Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 532: debated on Monday 12 September 2011

Yesterday was, of course, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist atrocities of 9/11. None of us will ever forget the events of that day or those attacks on our own shores, including the 7/7 London bombings and the decades of terror campaigns waged in Northern Ireland. The Government remain as committed as ever to preventing future acts of terrorism and keeping the public safe. Following the death of bin Laden, al-Qaeda is weaker than at any time over the past decade. New threats will evolve, but so will our security measures to counter them. While we remember the victims, we must also remain vigilant. I commend those, particularly our front-line emergency workers, who continue to work against terrorism and risk their lives to protect ours.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House about the meetings she has had with chief constables and colleagues following the recent rioting, which was of great concern to so many of my constituents, to ensure that there is no repetition and that those involved are speedily brought to justice?

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that question. We have had a number of meetings with chief constables and others. As I said in an earlier answer, I am chairing an inter-ministerial group that works on tackling gangs—it is looking at that particular aspect of the riots—and we have already had a number of discussions about public order policing, in particular. I have, of course, asked Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to examine the issue and advise on guidance for forces on matters such as tactics and the number of police that need to be trained in dealing with riots.

It is now 15 months since the joint thematic review on the nature and culture of gangs reported in June 2010. The review was carried out by the chief inspector of prisons, the chief inspector of constabulary and the chief inspector of probation. They concluded that

“there was no integrated joint national strategy”

and so agencies had

“missed significant opportunities to work with young people involved or likely to get involved in gangs.”

Can she say when we are likely to get a response to that review from the Government?

The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter of a review that was, of course, reporting on what had taken place under the Labour Government. We are undertaking a particular piece of work on gangs, bringing a number of Departments together to examine the issues and work out how we can best address the gang culture and prevent young people from getting involved in gangs. In doing that, we are doing what is absolutely right: we are looking at not only the evidence that has come before, but at practice on the ground today. We are finding out what is working today and looking at how to extend that good practice to other parts of the country.

T3. During the recent disturbances, children in Banbury as young as 14 sought to use Facebook to incite public disorder. Will my hon. Friend update the House on her discussions with providers of social networks? (70952)

I can inform my hon. Friend that the Home Secretary held a constructive meeting with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the police and representatives from the social media industry and the companies have made clear their commitment to removing illegal content and, when appropriate, closing accounts, whether at the request of the police or because of a tip-off from other users. It was agreed to step up co-operation to ensure that these processes are working effectively.

T2. Due to Government cuts, Worksop police cells are to close this month. Local police officers have asked me to ask the Home Secretary this: how exactly will that closure contribute to crime reduction in Bassetlaw? (70951)

It is entirely a matter for the chief constable and police authority how they deploy their resources. There has been some rationalisation of custody and we are also very supportive of those forces that seek to contract out custody facilities and in so doing improve their service and save money.

T4. The Equality and Human Rights Commission posted qualified accounts in 2009-10 and the auditors found poor financial management, poor record keeping and poor leadership. What specific actions will the Minister take to rectify this problem and to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not wasted by that organisation?[Official Report, 14 September 2011, Vol. 532, c. 9-10MC.] (70953)

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the issue. The qualifications, of course, represent spend for periods under the previous Government and we have been absolutely clear with the EHRC from the start that any problems with its accounts under this Government are likely to result in financial consequences for it. In March, we set out our plans to change the EHRC. Our consultation closed in June and we will be responding shortly, but we have already announced that we will reduce its budget by more than half from £55 million in 2010-11 to £28.8 million in 2014-15.

T8. When it was announced that the Government would do away with the National Policing Improvement Agency, Ministers acknowledged that it was important for the functions undertaken by that agency to go to some other organisation and for there to be great clarity, but 14 months on we are still not clear. When will the Home Secretary tell us exactly which functions will go to which body as a result of the abolition of the NPIA? (70957)

The right hon. Gentleman knows that we have already identified a number of functions and where they will move to. For example, certain issues, such as non-IT procurement, have come back into the Home Office. We are working with the police forces to set up a police-owned company to deal with IT, which is a significant part of what has been undertaken previously by the NPIA. We will be making announcements about the exact destination for the other aspects of the NPIA’s work in the coming weeks.

T5. I am sure the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice will agree that police officers need the best and most professional training. Does he therefore welcome moves by colleges such as Loughborough college in my constituency to offer a police, law and community course, which is already being used by at least three of our police forces? (70954)

I commend Loughborough college for taking the initiative in this important area. We are committed to improving the professionalism of the police. I understand that the course is not accredited at the moment and that the college should seek that accreditation before it can be treated as appropriate learning for the minimum qualification for a police officer.

The chairman of Cheshire police authority, Margaret Ollerenshaw, has written to me to say that by March 2012 we will have 217 fewer police officer posts and that by 31 March 2015 a further 151 officer posts will have to be cut. She says:

“These cuts need further consideration in the light of the service demanded of the police”.

How will these cuts, combined with 446 staff posts that will be cut, help combat crime and antisocial behaviour in Halton and Cheshire?

Tomorrow I will take part in a conference that has been organised by Cheshire police to consider those precise issues and to identify the opportunities that arise from adopting a leaner structure. The chief constable of Cheshire is as convinced as I am that it is possible to reorganise in a way that protects front-line services.

T6. Will the Home Secretary join me in congratulating Thames Valley police on halving crime at this year’s Reading festival compared with last year and, more generally, on demonstrating that it is possible to protect visible front-line policing while finding budget savings? (70955)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, to which I am very happy to respond, not least because I could hear Reading festival from my home even with the doors and windows shut. A significant number of people attended that event, which has had problems with crime in the past, so Thames Valley police are to be congratulated on the work they did this year to reduce crime. The Thames Valley force is a very good example of a force that is committed to ensuring that it retains front-line and response policing while also cutting costs by, for example, collaborating with other forces.

The chief constable of Greater Manchester says that he is closing police stations to make his force more like Argos. Does the Home Secretary agree with that crazy comparison? My experience of Argos is that the local branch never has what you want and you have to travel miles to find it.

The chief constable of Greater Manchester has been absolutely clear that it is possible to make cuts in budgets but that it is also necessary to make changes in and transform the way that policing is delivered. He is committed, as are other chief constables, to ensuring that he delivers a quality service to the people of Greater Manchester.

T7. Given that so many people were left for years—sometimes for more than a decade—with uncertain immigration status, creating wrenching circumstances if their claims for status fail now, does the Minister consider that it was immoral of the previous Labour Government to lose control of the immigration system, and will he assure the House that he will not do likewise? (70956)

Yes, my hon. Friend knows that one of the myriad problems we inherited on the immigration front was the remains of a backlog of half a million asylum cases that had simply disappeared inside a warehouse. We have now got to the end of that process, but he is right: it is absolutely essential not to let any similar-sized backlog build up again—not just for general confidence in the immigration system, but as part of our moral duty to treat anyone who comes to this country and applies for asylum with as much efficiency as we can. The system should work not just for them but for the taxpayer. It is a win-win if we get the asylum system to be more competent than it was.

Some of the most pressurised communities in London are facing the loss of familiar and well-liked safer neighbourhood sergeants. Will the Minister give an assurance that there will be no more reductions in the local leadership of safer neighbourhood teams, or is the model of ward-based safer neighbourhood policing now dead under this Government?

The hon. Lady knows that this is a matter for the leadership of the Metropolitan police and for the Mayor. The Mayor has made it clear that he seeks to maintain the number of police officers in London at above 32,000, which will be more than he inherited from his Labour predecessor, and to protect neighbourhood policing.

T9. In Torpoint and other parts of my constituency, police response teams are finding that their times are restricted by the geography of the area, which means that some officers are forced to cross the River Tamar on a ferry or to drive for at least 30 minutes. Does my right hon. Friend consider that that is acceptable? (70958)

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns about this issue and I also appreciate the particular geography in that part of her constituency. These matters of deployment are for the chief constable to decide and it is better that Ministers do not try to second-guess those, but I am happy to draw her concerns to the chief constable’s attention.

I think that what is important is the visibility and availability of police officers, which is variable between police forces. In many cases, it can be significantly improved. I have said to the House before that if police forces can find innovative ways to increase their presence in communities—for instance, by being in supermarkets—that can often be very much better than maintaining empty or underused offices that are rarely visited.

Will the Home Secretary place in the Library a definition, with examples, of what constitutes police back-office and, as we have heard this afternoon, middle-office facilities? Does she accept that part of the front line is 24-hour policing with 24-hour police stations in our major urban centres?

I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that the work on the definition of the back, middle and front-line functions has been done by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, not by the Home Office. A report defining those functions is available from HMIC, and I am happy to make sure that it is available in the Library.

Crime levels in north Wales dropped by 45% over the 13 years that Labour was in power. Over the past year, crime levels have gone up. Do Ministers accept any responsibility for the increase in crime?

As there has barely been any reduction in front-line police officers in the period that the hon. Gentleman describes, I think that what he tries to imply is false. What matters is how effectively police officers are deployed and how efficiently they are working. What Opposition Members do not accept is that we have to deal with the deficit. We must find the savings because of the mess they left this country in.

Will my right hon. Friend condemn the antisocial behaviour and racism of the Islamist demonstration near the commemoration of 9/11 yesterday? Does she agree that that demonstration should not have been allowed to take place so close to the commemoration, and will she take steps to stop that happening again?

Anybody who engages in criminal activity should be dealt with appropriately. I am pleased to inform the House that I understand that nine arrests were made at the time yesterday, but further arrests have been made. The number up to date is 33, but that may change.

The recent disturbances in Salford had a large element of organised criminality. The Home Secretary is aware of Operation Gulf in Salford, led by Superintendent Kevin Mulligan, which has had significant success against organised criminals. With the cuts that are proposed in Greater Manchester, what support can she continue to ensure goes into successful operations to tackle serious and organised crime?

As the right hon. Lady knows, chief constables will be making decisions about particular local operations that they wish to undertake, but the Government are giving much greater power to the police to deal with serious organised crime through the creation, in due course, of the national crime agency. We touch far too few organised crime groups in the UK. Organised crime costs this country £30 billion to £40 billion a year. The NCA will help to tackle that.

Following this weekend’s utterly despicable revelations of the way in which 24 of my constituents have been kept as slaves, some for 15 years, may I wholeheartedly commend the robust action of Bedfordshire police in bringing that to light and putting it right? Will the Government please pay particular attention to the issue of internal trafficking in the United Kingdom, given that 17 of those 24 slaves were British citizens?

I am sure the whole House will share my hon. Friend’s disgust at something that came as a shock to many of us. He is right. What we saw was effective police action, co-ordinated in many ways by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. As he knows, the new national crime agency will have among its functions co-ordinating activity against trafficking, both domestic and international, which will give us a much more effective way of combating such particularly vile crime.

I have been contacted by a constituent who was born in Germany while her father, an Irish citizen, was stationed there with the British Army in 1948. Despite her mother being British, and the fact that she has lived the remainder of her life in the UK, she is a British subject, not a British citizen, which carries additional cost and inconvenience when she travels. Will the Home Secretary consider how to resolve that historic anomaly?

That sounds like a deliberate quiz question for the Immigration Minister, with every possible complication within it. If the hon. Lady wishes to write to me, I will happily examine the details of the case.

Is the Minister aware that in the police service a centrally procured box of 100 wipes for electronic equipment costs £19, whereas it can be bought on the internet for £1? What can the Government do about that?

Overall, we believe that huge savings could be accrued through better procurement by the police, but we have to remember that the costs of procurement are not just the cost of goods. They are the cost of the separate organisations in 43 forces that are individually procuring goods and equipment. On those calculations, we think we can save £350 million a year by more effective procurement.

Youth workers up and down the country were asked to work on the streets during the recent disturbances, but many of those workers are being made redundant. Has the Minister examined the probable impact on crime and antisocial behaviour of these cuts to youth work?

In the work of the inter-ministerial group on gangs, we will of course look at effective ways of dealing with gang culture and with young people who get caught up in criminality, but I say to the hon. Lady and her hon. and right hon. Friends that the evidence indicates that the Government, in various forms, often spend a lot of money on individuals and their families, but sadly not all of that is spent effectively. Our task is to ensure that money is focused effectively to deal with the problems.