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Topical Questions

Volume 527: debated on Monday 9 May 2011

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.