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Commons Chamber

Volume 545: debated on Monday 21 May 2012

House of Commons

Monday 21 May 2012

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Police (Administrative Burden)

I have made it clear that police should focus on cutting crime and not on doing paperwork. That is why I have already announced a package of policies that will cut police bureaucracy, saving up to 4.5 million police hours per year, the equivalent of putting more than 2,100 officers back on the beat.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the election of police commissioners in six months’ time should allow a much more localised focus on lifting these burdens and enabling more police time to be spent on the front line?

I do agree. My hon. Friend makes an important point about the role of police and crime commissioners. They will indeed be the voice of local policing, and I am sure that as such they will want to ensure that police officers are spending as much of their time fighting crime—and not doing paperwork—as they can, and that they will be a powerful force in removing bureaucracy from the police.

In evidence to the Select Committee, the chief constables of the West Midlands and Surrey informed the Committee that £5 million had been allocated to work with the private sector in order to cut costs and reduce administrative burdens. Given what happened at the Police Federation conference last week, would it not be a good idea for the Home Secretary to sit down with all the stakeholders to discuss exactly what the role of the police should be in the 21st century, rather than there being a public dispute between the Government and the police?

I have made it absolutely clear that the focus of the police is on fighting crime. I have set them only one target, which is to cut crime. Indeed, it is right that forces up and down the country are now looking—as they have done for several years, including under the last Labour Government—at bringing in the private sector to their forces where they feel that functions can be done more cost-effectively by the private sector. But I have also made it clear—as I did at the Police Federation conference last week—that we will not move the powers of warranted officers from officers to the private sector.

One of the most pointless, expensive and time-wasting aspects of the bureaucracy that the police have to deal with is the equality and diversity industry that mushroomed under the last Labour Government, which I saw for myself when I visited West Yorkshire police on Friday. Could I meet the Home Secretary or the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice to discuss how we can streamline this process so that we can get more resources on to the front line?

It is entirely right that we encourage the police to see more diversity in their ranks. There are many ways in which we do want to see more women and people from black and minority ethnic communities joining the police force and being able to press through the ranks, but my hon. Friend makes the important point that in looking at these issues we do not want bureaucratic processes to take over. Either I or my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice will meet him to discuss this.

Even if I accepted what the Home Secretary said about the changes in administrative burdens, the reality is that 16,000 police officers are being lost. Last week at the Police Federation conference, they told me that 20% cuts would lead to administrative workloads increasing, not decreasing. Only today, the chief constable of Dyfed-Powys warned of “an austerity crime wave” as a result of the Government’s approach to policing. Will the Home Secretary now recognise that despite any package of policies she takes forward on administration, there will be fewer police on the beat and more administrative work to do?

No, the whole point of the approach the Government are taking is that we are cutting the bureaucracy for police to enable them to spend more time on the beat. The challenge is this: I was willing to go to the Police Federation conference and be absolutely honest with the police about what we are doing. I trust that the message that the shadow Home Secretary and the shadow policing Minister gave to the police was that Labour Front Benchers support the same level of cuts in funding as the Government are putting through, and the impact that that would have. I wonder if the shadow policing Minister told the police about his view that £600 million should be taken out of police overtime.

Exempting the National Crime Agency from the Freedom of Information Act will reduce the administrative burden on the police, but will the Home Secretary set out how the principles of transparency and accountability will be upheld in the way that the NCA operates?

I am happy to give my right hon. Friend what I hope will be reassurance on this issue. We are clear that the NCA, when it is set up, should be transparent about how it operates and we will set out clearly those aspects that we expect it to be transparent about and publish information on. However, given the nature of many of the cases that it will deal with and some of the information behind those cases, it is right that we exempt it from the FOI. It is our intention that, on those matters that it can tell the public about, it is as transparent as possible.

Non-EU Migrant Cap

2. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the permanent cap on non-EU work migrants after its first year of operation. (108028)

4. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the permanent cap on non-EU work migrants after its first year of operation. (108030)

10. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the permanent cap on non-EU work migrants after its first year of operation. (108036)

The annual limit, together with other measures such as raising the minimum skills level, has ensured that we have kept the numbers of non-EU workers at sustainable levels while allowing employers to access the brightest and best migrants.

The seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which expires in December 2013, allows farmers and growers to bring in workers from as far away as Ukraine and Moldova. Does the Minister agree that welfare reform should make it more attractive for British crops to be picked by British workers?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Immigration reform is one necessary element of creating a more balanced labour force, but the other two elements are welfare and educational reform, which will ensure that British workers are trained and have the right attitude to take the jobs available, in agriculture or in other sectors. [Interruption.] The Opposition Front-Bench team appear to deride these types of jobs. I suggest that is a big mistake.

I welcome the new income and language criteria introduced alongside the cap. Does the Minister agree that these measures give the public confidence that economic migrants are here to benefit the economy and contribute to society?

It is important that we create, as we are doing, a more selective immigration system designed to attract and reward migrants who can make the biggest contribution to our economy. By raising the minimum skills threshold and the English-language requirements, we have ensured that only migrants who are highly skilled or who have skills that are in short supply can come to the UK to work and settle.

I apologise; I meant migration. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to break the link between coming here temporarily and settling here permanently?

One of the many failures of the previous Government was that they made settlement an automatic consequence of five years’ residence in the UK. Settlement in the UK is a privilege, not a right, and unrestricted settlement rights are not in the UK’s best interests. The changes we implemented in April will mean that, from April 2016, those wishing to settle here will have to earn a minimum salary of £35,000 or the appropriate rate for the job, whichever is higher. That is better for the long-term health of our immigration system.

Given that the Government have just released data showing that one in five unemployed households contain a member who has never had a job, is there not a case, while this recession lasts, for temporarily restricting movement generally from Europe, so that the Government’s welfare reforms can have a fair wind?

I have great admiration for the right hon. Gentleman’s work on immigration and welfare, but I do not think that closing off the European labour market would be appropriate in a recession, because it would presumably apply both ways, meaning that British workers looking for jobs in the rest of the EU would also be badly affected. He is quite right to suggest, however, that the problems of the British economy need to be solved at the same time as the severe problems in the eurozone.

My impression is that the fact that companies have never reached the cap in the number of available work permits suggests that it is not the Government-imposed cap that has affected this. One consequence that I see is that companies are exporting the work that would have been done in the UK to other countries, or using intra-company transfers. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we keep work in Britain?

First, we are putting limits on intra-company transfers—limits that were never there under the previous Government. We have set a minimum salary threshold of £40,000 for those who stay for longer than one year and a minimum salary of £24,000 for those who stay for less than one year. The hon. Lady identifies a potential problem, in that people could use intra-company transfers to try to drive out British workers, but that is precisely why we have taken these effective measures—to stop that kind of abuse of the system.

18. Is the Minister concerned that France now attracts 50% more visitors from India than we do and that Switzerland, which has joined Schengen, is also experiencing a disproportionate surge in business visitors and tourists as a result? Is it reasonable to impose a £78 visa charge? People have to travel hundreds of miles to visit Britain for any reason. We might be open for business, but we are jolly well closed to foreigners under this Government. (108044)

I have to say that that is complete nonsense. Our tourism industry is doing better than ever before. Somebody planning to fly here on holiday from India would have to pay £78 for a six-month visa, which would not be an even remotely significant part of the total cost of their holiday, so I have to say that the right hon. Gentleman has simply got it wrong.

Alcohol-related Antisocial Behaviour

On 23 March, I published the Government’s alcohol strategy, which set out radical proposals to tackle the harms caused by alcohol misuse and builds on the legislative steps we have already taken to give the police and local communities more powers to tackle problem premises and deal with late-night drinking problems.

Will my right hon. Friend introduce measures to encourage safe and responsible drinking in community, family-friendly pubs, rather than pre-loading at home on cheap bargain booze?

I know that my hon. Friend has long championed the cause of rural pubs in particular, and pubs that are a key part of their local communities. One of the proposals that we have put forward in the alcohol strategy, on which we are consulting, is the introduction of a minimum unit price, as well as banning bulk discount offers. We believe that both will have a significant impact on preventing people from pre-loading—which is so often a lot of the problem—after buying cheap alcohol from supermarkets. Those measures will have a real impact in helping friendly, local, well-run community pubs.

Alongside one of my local town councillors, I am working on a Safer Streets campaign in Newton Abbot, which will involve our asking local businesses to become safe havens for those who encounter antisocial behaviour in the town centre. Does the Minister agree that such schemes are effective in creating a safe environment for businesses to thrive, while also helping our attempts to deal not just with alcohol-related incidents but with all forms of antisocial behaviour?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I commend those in Newton Abbot who have put forward the scheme and are putting it in place. I think it will have a real impact. We see responsible businesses coming together with local agencies in a number of towns and cities around the country to provide people with safe drinking places, which will ensure that we can reduce alcohol-related violence and antisocial behaviour. The evidence from many places—including Durham, for example, which put forward such a plan—is that such schemes are good for the local economy, as well as for reducing crime.

When those responsible for antisocial behaviour are arrested, they should surely be dispatched to the police cells as quickly as possible. Does the Home Secretary therefore share my disappointment at the Metropolitan police’s decision to close all the cells at Harrow police station, leaving us with no cells at all—we are one of the few London boroughs in that position—and causing significant logistical and administrative problems for the police in Harrow?

It is a matter for the Metropolitan police how it chooses to arrange the provision of cells and operational matters on the ground. It is for the police to decide operational matters because they have operational independence—something that I would have thought the hon. Gentleman supported.

The Government might talk tough on tackling antisocial behaviour, but their policies do not live up to that rhetoric. Will the Home Secretary explain to my constituents why the Government are weakening powers to tackle antisocial behaviour and, in particular, why their replacement for antisocial behaviour orders does not constitute a breach of a criminal record?

We are not weakening the powers to deal with antisocial behaviour. What we have proposed—I will be publishing a White Paper on this tomorrow—will ensure that it is easier for people at the local level, including the police, local councils and others, to exercise powers on antisocial behaviour. Crucially, for the first time we are also giving individuals and communities an opportunity to trigger action to ensure that when there is long-standing antisocial behaviour that has not been dealt with, action must be taken.

Will the Home Secretary join me in paying tribute to the work of special constables in tackling antisocial behaviour associated with alcohol? A group of special constables from Brixton are in the Gallery today. Between them they have put in more than 680 hours of voluntary work, and they are quite clear that the bulk of antisocial behaviour is associated with alcohol and/or drugs.

The sentiment is greatly appreciated, but just for future reference, we do not in this place refer to the Gallery, no matter how distinguished or worthy the people in it are.

I value the work done by special constables. There are many examples, like the one my hon. Friend cited, of special constables actively working in the community to reduce antisocial behaviour. Special constables do a good job all the time, so I would encourage more people to become special constables, which is a valuable way of volunteering and giving a great deal back to local communities.

Breach of an ASBO is a serious business. That is why it is a crime. Will Ministers confirm that a breach of their proposed replacement—the crime prevention injunction—will not be a criminal offence?

The Government intend to produce a White Paper. I have said that it will be published tomorrow, so I suggest the hon. Lady waits to see what is in it.

Border Controls

Security of the border is our top priority. In February, the independent chief inspector published his report into border security checks last summer. We have accepted all the report’s recommendations, and we are implementing important changes to improve the effectiveness of UK border controls.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but given that up until as recently as last week people are waiting up to three hours to come into the country through Heathrow, should not the Minister, instead of accepting whatever this week’s excuse is—whether it be the royal wedding, the snow, the rain, the wrong type of rain or the wrong type of wind—accept that it is his responsibility, and get on and sort the problem out before the Olympics?

I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that we have already introduced more staff at peak times and established mobile teams that can be moved around. Within a couple of weeks, a new control room will be operating at Heathrow, which will enable us to have better real-time information about what is happening in each of the terminals. We are already seeing considerable improvements. If the hon. Gentleman does not want to take that from me, he should take it from Colin Matthews, the chief executive of BAA, who said at the Home Affairs Select Committee last week:

“we can detect some improvement in the last week or so since that announcement was made.”

Will the Government take a look at the case for restoring the discretion of immigration officers in countries of origin—a discretion that was undermined by the previous Government, who made it all too easy for the wrong people to enter the country?

Yes, I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance not only that we will do that, but that we already are doing it. We have instituted a pilot scheme for extended interviewing in some countries, showing significant positive results in ensuring that people cannot get on a plane to this country if they do not have the right to do so.

European Convention on Human Rights (Immigration)

6. If she will bring forward proposals to amend the immigration rules to prevent misuse of article 8 of the European convention on human rights. (108032)

7. If she will bring forward proposals to amend the immigration rules to prevent misuse of article 8 of the European convention on human rights. (108033)

20. If she will bring forward proposals to amend the immigration rules to prevent misuse of article 8 of the European convention on human rights. (108046)

By this summer, we will have in place new immigration rules, which will help to end abuse of article 8. The Government are considering responses to the public consultation on changes to the family migration rules carried out last year, and expect to announce the results shortly. This will include changes relating to article 8.

The UK Border Agency recently reported that almost 4,000 foreign criminals are free to walk our streets. My Bromsgrove constituents know that it was the previous Labour Government who put the rights of criminals before the rights of ordinary law-abiding citizens. What steps does my right hon. Friend plan to take to start deporting these criminals?

My hon. Friend rightly raises an issue that causes considerable concern to members of the public. We have changed the way in which we deal with foreign national offenders. We now start deportation action 18 months before the end of the sentence, and in order to speed up the process we are chartering more flights to remove foreign offenders, but we are indeed having to make good a system that was of course put in place by the last Labour Government. When we deal with article 8, we will ensure that it provides less reason for people to claim that they need to remain here in the UK.

The abuse of article 8 undermines faith not only in our own criminal justice system but in human rights generally, as envisaged by the original British jurists who founded the convention in 1946. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will hold true to the Brighton declaration and make it clear that the sovereignty of our Parliament and our UK courts must be sacrosanct?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are making a number of efforts to ensure that the operation of the European convention in relation to the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom courts is as we believe it should be. That does indeed entail the decisions made at the Brighton conference concerning changes in the operation of the European Court of Human Rights. It also involves what we are doing to clarify the fact that article 8 is a qualified right and not an absolute right.

There is real concern in my constituency about appeals being lodged under article 8 allowing people to remain in the UK longer without leave to remain. Does my right hon. Friend agree that changes in article 8 will complement the Government’s changes to the family route of settlement policy, and will prevent further abuse of the system?

Yes. That is why the Government will be making changes in the family migration route along with their changes to article 8. Given that article 8 is about the right to a private and family life, the two are relevant to each other. What is crucial, however, is that article 8 is not an absolute right. It is qualified, and it allows the Government to operate a system under which people do not have an automatic right to stay here for the purposes of a family life. We want our courts to operate article 8 in the way in which it is written in the convention.

I listened carefully to what the Home Secretary said about changes that might be forthcoming. Does she believe that decisions should be made in a timely manner? My constituent Daniel Omonkhua was told by the UK Border Agency back in October 2010 that his article 8 application would be determined within a month. Why is he still waiting a year and a half later?

We do indeed want decisions to be made in a timely manner. That is better for the individuals themselves and for their families, if it is possible. If the hon. Lady writes to my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, he will look into the case.

Police Numbers

9. What assessment she has made of the effect of change in police numbers on the level of crime since May 2010. (108035)

16. What assessment she has made of the effect of change in police numbers on the level of crime since May 2010. (108042)

The Home Affairs Committee said last year:

“We accept that there is no simple relationship between numbers of police officers and levels of crime.”

The Government agree.

There are 385 fewer front-line police officers in Merseyside than there were in March 2010. According to the British crime survey, there has been the biggest increase in recorded crime for a decade. People in Merseyside could be forgiven for thinking that there was a link between the two. Will the Minister now stand at the Dispatch Box and deny the existence of that link?

I have already quoted the Select Committee’s view that there is no simple link. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that according to the latest official figures relating to crime in Merseyside, published earlier this year, in December last year overall crime had fallen by 2% and the number of instances of violence against the person had fallen by 7%. There are areas of specific concern, but it is not true to say that overall crime has been rising in the hon. Gentleman’s police force area.

The Minister said that there was “no simple link”. The Police Federation has suggested that by 2015 the number of serving police officers in Wales will have fallen by about 1,600, and according to Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary the figure is closer to 800. Even if the more cautious figure were correct, does the Minister really believe that a drop of 800 would have no effect whatsoever on crime in Wales?

The hon. Gentleman ought to ask what police officers are doing. If they are tied up in red tape, as they were by the last Government, or if they are in back-room positions in which they do not need to be, that is not necessarily the best possible deployment of resources. The latest official figures show that in south Wales overall crime has fallen by 7%, and at the end of last year the chief constable of south Wales said:

“We are not just treading water, we are improving the service and improving the way that we deal with members of the communities we serve.”

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of burglaries in Harlow has fallen by 15% in the past year, and that similar results have been produced by many other crime indicators? That is thanks to not just the excellent work of Essex police, but the work of community organisations such as Harlow Street Pastors which are doing so much to reduce crime.

I congratulate Essex police on that achievement. Up and down the country, police forces are showing that, despite having to make savings, they are continuing to reduce crime. What matters is the effective deployment of resources to ensure that we maximise the use of the sworn officer.

Overall crime is down in my constituency, with a massive drop in antisocial behaviour. However, repeat antisocial behaviour can destroy the quality of people’s lives. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the police act in such circumstances?

Tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will launch the Government’s proposals to combat antisocial behaviour, strengthening the powers available to the police to deal with antisocial behaviour and giving citizens greater power to tackle repeat antisocial behaviour that they feel insufficient action is being taken to address.

The Home Secretary has frequently claimed that her 20% cuts to police funding will not reduce front-line policing. I am sure we all agree that 999 first responders, including traffic, CID and neighbourhood police, are, indeed, front-line officers. Will the Minister therefore confirm that recent freedom of information requests show that front-line police numbers have fallen by 5,261 since March 2010?

Why does the Labour party never admit that its proposed spending reductions of over £1 billion would also result in a reduction in the police work force, and why does it also never admit that it supports the two-year pay freeze, and that the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), the shadow policing Minister, supports further savings to the police budget, which means it is committed to a greater saving than we are? That is a fact, and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) should attend to the real issue, which is that there have been 25,000 police officers in backroom positions rather than on the front line. We are seeking to redress that.

Antisocial Behaviour

11. Whether her Department has carried out an impact assessment on removing the deterrent of a criminal record in dealing with antisocial behaviour. (108037)

I thank the Minister for that interesting answer. Under Labour, antisocial behaviour was driven down and my constituents saw the real benefit. With front-line policing now being hit by Tory cuts, my constituents are facing a weakening of powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, despite the spin we heard a moment ago. In drafting the upcoming White Paper, will the Minister acknowledge that public confidence is low and a weakened rebranding of antisocial behaviour orders is the wrong priority at the wrong time?

It may not surprise the hon. Gentleman to learn that I do not share his characterisation of the antisocial behaviour measures on which we have been consulting. The criminal behaviour order would carry a tough criminal sanction for breach, and other measures, such as the crime prevention injunction, are about having speedier justice to bring relief to communities. These measures are about strengthening the response to antisocial behaviour, not weakening it. The hon. Gentleman will see that when the White Paper is published tomorrow.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to strengthen the impact of antisocial behaviour legislation would be to extend the welcome category of offences that he and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary are considering for which the police can themselves prosecute, without having to go through all the bureaucracy of the Crown Prosecution Service?

I absolutely agree. This is about reducing bureaucracy and giving discretion to the police to be able to get on and conduct such charges. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is examining precisely that issue and the relevant offences which may apply.

Stockport Homes is very effective in dealing with antisocial behaviour by its tenants, using a number of measures made available under legislation introduced by the previous Labour Government. Does the Minister agree that civil orders and injunctions should still be available to social landlords, on application, in any future proposals?

I agree with the hon. Lady about the role social landlords can play in dealing with antisocial behaviour. Injunctions and civil orders are important tools. We are looking at how to extend them, and to make them more flexible and speedier, so as to bring relief to social tenants and others who are victims of antisocial behaviour.

Heathrow (Delays)

13. What recent reports she has received on the time taken to enter the UK through Heathrow airport; and if she will make a statement. (108039)

I receive daily reports on queuing times at Heathrow. Our sampling of queues shows that the vast majority of European economic area passengers at Heathrow pass through immigration control quickly. However, queue lengths have on occasions reached unacceptable levels and we introduced a range of measures to combat this.

May I welcome the steps that my hon. Friend has taken to improve this situation? However, does he agree that all other law enforcement agencies, including the police and the Revenue, use risk assessment in the normal planned course of their business? As security is such a major issue, will he assure this House that every available desk at Heathrow will be manned at busy times?

My right hon. Friend will know that we have introduced more staff, as well as the range of other measures that I mentioned in answer to an earlier question. BAA—and the airlines themselves, including the head of safety and security at Virgin Atlantic—has said that we have seen some improvement in the last few weeks. I am also able to assure my right hon. Friend and the House that more people are working there this week than last week, and that there will be more next week. As the summer gets busier and busier, there will be an increasing number of staff on the desks.

I thought that the whole point of hosting the Olympics was to try to increase the number of visitors to this country. Our anxiety is not just about the queues now, but about the queues when the Olympics are over. There is one thing that the Minister just does not seem to grasp, so let me ask him a very simple question, which a schoolchild could answer: if it takes 400 passengers 60 minutes to pass through 10 manned controls, how long would it take those passengers to pass through if the number of controls is cut by 20% to eight?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman about the Olympics, as he is, for once, right about that. I, too, am concerned about what happens after the games. That is why I announced last week that we are bringing forward the recruitment of the first wave of people who will be needed for terminal 2 when it reopens, so that they will be available after the Olympics. We will have extra people at the border not only up to and during the Olympics, but after the Olympics. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that his concerns have been fully met.

Olympics (Police Preparedness)

14. What recent assessment she has made of the preparedness of the police for the London 2012 Olympics. (108040)

The Government and everyone involved are focused on delivering a safe, secure and successful games. We are confident about police preparations, which are at an advanced stage of readiness and are on track for the Olympic and Paralympic games.

I thank the Minister for his reassuring words. To ensure a safe Olympics, it will be important for the police to work closely with other blue light services, such as the fire and ambulance services. What discussions have taken place on collaboration between all the emergency services?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I know that as chair of the all-party group on emergency services he takes a keen interest in these issues—indeed, I understand that he recently arranged a visit to the Olympic park. I can assure him that the Home Secretary has chaired various cross-governmental meetings with ACPO, the fire service and the ambulance service to ensure that there is a strong and co-ordinated blue light response, enhancing our emergency services.

Of course, the 2012 Olympics are not only taking place in London; many events will also be held in Cardiff, including the first one, before the opening ceremony, at the millennium stadium. What consultation has the Minister had with South Wales police to make sure that people attending the Olympics in Cardiff and other cities across the country have just the same level of safety as will be enjoyed in London?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the connections; indeed I visited Weymouth last week to examine the preparations for the Olympic sailing event, which we are very much looking forward to there. The police and the national Olympic co-ordinator have been actively bringing the police response together. We have been testing and carrying out exercises, and focusing not simply on London, but on all parts of the country involved in the Olympic games. We look forward to celebrating them very much.

Child Detention (Immigration Centres)

During 2011, 99 children entered immigration removal centres, short-term holding facilities and pre-departure accommodation, which compares with 436 in 2010 and with 1,119 in 2009. The numbers held at any one time in 2011 were very low; snapshot figures from the end of each quarter ranged from zero to one child.

When the coalition Government made their unequivocal statement in May 2010 that they would end all

“detention of children for immigration purposes”,

many of us welcomed that, because we had always thought such detention to be wrong. Will the Minister therefore explain what response she has given to the Refugee Council’s “Not a minor offence” report, which describes the detention of unaccompanied children arriving in this country from Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq? These children arrive deeply disturbed and very frightened, and they find that their first interaction with this country is to be put in detention and kept there. Will she please guarantee that no more children will be kept in detention, and that instead cases will be referred to the relevant local authority immediately where children arrive in this country?

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the report by the Refugee Council that was published this morning. Obviously, we will consider the Refugee Council’s recommendations as we continue to improve at all levels, but I point out to the hon. Gentleman that under the Labour Government it was 28 days before Ministers got involved, whereas under this Government it is 72 hours.

What happens to families who are claiming asylum in this country having passed through other safe countries before getting here? Are we returning them to the last safe country that they left or do we offer them the opportunity to stay in this country indefinitely?

We return where we can, obviously, but the important point is that we have a process for returning and we follow it.

Many of the children whom the Minister describes are age-disputed young people. Will she confirm that the appalling and shambolic X-ray pilot—described as “appalling” by the four UK Children’s Commissioners and subsequently abandoned—will not resume and that she will work with children’s professionals and medical experts to find an effective solution to the very difficult problem of determining the age of children?

The hon. Lady might or might not know that, in light of the view expressed by the National Research Ethics Service that that trial is research and therefore requires NRES approval, we have paused it while we work with our partners to seek formal ethical approval.

Khat

17. What recent assessment she has made of any link between sales of the drug khat and serious organised crime; and if she will make a statement. (108043)

The Government are currently reviewing the case for control of khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs will consider all available evidence, including any links with serious organised crime. Its advice will inform the Home Secretary’s decision.

The UK will shortly become the only legal port of entry for the drug khat in western Europe, so what steps will the Government take to ensure that the UK does not become a drug smuggling hub for the rest of Europe?

I know that my hon. Friend has followed this issue with close interest. The Government are monitoring the situation carefully and seeking evidence from the Serious Organised Crime Agency and others to inform the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. That advice is due in October, earlier than expected, and we will form our final decision on the basis of that.

Will the Minister study the evidence that every ban on every new drug since 1971 has resulted in an increase in that drug’s use? A ban on khat will not only increase its use but drive a wedge between the police and the Somali and Yemeni communities. Is this a sensible idea?

We will form our decision based on the evidence and the information provided by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation; bans can be very effective. For example, part of the problem with legal highs has been that young people have been taking them because they equated legality with safety. That is why we have taken action in that sphere and we will continue to take action on the legal framework.

Human Trafficking

In 2011, the Government published their human trafficking strategy, opted into the EU directive and improved the support arrangements for adult trafficking victims. Since then we have been working across Government and with stakeholders further to strengthen and improve our approach to tackling human trafficking.

Many people believe that trafficking is about foreigners being trafficked into the UK, but do the Government accept the need for great vigilance on the question of British citizens being trafficked within the United Kingdom and outside it, which has recently been shown to be happening?

Of course, the terrible incident in Bedfordshire highlighted the issue of internal trafficking and the Government have taken action. We recently passed clauses in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 to make internal labour trafficking a criminal offence, which will come into force in April 2013. We also made it an offence for a UK national to traffic a person for sexual or other exploitation, regardless of where in the world the trafficking occurs or is intended to occur.

Short-term Visas (Appeals)

22. What her policy is on appeals against refusals of applications for visas for short-term visits. (108048)

Genuine visitors will always be welcome to visit the UK. Only the family visitor route currently offers a right of appeal. Subject to parliamentary approval, that will be removed by 2014.

That reply will be heard with very considerable concern and anger in many communities across the country. Families who are trying genuinely to have family reunions, weddings and so on are being held up. Does the Minister not recognise that the main problem is that the appeals process is jammed up because of the low level of decision making in the UK Border Agency and the stubborn refusal of managers to review that, saying that it will be sorted out in the appeals system? I have letters to that effect. Why does not the Minister address the issues and look after the community?

I am addressing precisely those issues. Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman missed the first part of the answer—genuine visitors will always be welcome to visit the UK. The current appeals process takes around eight months. Re-applying takes about 15 days, so it is quicker and easier for people to apply again. The current visit visa appeal system costs about £29 million a year to administer—money that could be much better spent on other parts of the immigration system.

Topical Questions

On 10 May we introduced in the other place the Crime and Courts Bill, which will establish the National Crime Agency. The NCA will be a powerful operational crime-fighting agency which will defend our borders, fight serious and organised crime, tackle economic and cybercrime, and protect children and vulnerable people. I will be further discussing the workings of this important new agency when I meet representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers later this week.

The weekly e-mail from Commander Williams showed that crime in Merton and Wimbledon was falling again last week. Residents of the Wimbledon constituency rightly attribute that to the Mayor of London ensuring that police numbers were kept up during his first period of office, so what can the Home Secretary say to the residents of Merton who want to ensure that the police can recruit the brightest and the best talent?

That was one of the issues that Tom Winsor looked at in the second part of his review of pay, terms and conditions for police, and he has proposed a number of ways for direct entry at various levels in the police for those from outside the police so that we can see a broader range of experience and skills being brought into policing. Those proposals, like other proposals from the Winsor report part 2, are currently going through the appropriate police negotiating body and other bodies.

The borders inspector has said that the number of people absconding at border control, slipping through without permission, escaping from detention or disappearing after temporary admission has more than doubled since the election, and the number who are later caught has fallen. Can the Home Secretary explain why that has happened?

We take the issue of security at the border extremely seriously. That is why we have been following up the report of the chief inspector of the UK Border Agency, as his title then was, in relation to the Border Force and ensuring that the—sadly—poor situation that had developed over a number of years under the Labour Government is being addressed.

The problem has got substantially worse since the election. At terminal 3 alone the number of absconders was 115 in 2009; in 2011 the report estimates that it was “between 300 and 350, significantly higher than previous years”, and the proportion being caught later has halved. That is what the report says. Time and again, the situation is getting worse month on month, not better. Is not the truth that this is another example of failing border control and weaker action on illegal immigration on the Home Secretary’s watch? We have controls being downgraded hundreds of times, hundreds of staff being cut and at the last minute re-recruited, drugs and gun checks stopped, and more people like Raed Salah managing to walk through, when they should have been stopped. Will the Home Secretary get a grip?

I say to the right hon. Lady that it is this Government who are putting in place controls on our immigration system; it was the previous Labour Government who allowed people to come in without any controls on the immigration system. We are putting in place a policy that will see the number of people coming into this country reduced and in both the UK Border Agency and the UK Border Force, we are putting right the problems that grew up under the previous Labour Government. She talks about the relaxation of controls, but the inspector said that that had been happening since 2007. It is about time that the Labour party accepted responsibility for what it did in government.

T4. I commend my right hon. Friend’s steely determination in dealing with Abu Qatada and his slippery legal team, but the fact remains that such a situation might happen again. That man has cost the British taxpayer £3.2 million over the past 10 years. In light of that, will she report what progress she has made in investigating how the Italian Government made early deportations of suspected ne’er-do-wells like Abu Qatada? (108055)

I have indeed undertaken, as I think my hon. Friend knows, to look at how deportations are managed in other countries, and not just in Italy but in France which, as has recently been mentioned, was able to deport two individuals rather more quickly than we have been able to deport Abu Qatada. I will report to the Commons when that work is complete. We want to be able to deport as quickly as possible people who should not be in the United Kingdom, and I am pleased that we are now closer to deporting Abu Qatada than we ever have been.

T2. Given that the vast majority of international students leave the UK at the end of their courses, why do the Government insist on counting them when calculating net migration figures, which other countries do not do, to the detriment of institutions such as Edinburgh university in my constituency that are competing with other countries for those students? (108053)

First, I assure the hon. Lady that there is not a limit on the number of students coming in. The reason we include them in the immigration system is simply that the UN definition of an immigrant is someone who comes to a country with the intention of staying there for more than a year, so any student who comes to stay for more than a year, according to the UN definition, is an immigrant.

T5. Of course, controlling immigration does not happen only at our borders; it also involves ensuring that migrants abide by their obligations under immigration rules. With that in mind, what more is being done to tackle the problem of persistent over-stayers? (108056)

We have taken action against employers, in particular, as the main reason for people over-staying is in order to work illegally. Last summer we had a big effort against over-staying illegal workers. I am happy to report to my hon. Friend that that is working. The last quarter of 2011 showed an increase in enforced removals and voluntary departures of those who should not be here, on both the previous quarter and the last quarter of 2010, so the effective and tough measures we are taking are now visibly working.

T7. A 20% cut will see 1,200 police officers go in the west midlands. A further 20% cut in the next comprehensive spending review would mean, in the view of the police service, the end of community policing. Has the Home Secretary told the Chancellor of the Exchequer that, and can she rule it out? (108058)

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that we are not going to speculate about a future spending review. He might have pointed out that the latest figures show that recorded crime in the west midlands has fallen by 7% overall, and he might have congratulated the chief constable on that achievement, despite the fact that, like every other chief constable, he is having to make savings.

T6. I, like many other MPs, was horrified and disappointed to receive an e-mail today from the Police Federation implying that Tom Winsor was effectively discriminating against black and minority ethnic applicants to the police. Instead of trying to smear Tom Winsor as a racist, would it not be better for the Police Federation to look at how to increase the number of successful BME applicants? (108057)

I share my hon. Friend’s view about the e-mail that the Police Federation sent this morning, which included the absurd claim that British policing will be transformed into some kind of paramilitary model, which is palpable nonsense. Tom Winsor’s independent report included an equality statement and the Home Secretary specifically asked the negotiating bodies to consider the impact of his proposals on equality and diversity.

T9. The crimes of the nine Oldham and Rochdale men convicted of the appalling sexual exploitation of vulnerable and young children have been condemned throughout the community. In Oldham, the police are working across agencies and on Operation Messenger to prevent such attacks, which they say exist across the UK in all communities and in all kinds of homes. What is the Home Secretary doing to ensure that such vital work does not suffer under the police cuts, and will she commit to ensuring that the Government’s response to these crimes is based on evidence, not on a knee-jerk reaction? (108060)

The hon. Lady raises a very important issue in relation to the terrible situation that we have seen in Rochdale, but, as she and others have said, sadly we see too many such cases throughout the country of grooming and sexually exploiting girls. We have already had a report from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre on the issue, and we will look at it again and at how it is dealt with across the country. We have made sure that in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 there is a specific duty on police forces and on police and crime commissioners in relation to the care of children.

T8. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Staffordshire police and, in particular, Chief Constable Mike Cunningham on meeting the requirements of the budget reductions in the spending review while maintaining visible front-line policing? (108059)

I will happily join my hon. Friend in congratulating Staffordshire police on that achievement. They, like many other forces, have seen an overall fall in crime—in their case, of 7%—despite having to make savings, and the chief constable has made a particular commitment to protect neighbourhood policing.

Binge drinking by young people is a serious public health issue. “Men in Black 3” will be on our screens soon, and cinemas are important channels for alcohol marketing, so will the Home Secretary take the lead on more effective controls on advertising in cinemas?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point. I am not quite sure why he felt that “Men in Black 3” had to be promoted in his question, good though the first two films were. We have looked at the issue of alcohol advertising in relation to the alcohol strategy, but I will certainly take on board his point about cinemas.

I thank the security Minister for the interest that he has taken in the superfluous security fencing at Milngavie reservoir since I raised the issue with him in 2010. Can he confirm that the Home Office has now acted, along with the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, to give Scottish Water the power to remove any unnecessary and unsightly security fences?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting that important constituency issue. As she knows, the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure has reassessed the site following the installation of a water treatment facility and confirmed the security measures, and I can confirm that I have signed the necessary direction.

As the Minister responsible for national security, will the Home Secretary provide us with her understanding of the comments made yesterday by the Justice Secretary, who told the BBC that he has revised his proposals for closed material proceedings in civil cases so that judges always have the final say on when they are used?

The right hon. Gentleman will see the Government’s proposals when the relevant Bill is published, but I am sure that with his wealth of knowledge and experience he will know that, on a number of issues such as control orders in the past and terrorism prevention and investigation measures now, the decision to hear such matters in closed proceedings, and the decision on whether they should go ahead, is initially taken by the Secretary of State and then put to the court for the court to agree.

In recent times there have been a number of controversial applications to extradite British citizens to the United States, including that of Mr Christopher Tappin. Some appear to have been based on American police sting operations on British soil. How are they approved, and how many have been approved in recent times?

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s concern about the matter. Operational activities such as covert investigative action would have to be approved in this country by the relevant law enforcement agency. As to the types of investigation, the approval processes and the numbers, I am about to write to my right hon. Friend, and I will set them out in detail for him.

Does the Minister share my concern that the former chief constable of North Yorkshire, having been deemed guilty of serious misconduct, was nevertheless paid £250,000 in compensation when the police authority decided not to extend his contract? Will the Minister take some action to stop the use of public money in this way? How many police officers would £250,000 pay if the money had been used for that instead?

I did not realise that the hon. Gentleman still had two thirds of his important question to go. I apologise for almost stopping him in his tracks, but I should know that nothing can stop the hon. Gentleman in his tracks.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about that matter. Such a payment is permissible under the current law. Tom Winsor has made recommendations in his independent review relating to the matter, which we are looking at carefully. I can understand that the people of north Yorkshire, and indeed more widely, would be concerned about this payment.

The Home Secretary can be proud of the fact that adult victims of human trafficking are being looked after better than ever before, but there remains the scandal that some child victims of human trafficking, instead of being put into special safe homes, are returned to local authority care only to be re-trafficked time and again. That scandal needs to be ended; what can be done?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who does a lot of essential work with the all-party group on human trafficking, that re-trafficking is an important issue. However, those who have expertise in looking after children are, by and large, in local authorities, so that is a natural place for children to be put where they can be kept safely. Where there is the problem of re-trafficking, clearly it is for the Government and for local authorities to look at ways of better protecting children from the traffickers.

In December, the Home Secretary announced a national review of stop and search as used by the police. What progress is being made with that review and when will the report be published?

Initially, I asked the Association of Chief Police Officers to look at good practice in relation to stop and search. It has been doing that, and it is currently putting the results together. Alongside that, similar activity is taking place in a number of police forces, particularly the Metropolitan police, who have been looking at their stop-and-search arrangements and actively working with communities to ensure that this important power remains available to them but that they are operating it in the correct and proper manner.

Speaker’s Statement

I wish to make a short statement on a matter of privilege before we move on to the main business. The hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) has written to me concerning the conclusions of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, as set out in chapter 8 of its 11th report of Session 2010-12, on News International and phone hacking. Having considered the issue, I have decided that this is a matter to which I should allow the precedence accorded to matters of privilege. Therefore, under the rules set out at pages 273 to 274 of “Erskine May”, the hon. Gentleman may table a motion today for debate at the commencement of public business tomorrow, Tuesday 22 May. The hon. Gentleman’s motion will appear on tomorrow’s Order Paper to be taken after any statements.

Employment Law (Beecroft Report)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), if he will make a statement on the Government’s plans in respect of the report on employment prepared for the Government by Adrian Beecroft.

May I apologise to you and to the House, Mr Speaker, for the absence of the Secretary of State? He is currently travelling back from the north of England, where he has been visiting a number of businesses, and will return to the House later this evening.

The Beecroft report was commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as part of the red tape challenge and the employment law review. Mr Beecroft was asked to give his initial thoughts on areas of employment law that could be improved or simplified to help businesses and for the purposes of job creation. The report was intended to feed into the work that the Department is carrying out to review employment laws to ensure that they maximise flexibility and reflect modern workplace practices. That is important to employers and employees. The report was designed specifically to strengthen our international competitiveness in difficult economic times. It is worth noting that the UK is considered to have the third most flexible labour market in the OECD. That is good for jobs, and we intend to maintain that situation.

Mr Beecroft was asked to take a candid look at a wide range of issues. He submitted his report in October last year. Over the past few months, Ministers have been working on the red tape challenge and the employment law review. We are already actioning 17 of the 23 topics that he raised.

On considering the Beecroft report, it was clear that further evidence was required, most notably on the issue of no-fault dismissal for micro-businesses. The call for evidence on that began on 15 March and will conclude on 8 June. Given that that date falls when the House is not sitting, the Government decided to bring forward publication of the report to this week, so that it could inform the debate. Last week, the Home Secretary announced the outcome of the equalities red tape challenge, which impinges directly on employment and workplace issues. Our intention was therefore to publish the Beecroft report this week, in time for Business, Innovation and Skills oral questions.

However, I noticed in the press today that an earlier draft of the report is in circulation. Therefore, in the interests of accuracy and so that the House has the correct information before it, I confirm that I have instructed officials that the report will be published later this afternoon. Copies will be placed in both Houses.

The Government are taking positive action to reform the labour market and to ensure that we can help more people get back to work as soon as possible.

What a complete and utter shambles! I understand, as the Minister said, that the Secretary of State is in the north-east today. However, will he explain why the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who is responsible for employment relations and is the author of this book

“to help you to maximise compensation awards”

in the employment tribunal, is not responding to this question, given that he would appear to be the expert on these matters?

The Secretary of State has called the Beecroft report, which has been promoted by the Prime Minister, “bonkers”. However, on page 3 of the report, Mr Beecroft says that he owes a “debt of gratitude” to the deputy director of labour law at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who helped to produce it. Will the Minister confirm that his Department was complicit and fully co-operated in the production of the report, despite the misgivings of the Secretary of State?

We agree that improvements can be made to the way in which employment tribunals operate, for the sake of employees and employers, but we do not think that watering down people’s fundamental rights at work is a substitute for a growth strategy.

The Secretary of State has said that there is a “reasonably good balance” between workers’ rights and employers’ flexibility. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor, however, suggest that the balance has gone too far in favour of employees. Will the Minister tell us who is determining Government policy in this area—his boss or his ultimate masters in Downing street?

On growth, Beecroft suggests that his recommendations will solve all our problems. However, the double-dip recession that we are in is not a consequence of people’s right not to be unfairly dismissed or of our employment law regime; it is a consequence of the huge drop in demand that has flowed from the loss of business and consumer confidence caused by the Government’s policies.

Is it not the case that putting people in fear of being fired at will, far from promoting growth, will have a huge detrimental impact on consumer confidence? I ask that because Mr Beecroft proposes to give businesses of fewer than 10 employees the power to fire at will through compensated no-fault dismissal. That could affect more than 3.6 million workers in the private sector. Mr Beecroft said:

“The downside of the proposal is that some people would be dismissed simply because their employer did not like them.”

That, he said, was “a price worth paying”. That is wrong. Does the Minister agree?

Does not the noise from Government around this report demonstrate what our business leaders have made very clear: that the Government have lost the plot on growth? Having sought to blame British businesses for the lack of growth, with Ministers telling firms to stop “whingeing” and to “work harder”, the Government now want to blame the hard-working employees in those businesses for the mess that they created. The truth is that they have run out of excuses for tipping the country into a double-dip recession. Everyone wants them to change course to get more people into work. That is what they should concentrate on, not on making it easier to do precisely the opposite.

A lot of clichés but not a lot of substance, I am afraid.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I was complicit in the production of the report. If he had listened to what I said in my statement, he would have heard that the Department commissioned the report. He can use the term “commissioned” or “complicit”, but we still want to check what everyone says.

The hon. Gentleman asked where the employment relations Minister is. He is in the west country, speaking to and working with postal workers, who are keen to hear his views, and so he should be.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the quote including the word “bonkers”. Let us just clarify that, shall we? What the Secretary of State said was that the way in which the current working time directive works is bonkers, and he was right. It operates in such a way as to prevent hard-working people from earning more money. I have no problems in supporting the Secretary of State on that.

The hon. Gentleman then turned to the question of how to develop an economy that can grow more jobs. He may not have spotted the fact that 600,000 new jobs have been created in the past 20 months. There is no simple magic solution, and Government Members understand that although Mr Beecroft has his views, there are others, and we want to listen to them. That is why we have issued a call for evidence and want to consider that evidence.

Last week, I had the privilege of meeting the work force at Vauxhall, where there are to be 700 additional jobs, with a potential 4,000 extra jobs in the supply chain. Why? Because the staff there are prepared to be flexible and work on a modern basis. It is a shame that the Labour party does not understand that.

What is the Department’s estimate of the increase in output if all the measures recommended by Beecroft were adopted?

I do not have a specific estimate, and that is why we have issued a call for evidence. My right hon. Friend is right to ask about that issue, which the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) unfortunately did not mention. We need to understand that there is a cost to every regulatory measure that is brought forth, not only economically but for people on the edge of the labour market who want the chance to have a job. If we regulate them out of work, we have to take responsibility for that, so my right hon. Friend is right to reflect on the costs.

Does the Minister not understand that if the recommendations go forward, it will be an appalling attack on millions of employees? Their basic security at their place of work will be taken away. Is that not characteristic of a Tory-led Government?

May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads the report this afternoon, looks at what it says and understands what is in it before condemning it? There is a balance to be struck. We need to ensure that we have modern workplaces, but also that we can compete in a world in which there are real pressures. The workers at Vauxhall and elsewhere understand that. I hope that he will read the report, and then we will be happy to have a conversation with him.

The Minister is aware that vast amounts of European legislation affect the workplace. He also knows of the Prime Minister’s promises on that matter before the last general election. Will the Minister confirm that we will not merely have a report on the outcome of Beecroft, which has much to commend it, but actually deal with the enormous amount of damage done to small and medium-sized businesses by excessive European legislation, which costs billions of pounds and a huge percentage of our gross domestic product? Will we have action and not just words?

I am delighted to confirm to my hon. Friend, who studies these matters very closely and is right that European legislation impinges on small businesses, that we have ensured that there will no longer be gold-plating of directives from Brussels. Just as importantly, we have secured the agreement of the European Commission that small businesses will now be exempted as a point of principle unless the Commission can show that they should not be. We need to make that work, and I hope I will have his support in ensuring that we do.

May I take this opportunity to apologise to business organisations? When this idea was discussed previously, I said that they were driving it. However, business organisations have been in touch with me and told me that they do not support the proposed legislation.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, Mr Beecroft has submitted his report and we have submitted a call for evidence. Business organisations are now providing that evidence, and when we publish the report later this afternoon they will be able to comment on it. They recognise the value of ensuring that we have modern, flexible workplaces.

I agree with the Minister on the need for balance, but does he agree that we would create a climate of fear in employees by introducing a fire-at-will option, which will not help productivity or growth, and which could be just plain bonkers?

Absolutely. We need to ensure we get the balance right so that businesses are competitive and we do not tie them with the red tape they suffered under the previous Government, but as the hon. Lady rightly says, we also need to ensure we do not strip away those basic rights. I understand that and we are sensitive to it, but we need to recognise that we face tough economic circumstances. I want to ensure that everybody who has the opportunity to get a job can do so. Red tape can sometimes make that very difficult to achieve.

What does the Minister think will do most for growth in this country: the introduction of a fire-at-will culture, or tackling the banks that are failing to lend to small business? If the latter, why is there so much more activity from the Government on employment legislation and pathetically little action on getting bank lending going?

Sadly, because of the failure of the previous Government, we had to ensure we tackled credit and the problems of red tape so that businesses can grow. Both things are important, as the right hon. Gentleman knows all too well. What matters in that context is ensuring we have the workplaces, access to credit and industrial investment that will enable our businesses to grow. We saw good news last week; I am sorry the Labour party seems unable to reflect on it.

Has the Minister had the opportunity to read the World Economic Forum global competitiveness report, which showed that between 1997 and 2011, the UK fell from seventh to 10th in the years when the Labour party was in power? Does he agree that if the Beecroft report leads to a new focus on deregulation and the undoing of the burdens placed on business by the Labour party, it will be welcomed by small business throughout the UK, which we rely on to be the engine of economic recovery?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who is right to point out that we need to restore the sad decline in our competitiveness that we saw before the last election. We need to restore not just the Government finances, but the strength of the economy. Ensuring that flexible workplaces and modern work practices are in place is part of that.

There is a flaw in the Minister’s logic. He cannot on the one hand claim credit for the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the private sector, including the welcome announcement at Ellesmere Port last week, and then say there is a huge problem for employers wanting to hire people. Flexibility in labour markets is a good thing, but does he accept that what is really stopping companies hiring is the lack of confidence in economic prospects in this country and the eurozone? In that context, are not the proposals fiddling while Athens burns?

It was worth the right hon. Gentleman getting to that metaphor at the end. He is right that confidence is one of the critical issues in the corporate sector. The Government need to understand that, which is why we have ensured that we look at all such issues, whether workplaces or employment tribunals. Government Departments are working hard on those things—they are all important—but he is right that we need to ensure we get the appropriate balance. He says there is surely no problem if we have all those extra jobs, but we must compete in a tough world. I am proud that there are 600,000 extra private sector jobs, but we need more.

Does the Minister agree that when we look at employment legislation, we should look not only at no-fault dismissal, but at all such legislation in the round? Activation policies that help people to get into work are as important as focusing on what happens when the relationship between an employer and employee goes wrong.

Absolutely. One of the encouraging things about the Beecroft report and other submissions is that they look at the issue in the round, and not just at employment tribunals, and the challenges of Criminal Records Bureau checks and visas. We need to ensure we think about the issue in the round and have an effective work programme alongside that.

Is not this new proposal of stripping employment rights for workers another example of how this Tory and Lib Dem Government are determined to attack workers’ rights while letting the bosses off the hook? Workers have already had a pay freeze and have to work longer for pensions, while the bosses get bonuses and even fatter pensions. Whatever happened to “We are all in it together”?

The hon. Gentleman needs to read the report and see what it says. I would also remind him that it is this Government who are ensuring that parents have much better rights. We have put those rights in place because we want to ensure that we balance work and home life. The analysis that he offers is somewhat out of date.

As a former shop steward and proud trade unionist, I welcome many of these proposals. Does the Minister agree that we need to change many of our rules and regulations so that, instead of having a “can’t do” culture, we have a “can do” culture?

If the Business Secretary has read the report, why did he say to the BBC this morning:

“Britain has already got a very flexible co-operative labour force…We don’t need to scare the wits out of workers with threats of dismissal. It’s completely the wrong approach”?

Because, as the Secretary of State rightly points out, we need to ensure that we are able to continue to compete. It is good that we have been able to secure 600,000 jobs in the private sector, but we need more. We are not in the business of trying to scare the workers. We are not somehow trying to rip up their basic rights. We want to ensure that an effective modern economy has the quality and calibre of employees that it needs. That is at the heart of our policies, and I hope that the Opposition will join us and ensure that they do not seek to scare people.

Adrian Beecroft, who is a constituent of mine, has spent a considerable amount of time on this report. Would it not be sensible for right hon. and hon. Members to take the time to read what he has to say before expressing views on a document, the conclusions of which none of them has yet had the opportunity to consider? When they do get around to reading it, perhaps the only test should be whether each recommendation would make the UK more or less competitive.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. That is why I have made sure that the report will be available to the House, so that we can look at the facts and not just at the speculation in the newspapers.

Last week, the Secretary of State paid warm tribute to workers and their union, Unite, for their role in the transformation of the automotive industry. This week, the Prime Minister wants to make it easier to sack workers. With 1 million young people out of work, should not the Government concentrate on making it easier to hire workers, rather than to fire them?

Again, I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is at a disadvantage because he has not read the report; the question that he raises shows that rather clearly. If I may, I would suggest that he has a look at it. He will see that we are focusing on how to make the market more flexible so that it is easier to hire people. That is important. He is right about the workers at Vauxhall; they have done a fantastic job and I respect that. That is the attitude of this Government.

Although the Opposition’s fantasy finance will not solve the growth problems, will the Minister accept that there are supporters of the Government who, when they read the report, will want to see that workers’ rights are protected?

Absolutely. That is why I have ensured that the report is published this week, while the House is sitting, out of respect for the House. The call for evidence will close on 8 June, when we are not sitting. I hope that Members will take the opportunity to participate in it; I am sure that the Secretary of State will be delighted to hear from colleagues on the matter.

On the question of clichés versus substance, may I remind the Minister that the deal at Vauxhall was struck under the law as it is, rather than under the law as he would like it to be? Will he therefore list his top 10 priorities for changing the law to make such deals more likely to happen?

Mr Speaker, I would test your patience if I were to list the full 10 elements of employment law as the hon. Gentleman requests, but he is right to say that that deal was struck under the current law. We do not live in a static world, however, and we need to ensure that we have examined all the changes in the workplace, whether in a large car plant or a small firm.

Does the Minister agree that, when the Government have decided how to respond to the report, it will be important to listen more to the small businessmen and women around the country than to those on the Labour Front Bench—I do not think that any of them have started a business—and to remember that micro-businesses are the key to the growth that we all want to see? Does he acknowledge that too many of our small companies are struggling with big-company legislation, and that well intentioned employment legislation often has the opposite effect, in that it puts employers off taking the risk of employing people and creates a licence for spurious claims at employment appeals tribunals?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We saw an unreformed employment tribunal system that—as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who used to be an employment Minister, knows all too well—had failed under the last Government. This Government changed it, and that is a record we can be proud of.

The last Labour Government were just as concerned about flexibility in the workplace as this Government, and the last Government asked the TUC and the CBI to report on what changes needed to be made. Those changes were put in legislation. Both those organisations have the most intimate knowledge of the workplace. What special qualifications does Adrian Beecroft have, as a venture capitalist, to report on the situation in the workplace?

Mr Beecroft is an employer. He has a significant record. He works in the marketplace not only as a venture capitalist but as an employer in his own right. He has tremendous business experience. We want to hear all voices; that is why we have a call for evidence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will contribute.

Does my hon. Friend agree that overt and extreme employment protection can be a disincentive to enterprise and growth, and that that is the case especially for small businesses? I say that as the owner of one.

There we have the practical evidence of someone who is actually running a small business. When we put in well intentioned legislation to try to remove every possible risk from the employment market, the greatest danger is that the most vulnerable workers—those on the edge whom it takes a lot of effort to bring into the labour market—can be kept out by such legislation. That is what we always have to bear in mind.

I hope that the Secretary of State enjoyed his visit to Teesside Cast Products today, itself a control of major accident hazards site and protected workplace. What are the implications of the Beecroft report on chemical and other process industries on COMAH site safety?

The Beecroft report does not relate specifically to COMAH, which is a specific area. We always want to ensure a careful balance, especially where health and safety issues are a special concern.

Last Friday, I met various business leaders from my constituency. One of their major concerns was the complexity of employment law. May I urge my hon. Friend to take whatever action is necessary to simplify employment laws, cut red tape and get the unemployed back to work in my constituency?

Absolutely, and by making sure we revert to the position where someone has to work for an employer for two years and not one year before unfair dismissal procedures apply, we have already started down that positive path.

Does the Minister recognise that one of the fundamental problems with lack of growth is the lack of domestic demand caused by lack of confidence and the unwillingness of employers to invest because of that lack of confidence? Does he think that introducing this fire-at-will concept will do anything to boost domestic consumer confidence?

As I said before, I genuinely advise the hon. Gentleman to read the Beecroft report. This is not a Government who will go about firing at will in the way he has described.

Over 50% of Britain’s smallest businesses say that they would hire more staff if they were given greater clarity about how to end an employment relationship. Does my hon. Friend agree that there may be a voluntary third way for no-fault dismissal, and will he meet me and bring along the Secretary of State?

I welcome that positive suggestion, and I am more than happy to accede to it—as I am sure the Secretary of State will be.

The Minister said in answer to a previous question that confidence is all important. Can he explain for those of us who have not read the report exactly how firing at will will increase consumer confidence?

If I may repeat my point, I urge the hon. Lady to read the report. This is not a Government who are in the business of hiring and firing at will. We are about ensuring that employers have the confidence to know that if something goes wrong, they have the ability to unpick that in a reasonable fashion. Many of them are deterred from taking on anyone in the first place, and that is bad for those on the edge of the labour market.

The Minister will recall that under the previous Government, businesses faced 14 new regulations every working day. May I assure the Minister that, on the Government Benches, we support businesses, want to reduce their burdens and stand on the side of businesses that want to grow and be competitive?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. This is an important matter and we need to have an intelligent debate, which is why we are publishing the report.

Consumer confidence is low and the housing market is fragile. In towns such as Telford, thousands of public sector workers fear losing their jobs. How does compounding this problem by making private sector workers fear for their jobs help? When will the Government come forward with a definitive statement—they need to do it now—on their position regarding this policy?

Again, surely the point is to involve experts and ask them for their evidence, and then to make a decision. Sadly, I detect among the Opposition a wish to make up policy and then to try to make it fit the evidence. That is not how we do things.

May I reassure the Minister, not least on behalf of many of my younger constituents, who are unemployed, that Government Members strongly welcome these labour market reforms? Will he take with a pinch of salt the obvious opportunism of the Labour party, which, while in office, doubled the number of households not in work and doubled the number that had never worked?

That is the point. Striking a balance is crucial. Not only is my hon. Friend absolutely right but youth unemployment rose by 40% under the previous Government. The Opposition claim that they care about this issue, but caring is not enough; we need to get the law right to ensure that those on the edge of the labour market have the chance to work. That is what we will do.

Is there not a danger that having a different employment regime for workers in small businesses employing fewer than 10 people could be a disincentive to growing that business?

The hon. Gentleman is right that when devising policies we have to be careful not to create unintended ceilings to growth. That is certainly something we will want to consider carefully.

Fifty per cent. of SME 500 companies were set up during the recession. Now is the time to encourage entrepreneurs. It takes courage, grit and determination to be an entrepreneur. May I urge the Minister to do all he can to help people to set up businesses and create employment?

Absolutely. It is crucial to ensure that when we devise employment law we recognise that often those small micro-businesses cannot cope with the kind of well-intentioned red tape that often comes from Whitehall and Westminster. We need to get the balance right. Those are the people in my mind when we devise these laws.

Out of the 36 richest countries, Britain is 34th for employment protection. That means it is already very easy to get rid of people in Britain. What evidence does the Minister have that his policy will do anything for growth, rather than making people more frightened of losing their jobs and not spend their money?

Again, I urge the hon. Lady to look at the report and talk to employers, who make it clear that the law needs to allow them to take people on in comfort, knowing that if something goes badly wrong, they can change things. This is not only about employment law, however, but about looking at the whole of the workplace. What matters is looking at all the issues in the round and we are working on each of them.

A key reason the eurozone crisis is unfolding is that politicians are failing to introduce the sweeping supply-side reforms needed to generate growth and close the gap between what Governments earn and spend. Will the Minister therefore ignore the cries from the Opposition and take a knife to employment regulations, which SMEs believe are the key reason they are not taking on new staff?

Ensuring that SME owners have the confidence to take on that next member of staff—perhaps even someone who is not as experienced as they would like—is a challenge and a risk for them, which is why we need to rebalance the law. I am happy, then, to take a knife to bad red tape, but I will ensure that our workplaces are modern and flexible, which is good for both employers and employees.

Will the Minister concede that given the huge problems facing our economy of a lack of aggregate demand and confidence, further adding to job insecurity, as the report suggests, could make the UK’s recession even worse? People who fear for their jobs do not spend their money.

In a sense, that is why we want to get this report into the public domain—to get past some of the speculation in the newspapers. We are concerned to ensure that good policy is based not on rife speculation but on facts. That is what we are working on.

What thought has the Minister given to ensuring that no-fault dismissal cannot be applied unfairly so as to discriminate against workers looking to start families, especially young women?

This is precisely one of the issues that Beecroft is considering and one that the Department is reviewing. Some good, positive ideas have been presented since we called for evidence on 8 March, and we will continue to reflect on it and seek to strike the right balance.