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Topical Questions

Volume 569: debated on Monday 28 October 2013

May I first thank and congratulate the police, and, indeed, all the other emergency services, on the excellent work they have been doing overnight and continue to do today for the victims of the terrible storm?

Earlier this month the new National Crime Agency was launched to lead the UK’s fight against serious and organised crime. For the first time we have a single national agency harnessing intelligence in order relentlessly to disrupt organised criminals at home and abroad. I have also announced that we will introduce in this Parliament a modern slavery Bill, which will include measures to send the strongest possible message to criminals: “If you’re involved in the disgusting trade in human beings, you will be arrested, prosecuted and locked up.” Modern slavery is an appalling evil in our midst and no man, woman or child should be left to suffer through this terrible crime. Finally, I have recently introduced an Immigration Bill which will stop immigrants using certain services where they are not entitled to do so, reduce the pull factors which encourage people to come to the UK, and make it easier to remove people who should not be here.

On the last point, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that her plans to introduce charges for foreign nationals using the NHS will not deter bright young talent from coming here to work or study?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that in the Immigration Bill, we will ensure not only that a better process will be put in place to deal with situations where people come here for a very short time, use the NHS and should be charged but the charges are not being retrieved, but that those who come for a temporary period and may use the NHS will actually contribute to the NHS. That is only fair to hard-working people up and down the country. We will be looking, in particular, at the issue of students, and we have been very clear that we will set the surcharge for the use of the NHS at a rate that is competitive, because a number of other countries across the world do exactly this and at a higher charge.

I join the Home Secretary in thanking the police and all the emergency services for their excellent work in response to today’s storm. I know that the House will also want to send sympathies to the families of those who are reported to have tragically lost their lives as a result of the storm.

It is because the police do such a valued and vital job that it is also important to have effective investigations when things go wrong, so that they do not cast a shadow over the excellent work that so many police officers do each day. So does the Home Secretary agree that in order to do that, it is time to replace the police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, with a new organisation with stronger powers?

I join the shadow Home Secretary in sending condolences to the families and friends of those who, it is reported, have lost their lives as a result of the storm, and she is right in saying that the whole House will wish to pass our sympathies on to those who have lost loved ones. On her question, I think it is right that we beef up the IPCC—that we give it a greater ability to deal with serious and sensitive cases and complaints that have been made against the police, rather than seeing so many of those complaints referred back to the police for their investigation. I think the public are concerned at the number of cases where they see the police investigating themselves, and the Government are committed to increasing resources at the IPCC. We have given it new powers and, if necessary, we will continue to do that.

The Home Secretary’s response is welcome, but it does not go far enough. Let us consider some of the problems we have seen for the IPCC. So far, the IPCC has proved that it is powerless to direct action in the case of West Mercia police; it is powerless to get seven former police officers to come to interview over Hillsborough; and it is unable to keep the confidence of families over the Mark Duggan case, over undercover policing and Stephen Lawrence, or over the death of Ian Tomlinson. Surely the Home Secretary agrees that the public need to have confidence not only in the police, but in the watchdog, in order for an effective job to be done? The resources are not sufficient, and the watchdog needs the powers to be able to launch its own investigations and ensure that lessons are learnt. That is the best way to ensure that a shadow is not cast over the excellent work the police do. We have been urging her to do this for more than a year now, so why will she not introduce these reforms to give the watchdog the much stronger powers that it needs?

The right hon. Lady knows full well that not only the issue of the investigation of complaints against the police, but the whole question of the integrity of the police goes further than simply the IPCC. We have taken a number of steps: for example, the register of struck-off police officers, which will be introduced as a result of action taken by this Government. It is exactly the sort of thing that would have helped in respect of the police officer involved in the issue relating to the Ian Tomlinson death, to which she referred. This Government are taking action on the IPCC. We are going to increase the resources, we are increasing the powers for the IPCC and we will ensure that it will be investigating the serious and sensitive cases which currently are passed back to the police. I think it is right that these investigations are done by a body that is not the police themselves.

T3. Several constituents of mine who have made complaints against the police to the IPCC feel that it did not have the necessary teeth to act on their grievance. Notwithstanding my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s previous answer, will the Minister say what more can be done to deal with this situation? (900720)

As my hon. Friend will just have heard, it is precisely to address this genuine public concern that we are increasing not only the resources available to the IPCC but its powers, so that it can take on the serious and sensitive cases. The powers we have given it are ones the IPCC has requested because it has identified the gaps in its own powers.

T2. Will the Home Secretary confirm that for the past year, police have had to destroy the DNA of people arrested for but not charged with rape without the right to appeal to the DNA commissioner, which the Prime Minister promised they would have? (900719)

We have amended the rights to retention of DNA to ensure that those convicted of offences are properly on the database, which the previous Government failed to do. We have introduced a new process whereby the police will be able to appeal to the commissioner, and they have not sought to address that in respect of historic DNA cases.

T5. As the Minister will be aware, Essex unfortunately has one of the highest levels of domestic violence in the country, with nearly 27,000 cases reported to the police in 2011-12. Many more victims are afraid to come forward. What specific training is being given to police officers to spot domestic violence cases, given the vulnerable state victims are in following such abuse? (900722)

We have taken a number of actions under the ending violence against women and girls action plan, including domestic violence protection orders and the domestic violence disclosure scheme. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has conducted a review of all forces and their response to domestic violence to ensure that the good practice available in some force areas is spread as widely as possible—including, I am sure, my hon. Friend’s local force.

T4. Will the Home Secretary confirm whether she has held any discussions with her fellow European Union Ministers on developing a common approach to how we will handle the increasing flood of Syrian refugees, particularly so that we can try to avoid disasters such as those we have witnessed in recent days? (900721)

A number of discussions have been held at EU level in relation to Syrian refugees both at the Justice and Home Affairs Council and at the European Council that took place at the end of last week, on which the Prime Minister will be making a statement after questions have finished. We have been considering, and the UK is supporting, a regional programme close to Syria to enable us to work with those countries that have borne the brunt of accepting refugees from Syria, to ensure that the right and appropriate support is given. The United Kingdom has given more humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees than all the other members of the European Union put together.

I recently took part in a knife crime summit in Birmingham following a series of incidents that have taken away more young lives. Does the Minister agree that stop-and-search powers for the police can be an effective way of clamping down on the carrying of knives in certain of our inner-city communities?

I absolutely agree that stop-and-search is an extremely important tool in the hands of the police. My hon. Friend will be aware that the consultation is not about reducing police effectiveness in the use of stop-and-search, but increasing it by making it more targeted, so that it is more effective for the police and gives rise to more confidence in communities.

I recently met a young Tamil man who had previously been deported back to Sri Lanka by the Home Secretary. He showed me his torture scars resulting from the Sri Lankan terrorist investigation department having tortured him. Will the Minister give me a categorical assurance that we are no longer returning men to Sri Lanka to be forcibly abused by the Sri Lankan authorities there?

The hon. Lady will know that we make decisions on asylum on a case-by-case basis and very carefully. We look at the country information we have and use the best available data. Everyone whom we determine does not have the right to our protection has the opportunity to have their case heard by an independent judge. We only return people to countries where we do not think that they need our protection, and we always keep the situation in the country under close review, working with our international partners.

Is there any possible reason for a chief constable or another warranted police officer not to respond to a reasonable request or recommendation from the Independent Police Complaints Commission?

Obviously, all chief constables will take full notice of what the IPCC says and will respond to reasonable requests. I think I know the matter to which my hon. Friend refers, and he will have seen that in that case chief constables have responded to what the IPCC recommended.

T9. According to Refuge, three women a week commit suicide because of domestic violence and their abusers usually escape scot-free. Some campaigners are calling for a specific offence of liability for suicide to be introduced. What does the Home Secretary think is the answer? (900726)

Of course, it is horrific to see the number of women who die at the hands of their abusers or who commit suicide as a result of the abuse they are suffering. This is an issue we have looked at in the past, and for a variety of reasons we decided that we would not go ahead with the proposal the hon. Lady puts forward, but I am happy to look at the issue again.

One of the stubborn points that I hear from my constituents is that although crime is dropping, which is obviously welcome, rural crime is still not coming under control. Will the Minister please take a very close look at the police community support officers? Most of the stolen property turns up in Exeter or Bristol. If we had the resources for PCSOs, we would be able to detail a lot more of the thefts that are going on across places such as Exmoor, get some of the stuff back and deter these criminals if they thought they were going to get caught when they get back with the stuff that they had stolen.

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend and the House that in Avon and Somerset crime is down 21% since June 2010. We should pay tribute to the police in Avon and Somerset for doing that. I will look carefully at the recommendations that my hon. Friend makes about rural crime.

A moment ago the Home Secretary welcomed the setting up of the National Crime Agency, as do I, but unfortunately, as she will know, in Northern Ireland it has been blocked by two parties. What steps is she taking in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland to address this very big failing in relation to tackling crime and criminal gangs in Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We have had a number of discussions with both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland on this matter. The National Crime Agency will be working with the Police Service of Northern Ireland on matters relating to serious and organised crime and all matters under the National Crime Agency’s responsibilities, and we continue to talk both to my right hon. Friend and to the Minister of Justice and look for a further way forward on this issue.

Following the disturbing reports in The Sun this morning about the impact of the Snowden files on our intelligence services, may I urge the Home Secretary to continue to balance national security with press freedom as she deals with this issue?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point, which he has rightly raised on a number of occasions in the House. It is important, of course, that we protect press freedom, but we also need to ensure that we are able to protect our national security and that we do not see information being published which could give any succour to those who wish to do us harm through terrorism.

The Minister for Immigration will be well aware that I have had to draw his attention to unreasonably long delays in implementing tribunal decisions which have reversed Home Office refusals in individual cases. When will he put an end to the scandal of people waiting six months or, in some cases, more than a year for legally binding decisions to be implemented by his Department?

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right: he has drawn some of those cases to my attention. Sometimes, when tribunals make rulings that require a change in policy, it is important to get that policy right to make sure that we can implement the tribunals’ decisions in the way they intended. If the right hon. Gentleman has any further cases, which he seemed to have, will he please get in touch with me and I will be happy to take those up for him.