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Topical Questions

Volume 560: debated on Monday 25 March 2013

Next month, Sir Jonathan Evans will move on from his role as director general of the Security Service, and I wish to pay tribute to Sir Jonathan for the 33 years he has dedicated to the service. During that time his contributions have varied from investigating counter-espionage, developing and implementing key policies on security, and, most recently, countering the threat of international terrorism. He has experienced the service evolving over the years and as director general has led the service through particularly challenging times of change and unrest, including the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings. His tireless work helped to ensure the delivery of a safe and successful Olympic and Paralympic games last year. I commend and thank him for his invaluable contribution to public safety and national security.

Recent Government legislation seeks to abolish appeals for family visitors, but one third of appeals currently succeed. Would it not be better to get a proper decision in the first place than to go through the whole process all over again?

We looked at this issue closely and what is clear is that in a significant number of cases the initial decision was not wrong on the basis of the information available at the time it was taken; in so many cases further information is put into the system between the initial decision and the appeal, and the appeal is then decided on a different basis. It is slightly cheaper, and it will take less time, for individuals to make a further application rather than going through the appeals process. As this is the only part of the visit visa system that has this appeal, we think it is right that we change the rules for this particular category.

May I, too, give our thanks for the work that Jonathan Evans has done over many years for the security of this country? The Prime Minister has spoken today about immigration, and it is right to have conditions on benefits and public services, but will the Home Secretary confirm that she has no estimate of how many people, if any, will see any change in their jobseeker’s entitlement as a result? Will she also tell us why the number of employers fined for employing illegal workers has dropped by 42% since the election?

The Prime Minister has made a wide-ranging speech today, in which he has referred to a number of areas where the Government will be taking action to ensure that the United Kingdom is not seen as a soft touch and that people who come here are coming to contribute to our society and to our economy—that will be across the board in relation to benefits and to matters such as access to the health service.

The Home Secretary did not answer my questions about whether the policies will have any impact, how many people will be affected by the new policies or why enforcement has become consistently worse since the election. Unannounced checks have fallen by more than 30%, the number of foreign criminals deported has fallen by 16% and there has been a 50% drop in the number of those refused entry to Britain since the election as well as a 50% increase in the number of long waits for asylum decisions. There is also the point I raised with her initially: the number of employers employing illegal workers being fined has dropped by some 40% since the election. What will the Home Secretary do to improve enforcement and the effectiveness of the system so that people can have confidence that it is working? It has got worse since the election, not better, so what is she doing to improve enforcement?

The right hon. Lady lists a range of issues, so let me pick one that has already been answered by my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration—that is, the one about foreign national offenders. My hon. Friend correctly said that the number of appeals from foreign national offenders has increased. In 2012, there were about 1,000 more such appeals, which extends the time it takes to deport those individuals. I will not take any lectures on how to deal with immigration from the party that left our immigration system in such chaos. We have spent three years bringing control into the system and we will continue to do that. On the back of the Prime Minister’s speech today, we will enhance enforcement and ensure that people who come to this country do so to contribute to our society and our economy; Labour did not do that over 13 years.

T3. Intelligent use of new technology is bound to be vital in the fight against crime, whether through online crime maps or better IT procurement, but will the Government deploy it with due regard to liberty and privacy? (149434)

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that reassurance, and he is right. Online crime maps are useful in giving citizens knowledge about crime activity in their area; they are still hugely successful and two years after the launch of in January 2011, the site receives more than 200,000 hits a day. However, with street-level crime maps we have taken great care to ensure that the identities of individuals are protected because the balance between civil liberties and effective crime fighting is very important to us.

T4. Following the Secretary of State’s Government’s 20% cuts, Nottinghamshire has lost more police officers than any county in the east midlands and police morale is badly hit. After cutting police numbers and bungling the police and crime commissioner elections, will she apologise to areas such as Clifton in my constituency, where crime and antisocial behaviour are a real problem? (149435)

We have published a draft Bill on antisocial behaviour, the aim of which is to make it easier to deal at a local level with the issues of antisocial behaviour that sadly blight too many communities across the country. The hon. Lady talks about reductions in officer numbers, but she might also reflect on the fact that in the past year, recorded crime in Nottinghamshire has gone down by 13%.

T5. Further to the earlier questions on student visas, and given that Lancaster is home to one of our top universities, is any extra support available when a university needs speedier visas so that overseas academics can come to conferences and seminars that are vital to the university’s international reputation? (149436)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I am sure that he will have been encouraged by what I said earlier about student visas. He might be interested to know that last April we introduced the visitor route for permitted paid engagements, which is specifically helpful in such cases as it covers experts visiting to give a paid lecture, examine students and participate in or chair selection panels. They can do that for up to one month and receive a fee payment; I hope that is helpful to all those at his excellent local university.

I echo the Home Secretary’s remarks about Sir Jonathan Evans. On a different subject, the UN convention on the rights of the child clearly states that every individual under the age of 18 should be regarded as a child, yet we still treat 17-year-olds who are arrested as adults. Will the Home Secretary agree to undertake a review of that situation, which sometimes has disastrous consequences, to ensure that any 17-year-old who is taken into police custody is treated as a child?

As I think the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am aware of some individual cases where there have been tragic events after the arrests of 17-year-olds. I assure him that we are keeping this under review.

T6. Will the Home Secretary look favourably on a holistic approach to rural crime, so that illegal horse grazing and illegal fly tipping can be treated as what they truly are—rural crimes? (149437)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. In various parts of the country, there is real concern about the attention given to a number of issues that corporately come together under rural crime. I will certainly look at the specific issues she raised, but a number of police and crime commissioners were clear last year that they wanted to ensure that greater emphasis was put on rural crime, which blights many of our rural communities.

In just the past few months, there have been seven gang-related shootings in Maghull in my constituency—a town with no previous experience of gun crime. The Home Secretary will understand the very real fears of my constituents that it is only a matter of time before an innocent bystander is hurt or killed. Will she make sure that Merseyside police have all the resources they need to protect residents and to stamp out this worrying trend in gun crime?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. Sadly, we have seen problems related to gun crime in a number of parts of the country and, as he says, there has been evidence of completely innocent individuals getting caught in those incidents. We have been looking particularly at offences in relation to guns, and indeed we are introducing a new offence relating to the provision of guns—the intent to supply guns—so that we can catch some of the middlemen who are making guns available. Often they are rented out by middlemen for a variety of crimes. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me, I will respond.

T7. The breach rate for antisocial behaviour orders is running at 57.3%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time to change the law on antisocial behaviour so that we punish the perpetrators and empower local communities, and through that, cut antisocial behaviour and crime? (149439)

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the effectiveness of measures to deal with the antisocial behaviour that blights so many of our communities. A lot of measures are slow, bureaucratic and quite expensive; therefore the Government have published a draft Bill to reform antisocial behaviour measures, to support communities. We thank the Select Committee on Home Affairs for the pre-legislative scrutiny applied to the draft Bill and we shall respond to the Committee’s recommendations in due course.

Has the Home Secretary found it at all embarrassing to be the centre of so much speculation about going for the top job in politics?

The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing Member of the House, so he knows that that is not a matter relevant to the remit of the Home Office.

T8. I will make an effort to ask a better question than the last one. Ministers will be aware that alcohol-fuelled crime and antisocial behaviour have damaging consequences in seaside resorts such as Blackpool. Given that we are not proceeding with minimum unit pricing for alcohol, what additional measures, not in the Government alcohol strategy, will they now consider to tackle this social scourge? (149441)

The Government have already strengthened powers for local authorities in Blackpool and elsewhere; for example, to introduce early-morning restriction orders to control the hours when licensed outlets are able to trade. Indeed, we have given councils extra flexibility to act. As I have already indicated, the Government are reflecting on the representations made on the pricing of alcohol and we will come back to the House with our confirmed position in due course.

Earlier, the Minister spoke of the Government’s commitment to tackling cybercrime, yet that commitment does not seem to include either defining or measuring what cybercrime is, so could the Minister say whether individuals and small businesses are encouraged to report all cybercrime to the police?

I know that the hon. Lady has examined the issue over a number of years and I recognise her direct interest. I underline that the Government have acted on national cyber-security by virtue of additional funding, the creation of the national cybercrime unit and the establishment of Action Fraud as the direct means for reporting online cybercrime. I absolutely encourage the public and small businesses to ensure that those crimes are properly reported so that we can provide the most effective advice to prevent crime and bring those responsible to justice.

The Home Secretary will be aware of the legal case between Leeds United and West Yorkshire police, which was won by Leeds United, leaving West Yorkshire police to pay £1 million back to the football club, leaving us in a situation in which my constituents will be robbed of police officers to police yobs at football matches at weekends. May I urge the Home Secretary to intervene in this case to reverse that intolerable position?

My hon. Friend will be aware that it is not for Ministers to tell judges and courts what decisions to come to. Clearly, it is an operational matter for individual police forces to determine how to police football matches. I part company with him in his description of football fans as yobs, as football is a much safer game to attend for spectators than it was 20 or 30 years ago, largely as a result of better policing and widespread revulsion by respectable football fans at the yobs who used to deface the game.

My young constituent, James Harrold, aged 19, from Middlewich, lost both his legs after being hit by a police car travelling at speed. In 2011-12, police vehicles were the cause of 18 deaths and many serious injuries such as those sustained by James. What are the Government doing to ensure that the number of such tragic incidents is reduced?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and certainly the case to which she referred is very distressing. While speed limits do not apply to vehicles used for emergency service purposes if observance of the limit is likely to hinder that purpose, I can assure her that emergency services drivers remain subject at all times to the law on careless and dangerous driving, of which exceeding the speed limit may be a component. The Department for Transport has recently consulted on the issue of extending the exemption to other emergency services, but it has also looked at amending road safety legislation so that emergency drivers will be required to complete high speed driving training before they are allowed to exceed the limit, and it proposes to base that training on the code drawn up by the emergency services.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) will have to wait a moment, because the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has been jumping up and down more persistently.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. My question follows on from the excellent question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). I hosted a meeting of health academics from Turkey, who experienced difficulties in visiting the UK because of delays in securing a visa for the visit. Given the economic opportunities flowing from Turkey, will he join my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and me in seeking an expedited service for this economic priority nation?

Our overseas visa and entry clearance services have delivered a very good performance, with over 90% of visas issued within 15 days. If my hon. Friend wishes to raise a specific example—and it sounds as if he does—in which there was a longer delay, I would be grateful if he gave me the details and I can investigate matters with the UK Border Agency.

Does the Home Secretary agree that police and stewards can effectively control football matches, as they did yesterday at Wembley stadium, when they were able to witness Wrexham football club’s glorious victory over Grimsby Town in the FA trophy final?

I feel I should take the opportunity to congratulate Wrexham on its glorious victory yesterday, and agree with the hon. Gentleman. In fact, the way to control football violence comes largely from the fans themselves. The vast majority of football fans are respectable and want to enjoy the game peacefully, and if they do so, the job of the police is made much easier.