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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 553: debated on Monday 19 November 2012

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Front-line Police Officers

May I take this opportunity first to welcome the 41 police and crime commissioners who were elected last Thursday? They have important responsibilities and will be an important voice for people in their force areas in policing local communities. Police and crime commissioners take up their office officially this Thursday. I look forward to working with them in future to do everything we can to ensure that we can continue to cut crime.

Between March 2010 and March 2012, the total number of front-line officers fell by 6,778.

There are more people here than voted for police and crime commissioners.

The Mayor of London has cut 3,500 police officers and police community support officers in the last two years. The Metropolitan police is getting rid of borough commanders and neighbourhood sergeants, and closing 65 police stations to the public across London, including Shepherd’s Bush in my constituency and South Norwood in Croydon North. Does the Home Secretary think that will make the public in London feel safer or less safe?

Of course, the Metropolitan police has put forward some proposals today in relation to its budget, including proposals to cut central costs significantly and actually increase the number of constables. Neither the hon. Gentleman nor those on his Front Bench are able to get it yet. The Opposition have continually claimed that it is not possible to cut budgets without damaging front-line services or without crime going up; yet budgets are being cut, front-line services are being protected, the number of neighbourhood officers is going up and crime is falling.

As the Home Secretary correctly says, it is possible to do more with less, as the recent crime statistics have demonstrated. Does she agree that the election of PCCs, such as the excellent Angus Macpherson in Wiltshire—the first ever to be announced—is central to deciding how we can use scarce resources to best effect in tackling crime?

I congratulate Angus Macpherson on his election; indeed, it was good to see that as the first result. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that PCCs will have an important role to play in ensuring that police forces are delivering against their budgets in a way that we all want, which is by ensuring the protection of services such that we can continue to cut crime.

In last week’s elections for the Home Secretary’s flagship policy, 85% of the public decided not to vote. She chose to spend £100 million on having these elections and this transition, which could have been spent on 3,000 police officers this year. She chose to hold the elections in November, to get the Home Office to run them and to deny the public proper information. She was warned in the Commons and the Lords, and by the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society, that those decisions were wrong. Given the overwhelming public message she received last week, will she now tell us which of those decisions she regrets?

The right hon. Lady really needs to get her story straight on this. She complains about the amount of money that was spent on the police and crime commissioner elections, yet in the same breath she wants more money to be spent on them. Which is it: too much money or too little?

That was not an answer to the question. The Home Secretary has to take some responsibility for the shambles that she has created. In April she got the decision and the date wrong over Abu Qatada by accident; in November she got the date wrong on the elections deliberately. By not holding them in November, she could have saved £25 million alone, but she chose not to. People did not want these elections last week. They said it was a waste of money, they said they did not know anything about it, they objected to the policy and they did not want to vote in the dark. She did not listen to those warnings and she is not listening to the public now or the message that they sent last week. Why does she not listen to them and apologise for the shambles that this Home Secretary and her decisions have created?

I make no apology for introducing police and crime commissioners, who have a democratic mandate for the first time. For the first time, the public know that there is somebody who has been elected who is visible, accessible and accountable to them. PCCs have replaced invisible, unaccountable, unelected police authorities. I think police and crime commissioners are going to make a real difference to cutting crime in this country.

Last week there was also a parliamentary by-election in Manchester Central, where the turnout was 18%, yet I notice that nobody is arguing that it was in any way a shambles or that there was a lack of a democratic mandate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that all this says more about the Opposition’s party political point scoring than about any concern for police matters?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I would also point out to the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), that I believe that there was a freepost in that by-election, although it did not seem to drive up the turn-out. I have heard no comments about the legitimacy of the individual who has been elected as a Member of Parliament.

Immigration Rules

2. What plans she has to review the timing, frequency and communication of changes to the immigration rules and associated guidance. (128814)

Changes to the immigration rules and associated guidance are scheduled twice each year, with additional urgent changes being made when required. Guidance explains how the rules must be applied, and it may be updated more frequently. We keep the need for changing the rules and the guidance under constant review.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but he will know that there have been 15 changes to the UK Border Agency’s guidance to the higher education sector in relation to tier 4 sponsors over the past couple of years. Does he acknowledge the concern on both sides of the House and beyond at the inclusion of international students in net migration targets? Will he also acknowledge that, despite the damage that that has caused to university recruitment, the Government said in their response to the Lords Science and Technology Committee that they were committed to the growth of the university sector? Will he commit to a period of stability in relation to guidance, and to providing better support for tier 4 sponsors?

The hon. Gentleman knows this area very well as a result of his long experience in the sector. He will be aware that we did a full consultation before we introduced the changes to tier 4 rules, and that we rolled them out in three tranches in order to give the sector time to adjust to them. He is wrong on this point: we deliberately protected the university sector, and the UCAS figures that we have just seen show that international student acceptances to universities are up by 4%. Our education sector is open for business.

I very much welcome the coalition Government’s efforts to manage and control immigration, but does the Minister agree that we would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we were to exclude specialist temporary workers who were the existing employees of British companies? We cannot say to inward investors, “We want your money, but we don’t want your workers or your expertise to help us to grow the company.”

The hon. Lady will know that we have a cap on skilled workers, and that, so far, we have not come anywhere near to it taking effect. No business that has wanted to hire a skilled worker who meets the requirements has been unable to do so. Our policies are sound: we are keeping control of immigration but contributing very successfully to economic growth.

I represent Tech City, and in my regular meetings with representatives of those technical businesses, immigration comes up as one of the main challenges. For all the Minister’s comments just now about there being no cap, he is causing confusion and complication in a sector that could be driving the British economy. When will he rethink?

I really do not think that the hon. Lady is right. We have a cap on skilled migration, but we have not come anywhere near it. We have a clear system for businesses being able to bring in skilled workers. If she has specific examples from businesses in her constituency, I would be delighted to meet the people involved so that I can set out clearly what our policies are, and if there are genuine issues, I will absolutely look at them.

Will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that all changes will be properly announced? In particular, I should like an assurance that there will be no repeat of what happened from 1997 onwards, when there was a massive increase in the number of work visas granted to non-EU workers, without proper announcement, and the implementation of a de facto open-door immigration policy—even though it sounds very much as though the Opposition would like to do the same thing again.

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We want to ensure that we have firm but fair immigration controls, and that we have a cap on immigration, not least so that businesses can give British workers a proper opportunity to get into employment. If there are skill shortages, they can be dealt with. Our university sector is protected. We have sensible policies that have been announced to the House, and I am very happy to defend them.

Drugs Strategy

3. What recent assessment she has made of the Government’s drugs strategy; and if she will make a statement. (128815)

The Government published an assessment of the drug strategy in May 2012. We are making good progress. Drug use remains at its lowest since measurement began in 1996. We have the highest numbers completing treatment, and the drug sector is refocusing its approach to move beyond treatment and achieve recovery.

The Welsh police unit involved in Operation Tarian reports that the effect of a ban on mephedrone has been to double its use in Wales. Will the Minister bear that in mind when considering a ban on the drug khat, which would almost certainly lead to an increase in use and drive a wedge between the police and the Yemeni and Somali populations?

We are always open to strong evidence-based research on how to reduce the harm from drugs, but it is worth bringing to the House’s attention the fact that existing illegal drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine have seen a dramatic fall in their use, while there has been quite a big increase in legal drug consumption. It is not automatically the case that making something legal leads to a reduction in its consumption.

Given that the number of legal highs detected in Europe has more than doubled since 2009, what action is the Government taking against those who are supplying these drugs?

My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to this increasing problem, which has been raised with me at the constituency level as being a serious reason to be alarmed. We are obviously making sure that the law is adjusted to take account of the threat to society, but it is a difficult field because it is, of course, evolving very quickly. We need to make sure that we take the necessary measures to protect society. Just because a drug is legal, does not necessarily mean that it is not harmful, especially if taken in the wrong way, so members of the public need to be mindful that this is a potentially hazardous area.

The Government promised swift action against legal highs and official figures show that 57 legal highs have hit the UK market just this year—nearly two a week—yet there has been only one temporary banning order in two years. These dangerous substances are killing people, so when will the Government act to protect young people in particular with timely bans and to ensure that the drug strategy promise of good-quality drugs education is delivered in our classrooms?

On the hon. Lady’s second point, I think there is an awareness and knowledge, particularly among young people, of the harms that drugs can cause. I see that among 11 to 15-year-olds there has been a quite marked decline in drug consumption over the periods for which surveys have been carried out. Of course legal highs are a new threat—not just to young people, but to the population as a whole—which is why we have to consider how best to respond to them. This is an increasing threat, but I repeat the point that overall, drug consumption in this country is falling.

Student Visa System

4. What steps her Department is taking to reform the student visa system; and if she will make a statement. (128816)

We have overhauled the student visa regime with a series of reforms designed to drive abuse out of the system while improving standards in the sector. As I said in reply to the previous question, we have seen that being successful. The overall number of visas in the part of the sector where there has been abuse is down, but the number of non-EU students accepted into our universities is up. Our universities are very much open for business, and there is no cap on recruitment to them.

Many of my constituents have been appalled at the systematic abuse of the student visa system. Will my hon. Friend reassure us that his Department will continue to pursue bogus colleges, which for far too long under the previous Labour Government just opened doors for people to come to this country on bogus student visas?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The point of having student visas is to allow students to come here to study, not to work illegally. We have a very good offer for our higher education sector; students can come here, study and take up work appropriately, and then come here after their studies for post-study work. It is a very good offer. Our good universities should have no trouble converting it into attracting students and saying that they are very much open for business.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to wish the international students at London Metropolitan university all the best for their continuing studies there and assure those who have been given one year that they will indeed be allowed to complete the totality of their degree course? Will he confirm that he is having discussions with the university to allow it once more to recruit international students to what is an excellent course of study offered by it?

The hon. Gentleman will know that London Metropolitan university did not carry out the obligations it was supposed to under its sponsor licence, yet it was given plenty of notice to do so. He will also know that the legitimate students who were here appropriately have been given the opportunity to stay either to the end of their course or to the end of the academic year. They have all been written to, and all had the opportunity to reply. UKBA is working closely with the university to make sure that those legitimate students are properly protected.

23. I am pleased to hear that the Government are cracking down on the number of bogus students. However, with the closure of the post-study work route, what reassurance can the Minister give me and the House that we are not discouraging bright and capable international students from studying in the UK in the light of the short time frame they are given to find graduate employment? (128837)

Those students who are here to study at universities have an opportunity to find graduate level employment for several months after the end of their course. They can then convert their visa into a work visa and stay here after their course. I think that gives bright students every opportunity to do so, without letting people stay here to do unskilled work that is not of economic benefit to the United Kingdom.

Does the Minister accept that, while it is entirely right to bear down on abuses in the system, it is widely felt by higher education institutions throughout the United Kingdom that a message is being conveyed to areas such as south-east Asia and China that this country is no longer as welcoming as other European countries to overseas students who wish to study here? Does he recognise that that is potentially very damaging to the long-term health of the UK economy?

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that Ministers take every opportunity—as I have today—to make clear that we have a very good offer to make. The only people whom I ever see quoted in the media saying that the UK is closed for business seem to be people from the education sector. I have pointed out to them directly, and will do so again, that there is a great offer for our university students. They should help us to sell and market Britain abroad, as I take every opportunity to do.

Policing Levels (East Midlands)

5. What recent assessment she has made of policing levels in the east midlands; and if she will make a statement. (128817)

I congratulate the chief constables and police officers of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire on rising to the challenge of cutting crime with reduced budgets. The latest recorded crime statistics show a 15% reduction in recorded crime in the east midlands in the two years to June 2012, with officer numbers down 6% in the past year.

Clearly the new police and crime commissioner will have a very challenging role in the current environment. Should not we as a Government show a degree of humility in admitting that very serious errors were made in the way in which we publicised last week’s elections, show determination to make the system work, and explain to people that replacing anaemic police authorities with a single identifiable head is the right way forward?

I agree very much with my hon. Friend’s second point, but less with the first. The police and crime commissioners, including the very good commissioner who has just been elected in his own county—[Hon. Members: “The Tory candidate lost.”] Unlike the Opposition, I am being non-partisan about this.

The new commissioner can build on work that is already under way. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has found that forces expect the proportion of officers working in front-line roles to increase from 83% in March 2010 to 89% in March 2015. That 15% fall in crime in the east midlands is the biggest percentage decrease in all the regions of England and Wales, which demonstrates that the effectiveness of a police force depends not on overall numbers but on how well it deploys its resources.

My constituents are puzzled by the fact that the Government’s priority was to spend £100 million on an election that was unwanted rather than spending that money on 3,000 more police officers. What explanation can the Minister give my puzzled constituents?

The hon. Gentleman is merely repeating the question asked by his right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary. Let me point out to him that—as was pointed out to his right hon. Friend on television yesterday—the figure that Labour Members keep producing would involve employing 3,000 police officers for one year and then sacking them all. I think his constituents would be pretty puzzled by that.

UK Border Force

The morale and professionalism of the staff in the Border Force is obviously vital to the defence of our border security. They performed very well during the Olympic and Paralympic games, and I think that the country was very proud of that. The Home Office has just conducted its annual staff survey, and we will use the results to work with our staff to continue to improve the performance of the Border Force.

The number of cases in which people have been refused the right to remain in the UK but the UK Border Agency does not know whether they have left has shot up by 8% in the last quarter. Is the Minister overseeing a new low in the UK Border Agency, and when will he get to grips with that increasing figure?

I think that the hon. Gentleman has got his UK Border Agency and his Border Force muddled up. His question was about the Border Force. I have to say, on the basis of my limited time in this job and the visits that I have made to our border controls at Heathrow and Gatwick and the juxtaposed controls in Paris, that the staff whom I have met have been incredibly professional and very hard-working, and have delivered excellent border security. Long may they continue to do so.

Speaking as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, which has produced a number of reports on this subject, I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees with me that, in fact, there has been a lot of progress with the Border Force and a great deal of improvement on the situation we inherited from the previous Government.

I do agree. I mentioned the Border Force’s performance during the Olympic and Paralympic games. There was some scepticism as to whether it would be able to continue that during the very busy September-October period for student arrivals, but I am pleased to say that it performed very well during that period; we did not see a resumption of queues at Heathrow, and it can be very proud of that level of performance.

Asylum Seekers

Swift action will be taken against all those who have no lawful permission to remain in the UK. That includes not only failed asylum seekers, but everyone who does not have permission to be here. We are not repeating the last Labour Government’s mistake of focusing only on one thing at a time and letting everything else get out of control, which resulted in the situation we inherited when we came to power.

Speaking as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I am extraordinarily grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. He will know that the issue of those who remain in this country illegally is of huge concern to all our constituents. Can he update the House on what action is being taken to deal with it specifically in the east midlands and my constituency?

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that question, and I will enjoy being scrutinised by him, as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, in due course. I can give him a couple of examples. Obviously, we have conducted enforcement operations in his constituency, and he might also be interested to know that this summer in London Operation Mayapple led to more than 2,000 individuals from the London area without permission to be in the UK leaving the country. The number of enforced overstayer removals is up 21% compared with April to September 2011, and arrests are up 16% this year compared with last year.

As the Minister will know, the report published last week by the Home Affairs Committee showed that the current backlog in the UKBA had reached one third of a million cases, which is equivalent to the population of Iceland. While I absolutely accept that this backlog began under the previous Government and was there under successive Governments, it has risen by 25,000 in the last three months. What steps is the Minister going to take to ensure this backlog is cleared, and will he commit to ensuring there are no more bonuses to senior UKBA officials until it is cleared?

The right hon. Gentleman—who, of course, chairs the Home Affairs Committee—will know that we inherited 500,000 cases on asylum alone from the previous Government, and we have been diligently working through them. He will also know that that will be the focus of a report in due course. Some of the cases will be closed because we see no evidence that the person concerned is in the country, but others will have to be worked through. I will make sure that there is a clear timetable to work through all of them, to ensure that all the people concerned are given a clear decision and matters are concluded on a timely basis so we can finally clear up the situation we inherited from the previous Government.

Policing (Bureaucracy)

We have swept away central targets, removed red tape, and extended police powers to prosecute. These measures will cut inefficiency, save time and taxpayers’ money and bring swifter justice, freeing up more than 4.5 million police hours—the equivalent of putting over 2,100 officers back on the beat.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and may I congratulate the Home Secretary on setting out a very robust plan for putting more officers back on the beat by reducing bureaucracy? Does the Minister agree that part of the responsibility for cutting red tape lies with chief constables, and some of them are not doing enough to reduce unnecessary form-filling in their forces? Will he also set out what he sees as the newly elected police and crime commissioners’ responsibilities in respect of reducing unnecessary form-filling?

My hon. Friend has been a member of the Treasury Committee for many years, and he is keen on cutting public spending where it is wasteful. He is right that police and crime commissioners will play a key role in encouraging chief constables who need to do better on this to do so. Indeed, the PCC in his county of Suffolk made practical commitments on reducing bureaucracy, including the idea that the time spent supervising criminals or offenders in detention centres, hospitals and behind desks could be carried out by other staff, not by trained police officers. It is that kind of practical approach that will cut bureaucracy and release police officers to serve on the front line, where we want them.

As a member of the Select Committee on Justice, I recall that some years ago, Jan Berry, the ex-chair of the Police Federation, was appointed to conduct a review of police bureaucracy and identify how it could be cut. She well understood the need for a balance between keeping the spirit of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and doing away with needless paperwork. How many of her recommendations have, in fact, been adopted by the Government? If the Minister cannot answer today, will he send me a note—[Interruption.] I do not mean to be offensive, but perhaps he can write and tell me?

I cannot off the top of my head give the right hon. Gentleman the number, but I am pleased to assure him that I have worked closely with Jan Berry, who comes from Kent and still lives there, and has continued to take an interest in police affairs after standing down from the Police Federation. The right hon. Gentleman is right that many of her ideas are extremely good, and I shall write to him with the details.

Does the Minister agree that the Home Office is not best placed to lecture on bureaucracy, given that it presided over a shambles of an election that cost an extra £25 million just because it took place in November? Will he remind the House of the basis on which November was chosen for the election date?

The election date was chosen by Parliament. There have been many elections in November. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman may have noticed that the American public went to vote earlier this month—they do not seem to object to a November election. He would do well to take the advice of the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, who said on Friday after the elections were over:

“We shouldn’t carp, we should now move on and we should accept the elections of the new commissioners as they come through and…make sure that it works because they are there, they’re in place, the public have spoken”.

I think that the Chair of the Select Committee is wiser than the shadow Minister.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that participation in future PCC elections will improve, as excellent candidates such as Sir Clive Loader in Leicestershire will be able to point to a record of achievement? Does he agree, too, that one method of increasing voter participation that should not be encouraged, and should be resisted at all costs, is giving prisoners the vote in these or any other elections?

I will happily obey you in this instance, Mr Speaker, as I always do.

Sir Clive Loader will make an excellent PCC, and he will be keen to reduce bureaucracy. It is precisely on their record of releasing the energies of the police to do what we want them to do and serve on the front line that PCCs will be judged when the elections come round again. I am sure that that will engage the public more.

Student Visas

Our student visa reforms are tackling abuse of the system while protecting universities.

We do not publish forecasts of numbers of grants, but the recently published entry clearance visa statistics for the year to June 2012 show that the number of tier 4 study visas was 214,000. That is a 30% decrease on the year before, mainly from the non-university sector. There is no cap on recruitment to universities and, as I have said, UCAS acceptances of non-EU students are up 4%.

I thank the Minister for his answer. He has said that the number of visas granted has gone down. Does he want that trend to continue, or does he agree with me that that will damage any attempt to promote our higher education system as a great British product?

As I have said, there is no cap on the number of students going to universities. I want the number of visas granted to people who plan to come to the United Kingdom to abuse our immigration system to go down, which is exactly what has happened. We have got rid of the abuse and we are making sure that our university sector is open for business. I make no apologies for the fact that I have said that three times during questions. We have a good offer for our university sector, and it can make a success of it.

Given the scale of the earlier abuse, does my hon. Friend agree that the integrity of the student visa system depends on interviews? Is he satisfied that there will be sufficient staff at our embassies and consulates overseas to cope with the valued and welcome arrival of students in this country?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have started to do some interviewing in some high-risk countries, which has been very successful and has demonstrated the value of interviewing in certain locations, which allows us to drive out some clear abuse. Where that makes sense, we will continue to do it and will increase our ability to do so.

The Prime Minister told students in Dubai—he has a habit of answering questions when he is abroad, if not when he is in this country—that there is no limit on international students in the UK, and the Minister has repeated that this afternoon. However, the Migration Advisory Committee states that there will have to be 86,600 fewer students over the next three years if the Government are to meet their target. Who is right? Is Boris Johnson right to say that we are losing a massive business opportunity? Is the director general of the CBI right to say that it is putting people off? Or is the Minister just confused?

The hon. Gentleman should understand that we have a net migration target, so those students who come to the UK, study and leave make no contribution to the net migration statistics. Our universities can go out, recruit smart students and educate them and they will make no difference at all to net migration. The Prime Minister is absolutely spot on and I think that it is the hon. Gentleman who is confused, as someone who does not believe in having a net migration target at all.

Visa System

10. What steps her Department is taking through the visa system to enable business and tourist visitors to contribute to economic growth. (128823)

The UK Border Agency supports economic growth through delivering an effective visa service, which processed almost 2 million applications for visitor visas in 2011, and exceeding our public commitment to process 90% of cases within 15 working days. We take our economic responsibilities seriously and the UK Border Agency is constantly looking to improve the service it offers. Amongst other measures, it has launched priority services, such as providing a five-day visa service, premium lounges for high-value customers and out-of-hours appointments at visa application centres.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to speed up clearance and entry for Chinese business visitors, tourists and investors who have been identified by Visit East Anglia, Suffolk chamber of commerce and chambers of commerce across the UK as a vital means of growing international trade and export markets?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the issue of Chinese visitors to the UK. That is an important market for the UK and I am pleased to say that we have seen some strong growth in the number of Chinese visitors to the UK for both business and tourism. It is one of our priority markets, so we have undertaken a number of changes to our system. Half our Chinese business customers, for example, now benefit from access to a priority scheme. We have opened new expanded visa application centres in a number of cities, but we will continue to look at what we do to ensure that our clear message is that Britain is open for business and has a functioning visa system that ensures that those whom we wish to welcome to the UK can come.

It is no good saying that we are open for business when the perception out there is that we are not. Will the Home Secretary consider meeting admission tutors from the Russell group and representatives of chambers of commerce to familiarise herself with what is happening on the ground? The perception is that we are not open for business and that access is not as quick as it should be.

One problem is that a lot of people are claiming that the UK is not open for business because of our visa system. The former Immigration Minister went out to visit China and clearly gave out the message. The former and current Immigration Ministers and I have met people from the universities, the CBI and other business sectors to talk to them about the issue. It is not just for the Government to go out and say that Britain is open for business—business organisations and universities should give out that message. As the Immigration Minister said earlier, UCAS figures show that the number of applications from non-EU overseas students to our universities has gone up. The universities should stop claiming that there is a problem and go out and say that they are open for business.

Police Procurement

11. What assessment she has made of the potential for achieving savings through economies of scale in police procurement. (128824)

The Government estimate that savings of £200 million per year, including from economies of scale, can be made through joining up police procurement by the end of March 2015.

One area with potential benefits is IT spend, which should not continue to be replicated 42 times. Will the Minister give us an update on the progress of the Police ICT Company, announced in July, and confirm that the police and crime commissioners, including the excellent John Dwyer in Cheshire, will be expected to use it?

I echo my hon. Friend’s praise for the new PCC in Cheshire. We hope that the PCCs will eventually own, take over and run the Police ICT Company because its purpose is to ensure that the PCCs have the opportunity to secure critical services and help to make savings. The company will offer services that help individual forces achieve efficiencies through the procurement, re-use and management of their ICT, and I very much hope that a large number of commissioners will take up this offer.

In Kent the new PCC was the outgoing chair of the police authority. When she was elected, she made it clear that she would have no truck with privatisation. It should be said that she resoundingly beat the Tory candidate by nearly 2:1. Is that not an indictment of the Government’s policy on PCCs, and is it not an example showing that the existing chair was much preferred—

Order. The hon. Gentleman’s question is rather long and it is only tangentially related to the matter on the Order Paper. I have indulged—[Interruption.] Order. I have indulged him adequately.

I am not entirely sure that the hon. Gentleman had got to a point yet. It will clearly be in PCCs’ own interest to look at the best way of spending most efficiently the money that they control so that police are visible on the front line and are able to cut crime. In the end PCCs have been elected, they are responsible for their own actions and what they say, and the electorate will judge them after a few years. I urge all PCCs to take a sensible and pragmatic view about the Police ICT Company and collaboration.

Antisocial Behaviour

12. What progress her Department has made in reducing levels of alcohol-related antisocial behaviour. (128825)

Last month, the Government commenced new powers to help local authorities and the police tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder. They can now impose early-morning alcohol restriction orders and charge a late-night levy on pubs and clubs to go towards the costs of policing the late-night economy. We have already reformed alcohol licensing laws. We will also give front-line professionals faster, more effective powers to protect the public from antisocial behaviour.

Alcohol-related antisocial behaviour can be a blight on some of our towns and cities and is particularly distressing for victims. Will my hon. Friend urge the newly elected PCCs to work with local authorities to implement this welcome new tool?

I recognise the problem identified by my hon. Friend and I urge all PCCs who were elected last week to work in partnership with local authorities, the police and others to use the new powers that we have given them to enhance the safety of the communities they represent.

In Wrexham CCTV has played an important role in reducing alcohol-related antisocial behaviour. Is it the Government’s policy to reduce the number of CCTV cameras?

In my constituency, Taunton Deane, CCTV plays a useful role in protecting the public as well. The Government’s policy is that CCTV can play an important role in community safety and reducing crime, but it is not the same as Labour’s position, which is that the more CCTV cameras there are, the better the society we live in. We think these things have to be proportionate. CCTV has a role to play but it is not as big a role as the hon. Gentleman perhaps feels.

Police and Crime Commissioners

I welcome Tony Lloyd to his new role as the first police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester. I am writing, I hope today, to all PCCs in advance of their assuming office on Thursday, to congratulate them and to invite them to join me and my ministerial team for an event on 3 December.

I am grateful for that answer and for the warm welcome from the Home Secretary. I am sure that when she meets Tony Lloyd, she will want to thank him for standing in the election because without Labour last Thursday, the turnout in Greater Manchester would have been lower than 7%. Given the level of concern expressed during the campaign about antisocial behaviour, will she review her current approach and, instead of rebranding and weakening antisocial behaviour orders, will she work with Tony Lloyd and other police and crime commissioners to strengthen the law in this respect so that those who make other people’s lives unbearable can be dealt with effectively?

I note that Tony Lloyd, referring to the turnout at the elections, said:

“It doesn’t take away the mandate of the PCC… That, like any good politician, is earned not only at the election; it’s earned by working with the public, being there to listen to the public and to represent the public.”

On antisocial behaviour orders, we are strengthening the ability of the police and others to work against antisocial behaviour. Crucially, we are giving local communities and individuals greater powers, such as the community trigger, which will enable people, if action is not being taken on antisocial behaviour, to require that action is taken. That did not happen under the Labour party.

Let me tell the Home Secretary:

“What we ended up with was a toxic mix of low voter awareness about the role, the absence of an active public information campaign, near silence from politicians and polling day moved to a time of year when it gets dark at 4 pm.”

Those are the words of the Conservative Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns). In truth, Members across the House have raised concerns about the elections. Does she accept that any mistakes were made?

As I have said elsewhere, of course I am disappointed about the turnout. I believe that the turnout at the next elections will be higher because people will have seen police and crime commissioners in their role and the commissioners will have a record to defend, as the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) has just said, but it was up to politicians across the board and others to go out and campaign, and the Government did run an awareness campaign. I return to the point I made at the beginning of Question Time: police and crime commissioners replace police authorities, which were invisible, unaccountable and unelected. Police and crime commissioners are elected, visible, accessible and, crucially, accountable to the people.

Gangmasters Licensing Authority

14. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the effectiveness of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority in tackling trafficked labour. (128827)

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority plays a key role in protecting workers who may be exploited in the agriculture, shellfish, and food processing and packaging industries. A recent Government review streamlined its remit to focus on suspected serious and organised crime, working more closely with the Serious Organised Crime Agency and other specialist law enforcement agencies.

I thank the Minister for that endorsement of the work of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, particularly given the recent evidence of the Noble/Freedom Food eggs scandal, which was described as the worst case of human trafficking the Gangmasters Licensing Authority had ever seen. However, would it not be better if the Government took on the principles contained in my Transparency in UK Company Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Bill so that companies ordering those goods have a responsibility to trace right back to the source what is happening in the supply chain and we stop that kind of abuse of workers who come here to pick and work in our farms?

I certainly recognise the serious nature of the crimes the hon. Gentleman highlights and am sure that he will welcome a number of the joint operations with the Serious Organised Crime Agency—in a recent case, 30 Lithuanians were freed as a consequence. I hope that he will also welcome the work of colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills who have recently put out for public consultation legislation on the human rights reporting requirements of quoted companies, which we believe will go a long way towards addressing the concerns highlighted in his Bill.

In human trafficking, far more people are exploited for labour than for sex, and the Minister is right to concentrate on organised gangs. Will he expand a little on how the Government will target organised gangs?

I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing commitment to and interest in this important issue. I highlight the creation of the new National Crime Agency with an attached border command, which will harness greater intelligence. The national human trafficking centre will form part of that and will, we believe, really strengthen the approach in combating that appalling crime.

Topical Questions

The Government have a comprehensive programme of police reform. To make policing more professional and evidence-based, we are establishing a college of policing. To get tough on organised crime, we are establishing the National Crime Agency. To ensure we reward specialist skills, we are reforming police pay. To give the public a stronger voice, we have introduced crime maps and mandatory beat meetings, and the election of police and crime commissioners will give the public a say for the first time in how their local police forces are run. Police reform is working; the front-line service is being maintained and crime is falling. I commend police officers for their achievements.

Since the passage of the Human Rights Act a decade ago, the time taken to deport potentially dangerous individuals, such as Abu Hamza and now Abu Qatada, has reached unacceptable lengths. Will my right hon. Friend pursue any and all measures to ensure that those people who may represent a threat to our country can be quickly deported from our country?

My hon. Friend raises a point that I know is of concern not only to Members of this House, but to many members of the public. I assure him that the Government are looking at pursuing a number of avenues to ensure that we can reduce the length of time it takes both to deport people from this country and, indeed, to extradite people. In the case of Abu Hamza, the judiciary has itself made comments about the need to look at the processes that we follow, to ensure that we can use not only the reforms of the European Court, but those in our own judicial processes to reduce the length of time it takes to deport those people who are a potential threat to this country.

T2. Following my comments in the House about Cyril Smith’s abuse of boys, I understand that the Crown Prosecution Service has now located investigation files relating to Smith from the 1960s. Could the Home Secretary now look at whether it is true that the then Director of Public Prosecutions received a second opinion recommending that Smith be prosecuted; why he concluded that it was not in the public interest; what role, if any, the security services played; and how the Government intend to get to the bottom of what several former police officers are now referring to as a cover-up? (128839)

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that if members of the public have concerns that they wish to report, they should report them to the police, and if they have concerns about the police, they should report them to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Obviously, we would expect those authorities to act on the information provided to them.

T3. Some of my constituents have had their applications for indefinite leave to remain returned after months of waiting, only to find that there was an error in their payment details. Why is there a separate verification process for payment details? Why not have one process? That would solve the problem of people going back to the beginning of the queue simply because of an error that is not always of their making? (128841)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. The process for scrutinising applications is such that any payment issues are supposed to be looked at right at the beginning of the process, so that they can be dealt with swiftly. If my hon. Friend knows of specific cases in which that has not happened, I would, of course, be pleased to either hear from him or meet him to discuss them in more detail.

T5. At 32 square miles, Scarisbrick in my constituency is the largest parish in Lancashire. The village now shares its one police constable and two police community support officers with neighbouring Burscough, following the £42 million-worth of cuts to Lancashire’s police budget. At night, three police officers cover 50 square miles from Ormskirk to Skelmersdale, which are vast areas for the police to cover. How can the Home Secretary justify to my constituents that the £100 million spent on the police and crime commissioner elections, with a turnout of just 15% in Lancashire, is an effective use of scarce resources when we are losing front-line officers? (128843)

Obviously, it is not for me to comment on the individual operational judgments of the chief constable of Lancashire, but I am happy to be able to tell the hon. Lady and the House that, despite the constraints that she has mentioned, recorded crime in Lancashire between June 2011 and June 2012 went down by 2%. I hope that not just her constituents, but others in Lancashire are reassured that the police there are doing an extremely good job of cutting crime and keeping the streets safer.

T4. Metal theft has been a huge problem for some community groups and churches in the Pudsey constituency. It costs a great deal of money and is a problem throughout the country. Does my hon. Friend the Minister welcome the passage through the House of the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill and share my belief that we must reform the industry in order to support legitimate dealers and make it much harder for those who provide a market for stolen metal? (128842)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. Crimes such as taking lead from church roofs or stripping plaques from war memorials cause offence to Members of all parties. The Government are already taking action. On 3 December, new measures will come into force to better regulate the scrap metal industry. My hon. Friend has rightly drawn the House’s attention to the private Member’s Bill that received its Third Reading last week. We are also taking additional actions in concert with the Bill’s promoter, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), to further regulate this important industry and make sure that it does not contain criminal behaviour.

T6. I was interested in the answers on student visas because a week ago on Saturday, I had a meeting at Coventry university with a Minister from Oman who takes an interest in science and technology and who wants to do business with the university. The issues raised were the delay in getting student visas, which seems to be putting people off, and the cost for students. What will the Government do about that? It is no good making excuses. (128844)

It sounds as though it would be helpful if I looked at the details of the case, so I would be happy to hear from the hon. Gentleman. In most cases, visa applications are processed very quickly. We say yes in most cases and deliver a timely service. Without knowing the specifics, such as which country the students are from, it is difficult to give a specific answer. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says Oman. We deliver an excellent visa processing service for a number of the Gulf countries. If he gives me more details, I will look into the matter for him.

T7. To many, it seems that the rights of dangerous hate preachers are now more important than the rights of the British people to a peaceful and secure life. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure the safety of the British people and that there is no place in this country for those who would harm us? (128845)

As my hon. Friend points out, he is raising a concern that is felt by many members of the public. Obviously, we have recently had the judgment in relation to Abu Qatada, which I think may have triggered my hon. Friend’s thinking on this issue. We are seeking leave to appeal that judgment, but we will also continue to work with the Jordanian Government to see what can be done. We will pursue all avenues to ensure that we can deport Abu Qatada. This Government have taken a stronger line on whether we allow those who can be described as hate preachers into this country and have ensured that fewer of them cross our shores.

The Home Secretary will be aware that there are concerns about the provisions in the Justice and Security Bill, which is being debated in the other place today, that introduce closed material proceedings. The provisions will enable judges to see all the evidence in cases that affect national security, while protecting vital intelligence. Will she work with the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) to reassure Members of the Lords and of this House that those proceedings, while essential, will be used only when absolutely necessary?

I am happy to give the right hon. Lady an assurance to that effect. This is an important Bill, because in a very small but growing number of cases, it is not possible for the Government to defend themselves because the information cannot be made available in open court. As a result, settlements have to be made and there is no justice, because there is no trial or judgment on the rights and wrongs of the case. Hence, there is a desire to introduce closed material proceedings in a very limited number of cases, where it is necessary and proportionate. I am obviously working with my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister without Portfolio to that end.

T8. The net receipts under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 were £165 million last year. I appreciate that a fair chunk of that money is reinvested in local crime-fighting initiatives, but will the ministerial team look at the percentage that is allocated to local community projects, so that more groups like the Thornton Lodge action group can be successful in their bids? (128846)

Yes, I can give that undertaking. A small amount of the money is made available to community groups. My hon. Friend makes a valid point about whether that percentage could be higher and we will look at how that might be achieved.

It is no good Ministers lecturing police and crime commissioners on the merits of forces sharing costs in procurement when they could have saved the public purse £25 million by combining the PCC elections with other local elections. Why did Ministers ignore the calls from Opposition Members to combine the elections with next year’s county council elections?

Opposition Members must get their story straight. Half of them say that we should not have spent as much money on these elections as we did; the other half say that we should have spent more money. If they come up with a coherent argument, we will give an answer.

T9. Mindful of the Home Secretary’s well known views on the Human Rights Act 1998, but also of the difficulties of coalition government, will she persuade the Leader of the House to make time available for my forthcoming ten-minute rule Bill, which would repeal that Act? (128847)

My hon. Friend is tempting me to make comments on that particular issue. I am sure that the Leader of the House, who is present, has heard what he said and will give due consideration to the issue that he raised.

Police and community support officers are incredibly popular in West Mercia, and their numbers should be sustained at current levels. Does the Home Secretary believe that, by the time of next election, the number of PCSOs in the West Mercia area and in Telford will be at current levels, or will there be fewer or more?

The change that we have made as a Government is that we say to local police forces, “With the police and crime commissioners in place, it will be up to you to decide how you wish to have the staffing, and the numbers that you want.” That decision will be taken at police force area level, not dictated by the Home Office. I believe that that is right.

Will the Home Secretary join me in congratulating the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, not only on reducing crime figures in the London area, but on his ambition to have 2,000 extra police constables each year for the next three years so that, by March 2015, there will be a record number of 26,000 police constables in Greater London? Will she congratulate him—effusively, if she wants?

I am happy to commend the work that the Mayor of London as police commissioner and the deputy Mayor have done for several years, although the Mayor formally became a police and crime commissioner only in January this year. He has always emphasised recruiting and the number of constables who are out there and available. Obviously, the Met and the deputy Mayor, who has responsibility for crime and policing, are looking carefully at the Met’s budget to ensure that they can take out waste and that the money is spent cost effectively, as they said today, on recruiting more constables.

Given the large number of voluntary organisations around the country, including SAIVE in Staffordshire, that look to provide counselling for the children who were abused in sex scandals, will the Home Secretary consider assessing the extra resources that are needed to provide counselling as a result of the inquiries that she has set up?

I think I recall that the hon. Lady raised the point when I made the statement on north Wales. I have taken away that issue. Obviously, the Home Office does not provide the particular service that she mentioned, which comes under other Departments. I will raise the matter with those Departments.

Does the Home Secretary agree with the conclusion of the Home Affairs Committee that, compared with police authorities, the police and crime commissioners will

“have a greater incentive to make savings since the level of police precept will be one of the most visible indicators of their performance to their electorate”?

I am very pleased to agree with my hon. Friend and the Home Affairs Committee on that matter.

Some women asylum seekers end up on the detained fast-track procedure because they have been reluctant to disclose sexual violence and abuse. How can Ministers ensure that the system will be sensitive to such women’s experiences?

One of the things that the UK Border Agency is attempting to do is make sure that the system is more sensitive to those who have suffered sexual violence and have been trafficked. It has recently published some information about how it goes about doing that through training its front-line officers and its caseworkers. I take that matter very seriously, and will ensure that the UK Border Agency pays great attention to it. If the hon. Lady has any particular concerns about specific cases, I am of course happy to discuss them with her at any time.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have been complaining to a national housing association for the past two years on behalf of a small group of constituents who are suffering at the hands of a small group of social tenants things such as homophobic attacks, domestic violence on the street and drug dealing in the streets. The housing association has done nothing about it. What more can we do to force housing associations to take their responsibilities more seriously and allow other people to live their lives quietly?

The housing association and, indeed, the local authority and the local police force should take my hon. Friend’s complaints and those of the residents in her area more seriously. I urge her to ensure that they work effectively on behalf of her constituents. If she feels that that is not being done, she may wish to raise the matter with the new police and crime commissioner.

I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but, as they know, in Home Office questions, demand invariably exceeds supply. We must now move on.