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Topical Questions

Volume 535: debated on Monday 7 November 2011

A number of hon. and right hon. Members have referred to reports in the past few days on the UK border force. As the Home Office has already said, a senior official at the UK border force, Brodie Clark, has been suspended for acting without ministerial sanction, but I will make a statement to the House later today.

Of all the people who were arrested and convicted as a result of the riots across the country in the summer, what estimate has the Home Secretary made of the number who were arrested and charged through the police use of CCTV and DNA?

My hon. Friend is returning to topics that I know he has pursued for some considerable time. Obviously, there was significant use of CCTV. That is why this Government continue to support its use.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s decision to instigate an inquiry into border control this summer, which we will discuss shortly, but let me ask her a security question: what is her estimate of the number of people who passed into Britain through our ports and airports this summer under the reduced security and passport regime that the UK Border Agency was operating?

As the right hon. Lady knows, I will make a full statement to the House later this afternoon, and will have a full opportunity to answer her questions then, but I should like to make a few things clear. In the past, under the last Government, some security checks were lifted at times of pressure on the border, including one instance when local managers at Heathrow terminal 3 decided to open controls and no checks were made—not even cursory checks of passports.

To prevent that from happening again and to allow resources to be focused on the highest-risk passengers and journeys, in July I agreed that UKBA could pilot a scheme that would allow border force officials to target intelligence-led checks on higher-risk categories of travellers. We have since discovered that Brodie Clark, the head of the UK border force, authorised the wider relaxation of border controls without ministerial sanction. As I said, I shall make a statement to the House later today and will answer questions on this matter fully then.

The Home Secretary did not answer my question on how many people went through under the reduced security regime, and I am concerned that she does not know. As she will know, previously, both Labour and Conservative Ministers have committed to the roll-out of e-Borders so that proper screening could be available for everyone entering and leaving the country. She seems to be rolling that system back, not forward. When describing the rolling back of checks for EU citizens this summer, a UKBA staff member told me, “We were told not to check children travelling with family groups. That was ridiculous. Supposing a man…had taken them away from their mother and they were wards of court, they would pass through undetected. I have detected many wards of court simply by running them through the warnings index.”

The Home Secretary took the decision to reduce the checks for EU citizens this summer. Why did she do so?

As I have indicated to the right hon. Lady, I shall set out exactly what decisions were taken in my statement to the House later today. I indicated in my first answer to her that we were looking at targeting intelligence-led checks on higher risk categories of travellers. She referred to e-Borders, but this has nothing to do with e-Borders. When we took office, we had to stop the contract with the contractor that the last Labour Government agreed for e-Borders because it was significantly behind schedule in putting it in place.

T2. What steps is the Minister taking to alert parents to signs of grooming being forced on to innocent children by either their family or close friends, which is completely unacceptable? (78463)

The crime of child sexual exploitation is utterly appalling and reprehensible, and I well understand why my hon. Friend is raising this issue, given the impact that such incidents have had in Derbyshire. I pay tribute to the work of Derbyshire police through Operation Retriever. I note that their work was recognised at the police review event in the past few days. Awareness-raising is done through the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre’s thinkuknow programme, which delivers prevention messages directly into schools and is helping to raise awareness of this issue among parents and young people. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has responsibility for children and families, is developing an action plan to safeguard children and young people from sexual exploitation, which will be published shortly. Raising awareness among parents of this terrible form of abuse will be an important element of that.

T5. South Wales police have an excellent programme for tackling domestic violence, working with local authorities, health authorities and voluntary groups. What new advice and guidance will be issued to them following the statement from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), that the Government did not consider an investigation by the police or the police having been called out as providing sufficient clear objective evidence that domestic violence had occurred? (78466)

We will be asking the, the idea that the police—I am sorry, but I did not hear the question properly. I apologise. Is the hon. Lady asking about the evidence needed to get legal aid for legal advice on domestic violence? I apologise to her. I did not hear the question.

T3. In welcoming the latest departmental developments regarding the police crime mapping website, which my constituents are beginning to learn to use, does the Minister agree that this marks the beginning of a real step-change improvement in police transparency and hopefully accountability to local communities? (78464)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend., our street-level crime mapping website, has received more than 430 million hits since its launch at the beginning of the year, which translates to well over 40 million visits. We are adding new information on crime types and, from next year, justice outcomes. It is an important part of our transparency programme, and it demonstrates that the public want, and make use of, this information.

T7. When does the Home Secretary intend to review the definition of an “air weapon” under the Firearms Act 1968? (78468)

I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I did not actually hear the question. I understand that he said “air weapons”. Is that right?

T4. Organised crime costs the British economy £40 billion a year and affects families, businesses and local communities. What action is my hon. Friend the Minister taking to recover criminal assets and the proceeds of crime? (78465)

My hon. Friend has rightly highlighted the issue of criminal finances. We are determined that criminal proceeds will be taken away from those who commit these appalling offences. In total, using powers such as asset denial and by targeting money launderers, the agencies involved denied criminals more than £1 billion last year. However, we want to take further action, which is why we are setting up the National Crime Agency, and we also want to make asset-recovery quicker, more robust and more effective in order to address the point that he rightly highlighted.

T9. I know that the Home Secretary is reluctant to answer any questions on the UK Border Agency in advance of her statement, but does she accept that 18 months into this Government, the decisions taken on Britain’s borders are hers and hers alone, and that she should make no attempt to blame the previous Government for the mess that we see now? (78470)

I am willing to stand here and take responsibility for the decisions that I have taken. I only wish that the Opposition were willing to stand up in this House and take responsibility for the decisions that they took when they were in government.

T6. Please listen carefully; I will say this only once. In the future assessment of police numbers and funding formulae, have any discussions taken place with the Ministry of Defence about the huge cuts in the MOD police? In the case of the Colchester garrison, the last Labour Government managed to cut its 30 officers to three, which has affected the Essex police. (78467)

I do not think anybody has ever had any trouble hearing the hon. Member for Colchester, even some miles away.

As my hon. Friend knows, the MOD police are not the responsibility of the Home Office; they are the responsibility of the MOD. However, I am happy to discuss the matter with them.

The Prime Minister promised that all legitimate claims made under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 following the recent riots would be paid. I understand that a commitment has been made to ensure that the Metropolitan police will see its money, whereas Greater Manchester police authority is still struggling to get an answer from the Home Office. Can the Home Secretary or one of her Ministers give an answer today?

I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman on that point. We will indeed cover claims made under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886, but as I am sure he will appreciate, it is necessary to check and verify those claims. We have been generous with the definition that we have used, but there is still a necessary process to go through—for example, to identify the exact value of the property lost.

T8. Is the Minister aware that the average fine in 2010 for people caught driving without motor insurance in Lincolnshire was £213, down from £233 in 2008, when the average cost of fully comprehensive motor insurance premiums for my constituents is around £650, having risen on average by 40% in the same two years? Does he agree that such fines do nothing to dissuade potential or existing offenders from driving without insurance? What plans do the Government have to address the situation? (78469)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this serious issue, about which I want to talk to the Department for Transport. Uninsured driving already raises the cost of premiums for honest motorists to the tune of £30. Individual fines are a matter for magistrates, but it is important that we look at this matter.

Further to the Home Secretary’s reply about the Riot (Damages) Act 1886, if insurance companies are successful in pressing claims for the cost of business interruption, will those costs also be included in the financial settlement?

I do not think that business interruption is being looked at, but I am happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman and set out exactly what we are doing in relation to the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 and what criteria are being followed to ensure that police forces and others are paid the necessary sums.

T10. My constituent Joanne Bryce, whose sister Claire Oldfield-Hampson’s murder was uncovered in Cambridgeshire in December 1998, has worked tirelessly to find out why the case has been so appallingly mishandled by the local constabulary, but she and I have been frustrated at every turn. Will the Policing Minister meet me to discuss the issue with my constituent? (78471)

Yes, of course I will meet my hon. Friend. I appreciate his concern and that of his constituent about the matter; the problem is that the case was investigated by the precursor of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. That is an obstacle, but I will indeed discuss the case with him.

The Home Secretary has recently launched a consultation on the disclosure of previous convictions of serial perpetrators of domestic violence, following the tragic murder of Clare Wood in my constituency and the courageous campaign by her father, Michael Brown. Will the Home Secretary tell me whether there will be early legislation following the consultation to implement the scheme and prevent further tragic deaths like that of Clare Wood?

It is certainly our intention to act as soon as possible on the basis of the consultation. The right hon. Lady will be aware that certain powers are already available to the police to make disclosures to individuals. The consultation will look at whether further powers are necessary. I, too, pay tribute to Michael Brown for the campaign that he is running. He is very brave to do so in the face of such tragic circumstances.

One of the worst forms of antisocial behaviour that my constituents tell me about involves people’s lifestyles and actions having a really detrimental effect on their neighbours’ quality of life. What proposals are the Government bringing forward to help the police and local authorities to deal with this problem?

As my hon. Friend has rightly said, these are local issues that deserve local solutions. There has been a consultation on speeding up the eviction of antisocial tenants; it closes today. The rights of a tenancy bring with them responsibilities, and we will be reflecting on that consultation in due course, once the responses are finalised.

What mechanisms, if any, are being put in place to ensure that staff and their representatives are given an opportunity to express their concerns about problems with the functions of the UK Border Agency?

I can assure the hon. Lady that we are always willing to hear from members of staff about any concerns that they might have, and about any proposals for the better operation of the UK Border Agency. Indeed, I was in Turkey only a matter of days ago, listening to those who were making visa decisions in the embassy there, and hearing directly from them their concerns and their ideas for making things better.

Following an illegal encampment of 13 caravans in Harlow town centre at the weekend, Essex police have refused to be the lead agency in removing the trespassers because they are following Association of Chief Police Officers guidelines. Will the Minister confirm that ACPO guidance is no substitute for the police enforcing the law, rather than forcing Harlow council to go through a lengthy court process?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. First, however, may I commend Essex police for the action that they took alongside Basildon council in the operation at Dale Farm? We are looking at whether we need to give the police extra powers in relation to the clearing of encampments and other incursions on to land. Currently, assuming that the incursion is not stopping the normal life of the community, the landowner has to take legal action. If it is stopping the normal life of the community, the police do have some powers. This matter concerns a great many people, and we are actively looking into it.