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Topical Questions

Volume 553: debated on Monday 19 November 2012

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.