possible.

Police community support officers play an important role in policing our communities, so will the Minister join me in congratulating the new Labour administration in Sheffield on its decision to restore the funding for 10 PCSA posts that had been cut by the previous Lib Dem administration?

The Government decided to maintain the ring-fencing for the neighbourhood policing fund outside London so that funding would continue to be available for police community support officers, whom we support because they do an important job as part of the policing family, working alongside police officers.

The Home Secretary’s plans to cut police red tape, which were announced this morning, will sadly save each police officer only 20 minutes each week. Why is she not being more radical?

This is not the end of the story. Indeed, we are working in a number of ways to ensure that we continue to cut police bureaucracy. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is looking at savings in bureaucracy that can be made across the criminal justice system. Chris Sims, the chief constable of West Midlands police, is the ACPO lead on reducing bureaucracy and is looking at other ways of reducing bureaucracy. Sara Thornton, the chief constable of Thames Valley police, is looking to reduce the 600 different guidance documents that ACPO provides to police forces to fewer than 100. Those examples show that this is work in progress, but our commitment is absolutely clear.

Given the civil war that has erupted among Government Members, may I offer the Home Secretary some support from the Opposition and tell her how grateful I am for her enormous contribution to our stunning electoral results in Dudley North last week, when we won for the first time ever two seats in Gornal—Upper Gornal and Woodsetton? That would not have been possible had it not been for the public anger at the huge number of police officers she is sacking in the west midlands.

I think that there was something at the end there about policing in the west midlands, but I did not quite catch it. I should be very happy to explain to the hon. Gentleman, as I did earlier, that changes to the budget in the west midlands, as to every other police force, are a direct result of the financial mess that was left by the previous Labour Government. I also say to him that it ill becomes Labour to crow about election results, given that in last week’s election it failed to take an overall majority in Wales, failed in Scotland and stood still in England. I suggest therefore that he keep a little quieter about it in future.

What consultation has taken place with universities, such as the university of Huddersfield, to assess the impact of changes to student visas and the number of students who stay on after their studies to take the post-study work route?

As my hon. Friend may have heard me say earlier, there was a full consultation. It obviously included the university of Huddersfield and was widely welcomed by universities. We now have a system whereby graduates can stay on so long as they have been offered a specific graduate-level job. To answer his precise question, we calculate that the effect on numbers will be that instead of 38,000 staying on as before, roughly 19,000 will stay on in future.

The Home Secretary will be aware of the concerns about the activities of under-cover police officers, such as Mark Kennedy. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary is carrying out a review; will the Home Secretary undertake to make a statement to the House once the outcome of that review is known?

We will certainly keep the House updated, but I think it best to await the outcome of that review.

I recently spent time with special police constables in Rugby, targeting antisocial behaviour and under-age drinking by sticking Alcohol Watch stickers on bottles and cans. Will the Home Secretary join me in recognising the very valuable work carried out by the special constabulary?

Yes, I am very happy to join my hon. Friend and, I am sure, others across the House in recognising the valuable work that the special constabulary undertakes. Indeed, we would like to encourage more people to become specials, because they perform a very important role in policing their communities.

Now that Aberdeen passport office has closed, my constituents face a long journey for a face-to-face interview about their first passport. They are expected to travel to Dundee, 70 miles away, but, because of the extra work caused by the closure of other offices throughout north-east Scotland, they have now been told that they will have to go either to Edinburgh or even to Newcastle. It appears that the alternative arrangements that the Government promised have not been put in place, so will the Minister look at the issue to make sure that they are put in place and it is not impossible for my constituents to get a passport?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing that issue to my attention. I will certainly look into the individual circumstances of her constituents applying for a passport for the first time.