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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 574: debated on Monday 27 January 2014

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Reductions (Northumbria)

The independent inspectorate of constabulary has found that, like other forces, Northumbria police are rising to the challenge of making savings while maintaining and improving service to the public. The Northumbria police and crime commissioner has recently restated her and the chief constable’s shared commitment to maintaining the number of police officers and staff working in their neighbourhoods. She is clear that her force needs to do things differently, use technology more effectively and work from different buildings that are cheaper to run.

This morning, Northumbria police arrested eight people as part of Operation Sanctuary, an investigation into horrific allegations of sexual abuse of looked-after young girls and other vulnerable victims in the west end of Newcastle. Police have assured me that they are working with safeguarding agencies and local communities to protect the victims and pursue the perpetrators, but that very police station in the west end of Newcastle is to close as part of the £67 million cuts and we have seen a 7% rise in total crime in the region over the past 12 months. Will the Home Secretary give me a commitment that Northumbria will have the resources it needs to pursue this critical investigation?

I recognise the sort of case that the hon. Lady raises. Sadly, we are seeing too many such cases, particularly involving the horrific abuse of young girls. There have been a number of cases and I was with Thames Valley police a matter of weeks ago to talk to them about Operation Bullfinch and the lessons they had learned from that for the future investigation of such cases and how victims are treated. There has been a lot to learn. I do not think that the physical presence of a police station is what makes the difference to how such a case is treated and I am sure that the chief constable of Northumbria will ensure that there are the resources properly to investigate and to bring to justice those who are guilty of such crimes.

Fast-track Border Controls (Airports)

Border Force is committed to improving the experience of all passengers at our ports in support of the Government’s long-term economic plan, including the delivery of value-added services such as fast-track queuing. When such a service is delivered, it is appropriate that, at the very least, the costs of such a service are met by the passengers or airlines that receive the benefit.

What seems to be emerging from this Government policy is a class system for going through airports. My ordinary constituents have to wait in long queues, and sometimes very long queues, whereas people who are wealthy—bankers, Mr Abramovich and people like that—have a special relationship that means that they do not go through security and are fast-tracked. I know that that is going on and it is a class system for who comes in and out of this country. What is the Minister going to do to reassure my constituents that that is not happening?

It is difficult to know where to start; there were so many inaccuracies in that question. First, in the case of 99.6% of passengers, we meet our queuing requirements and we have now largely fixed the problems we inherited with Border Force and queuing. Secondly, everyone who comes through our airports has their details checked and it is clear in the operating mandate that 100% should be checked. We have fast-track approaches where people pay fees that provide extra resources so that we can deliver that service without damaging the service received by everybody else.

London Gatwick airport in my constituency introduced automatic e-gates for departures for all passengers some time ago. May I seek assurances from my hon. Friend that Gatwick will be included in future fast-track border entry, which will be great for local business and great for that important gateway into the UK?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. He will be aware that I recently had the opportunity to open the e-gates at the south terminal at Gatwick that mean that British citizens and European economic area passengers can get access to the United Kingdom more quickly with their chipped passports. We are looking into developing a range of services so that those who bring value, business, growth and jobs to the country can get here more efficiently. That is something that all Members should welcome.

For many years, the Home Office, and before that, the UK Border Agency, have offered people premium or priority immigration services, with set timelines, but they have not always managed to meet those timelines. What progress is the Minister making on being able to deliver all immigration services within the time promised?

As a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, my hon. Friend will know that the latest data, provided to that Committee, show that we have made considerable progress in reducing the backlog of applications. He will also know that we have published our new service standard—I will write to Members shortly, setting that out—which gives customers much clearer, more transparent expectations about how long they should wait for their immigration applications to be dealt with. That will be a considerable improvement in customer service standards.

Police Recruitment

3. What recent representations she has received on the effect of the cost of a certificate in knowledge of policing on the recruitment to the police of black and minority ethnic groups and disadvantaged groups; and if she will publish the equalities impact assessment of that policy. (902167)

Other than from the hon. Lady, no representations have been received on this matter. To improve recruitment standards, we have given forces a range of entry routes that they should use to recruit a work force who reflect the communities that they serve. A copy of the equality impact assessment produced by the College of Policing is available on its website.

When the Home Secretary opened her College of Policing last year, she said:

“Policing needs to be able to attract the brightest and best—regardless of their background. It should not place artificial barriers in their way”.

In the past week, I have received numerous complaints about the college’s £1,000 bobby tax on police recruits. As the bobby tax has to be paid up front, and there is no guarantee of an interview or a job at the end of the course, or even of passing the course, it is clearly an unacceptable barrier to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds joining the police. Why will the Minister not instruct police forces to scrap this insidious tax on our police and young people?

The certificate of knowledge in policing is designed precisely to improve the standards of those entering the police force, to make them even more professional. From this year, the Metropolitan police will offer financial support to help with the costs of the CKP, in the form of an interest-free loan, which will be available on the basis of London residency and means-tested household income, so that will specifically be available to the hon. Lady’s constituents.

Following on from that question, on the policing of ethnic minorities, the Minister will know that I am greatly concerned about the welfare of African-Caribbean people held in detention environments, and of those with mental health issues. Is there anything that the Minister can say today to reassure me that Front Benchers are aware of this concern, and are doing something about it?

I am indeed aware of my hon. Friend’s concern, not least because I have debated the matter with him in this House. I am able to reassure him further: my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has written to Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on the subject, because we take it extremely seriously.

Can the Minister say what the recruitment of black and ethnic minorities is like in the west midlands? Can he give us the figures?

I do not have the west midlands figures immediately to hand, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman about that. If he is asking whether the police should do more to recruit ethnic minority recruits, yes, they should. That is why the College of Policing is devoting much of its early energies to this matter. Everyone throughout the police service, and certainly in government, believes that the police should reflect the communities that they serve, and that more needs to be done, both in how the police act on the streets and how they seek new recruits, to make sure that the police are more reflective of the whole community that they serve.

My right hon. Friend and, I think, the whole House will agree that police forces need to reflect the ethnic diversity of the communities that they serve. Does he agree that one way to do that is possibly by recruiting more special constables from those communities, so that forces can use their language and other skills? I have a significant community of Kashmiri origin in my constituency, and I would like the opportunity for a number of them to become special constables. They would bring to the role a lot of knowledge and other skills that are much needed in policing.

I agree very much with my right hon. Friend. The specials do a great job anyway, and their recruitment is particularly important, both as a way of increasing the diversity of forces, and as an entry route to full-time paid policing. Specials bring a degree of expertise from outside the traditional policing route, but many find it such a satisfactory career that they wish to pursue it full time.

Do the words “disadvantaged groups” in the question suggest that white working-class people should also gain from any measures?

It is not for me to anticipate what the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) was thinking when she tabled the question, but I have made the point that the Metropolitan police is offering interest-free loans; as I say, they will be made on the basis of residency in London—because the commissioner of the Met is keen that policing in London be done increasingly by people who live in the Metropolitan police area—and on the basis of means-testing. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) can be reassured on that point.

Firearms Applications (Processing Costs)

The most recent assessment of the net cost to police of processing firearms applications was undertaken by the Association of Chief Police Officers in 2009-10. Its report estimated that the gross cost was £23.6 million; the income received was £6.4 million; therefore the net cost to the police was approximately £17.2 million.

The cost and system of licensing firearms must be proportionate and fair. Work is continuing across government to ensure that that happens.

If the cost of processing the licence and making sure that weapons are stored safely and securely is £17.2 million in excess of what the Government have raised, given the answer to Question 2, should not those who benefit pay? Why do the public have to subsidise the shooters in this case?

I have some sympathy for the point made by the hon. Gentleman, but I must point out that we went from 2001 to 2010 under the previous Government without any increase in firearms fees at all. He will understand that these matters have to be agreed across government, and other Departments have perspectives that have to be taken into account, but I am determined to make progress on this matter.

May I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I am the chairman of the all-party group on shooting and conservation, which has been studying the matter in considerable detail. Is not the important the fact that there should be uniform treatment across all 42 constabularies and that the police should adopt best practice to drive down costs so that each applicant, wherever they come from, can be sure that they are getting the very best value for money?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the police should adopt best practice, and they are developing an e-commerce system, as he knows, which will reduce the average costs from £196 to £169, but it will still leave a significant shortfall.


5. What steps she is taking to prevent harassment through the sending of unsolicited sexual images via the internet and telephone. (902169)

The coalition Government takes all forms of harassment, whether online or offline, very seriously. We have robust legislation in place to deal with cyber-stalking and harassment, and perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour face stiff punishment. We will continue to work collaboratively with industry, charities and parenting groups to develop tools and information for users aimed at keeping society safe online.

I welcome the measures that the Government have taken to prevent sexual violence against women and girls. The Minister will be aware that many young people have been pressured into sending intimate photographs of themselves only to find that those images are sometimes posted, distributed or shared without their consent, which is an important form of bullying and harassment. What measures have been taken, and does the Minister support measures to prevent smart phone use by those who are not mature enough to understand that it can result in an important form of bullying?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. We have given teachers stronger powers to tackle cyber-bullying by searching for and, if necessary, deleting inappropriate images or files on electronic devices, including mobile phones. It is critical to educate young people about the risks of sending intimate photographs. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has developed a specific educational resource to tackle sexting that is designed for use by teachers. There are numerous laws in place that can be used to deal with those who behave in this appalling manner.

Would not updated compulsory sex and relationships education help to tackle this problem? Is the Minister confident that the police know how to deal with issues such as revenge pornography, to which one of my constituents was subjected, and which she did not get very much help from the police in trying to tackle?

I am sorry to hear about the hon. Gentleman’s constituent and her experience. The Government has made it clear that online crime is as serious as offline crime—there is no difference there—and we expect the police to conduct rigorous inquiries into online offences or potential offences. There are numerous pieces of legislation that they can use including, for example, the Malicious Communications Act 1988, under which it is an offence to send communications or other articles with intent to cause distress or anxiety.

But online or offline, the Minister knows that the best way of tackling abuse and violence against women is to have compulsory sex and relationship education in schools, which teaches our children about healthy and respectful relationships. Now that this is supported by the vast majority of parents and teachers, the NSPCC, mumsnet, the girl guides—all those who work in the sector dealing with violence against women—will the Government abandon their attempts to stop it and support the amendment in the Lords that would introduce this in our schools?

Of course, that is predominantly a matter for the Department of Education than for the Home Office. I have discussed the matter with my colleagues in the DFE, but it is worth pointing out that 96% of primary schools and 73% of secondary schools teach e-safety, either as separate lessons or embedded in others.

Police Forces (Local Authority Funding)

6. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of reductions in local authority funding on police forces. (902170)

Funding for local authorities is a matter for the Communities Secretary. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 puts in place two related, reciprocal duties for police and crime commissioners to co-operate with partners. These duties ensure that local leaders work together to achieve the most effective outcomes for their areas. PCCs are already working with local partners to ensure that they provide the services the public needs, and we encourage them to continue do so.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response, but the fact remains that people across Northumbria are being unfairly hit with savage reductions in local authority budgets and a loss of nearly 400 front- line police officers, which has resulted in an increase in violent crime. With this toxic combination stretching the fabric of partnership working and community policing to breaking point, what steps is the right hon. Lady taking to stem the rise in violent crime and reassure our communities and my constituents across Northumbria?

I am pleased to say that crime survey figures show overall across the country that violent crime is down by some 13%, but I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that I gave earlier to her hon. Friend the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) about Northumbria. The PCC and the chief constable in Northumbria are looking to use technology to work more effectively and looking at ensuring that they collaborate with local partners so that they continue to provide the effective police service that her constituents and the PCC’s constituents want in Northumbria.

I note that police funding in Northumbria is slightly higher than in my county of Leicestershire per head of population. I also note that according to the latest recorded crime figures, crime fell by 19% in Northumbria and 24% in Leicestershire. Does not that show that the issue is not about absolute budgets but how that budget is allocated?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and he echoes a comment made by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, which shows that it is not the number of police officers that is relevant but how they are deployed. So it is about how the resources are used. As I have said, in Northumbria, the PCC and the chief constable are looking to ensure that they use their resources as effectively as possible, particularly through the introduction of new technology.

The Home Secretary must be aware of the disproportionate anomalous effect of the cuts overall— by local and central Government—in the west midlands. We await her review of what happened to Coventry because of the damping review, where we received £44 million less than her own formula should have awarded, and the top-slicing that she announced in January means a cut against what we should have received of a further £3.9 million. Of course, the City of London and Surrey are doing much better. What has she got against the west midlands?

I am pleased to see that the crime figures show that crime continues to fall in the west midlands, and that the West Midlands police have been able to put in a bid to the new innovation fund, which the Government have introduced, and they were successful in that bid, so they will be able to put in place the creation, I understand, of a new intelligence hub, which will greatly enhance their ability to deal with crime in the west midlands.

During the past two years, the budget for policing in the west midlands has been reduced by 13%, and during the same period crime has fallen by 18%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that this more-for-less outcome is in the interests of law-abiding taxpayers as well as the police?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is interesting that the Opposition always refuse to accept that good policing is about how the police are deployed, rather than overall numbers. We understand that, and so do chief constables, which is why, I am pleased to say, we are seeing the effectiveness of police constables and the work their officers are doing up and down the country in reducing crime.

To be a victim of violent crime is traumatic. To see one’s assailant not brought to book adds insult to injury. With 7,000 fewer crimes of violence against the person solved under this Government, does the Home Secretary accept that this is the inevitable consequence of the combination of the biggest cuts in local government history and the cutting of 10,000 police officers from the front line: more violent criminals getting off scot-free?

No, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise. Labour Front Benchers often quote detection rates. Of course, we have seen the number of crimes fall, and that has an impact on the number of detections.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating North Yorkshire police on further reducing crime by 5%? Does she also agree that local authorities have a useful role to play in reading the films from CCTV cameras and that that should continue on an ongoing basis?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comment about the necessity of working with local authorities, which I think is absolutely imperative. The work that local authorities do in looking at images from CCTV cameras and working with the police on that is an important part of the picture of partnership working to reduce crime in the local area.

Sales of Acidic Substances

7. What recent assessment her Department has made of the availability of over-the-counter acidic substances and the use of such substances in violent crime. (902171)

Acid attacks are an extreme form of violence that the coalition Government is committed to tackling and preventing. The Home Office recently consulted on proposals to improve control of explosive precursors and harmful poisons and chemicals, including some highly corrosive acids, as part of the UK’s Contest strategy. We will ensure that proportionate measures are put in place to prevent the misuse of the most dangerous substances.

I thank the Minister for that response and the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), for his written reply to me on the matter. Mr Hugh Reilly, a plumber in my constituency, has told me that he has to use a substance that is over 90% sulphuric acid to unblock drains. He has told me that unfortunately it is increasingly being used for attacks, particularly on women. In a tragic accident, an innocent householder put the substance down his drain. It burnt through the pipes overnight, went through the floor and burned the face of a five-year-old boy sleeping in the apartment below. Surely we need some system of registration and regulation so that only authorised and qualified people can purchase those substances.

I am sorry to hear about the horrific incident to which the hon. Gentleman refers. We saw a report of another such attack on the front page of The Sun this morning, although fortunately someone was found guilty in that case. An EU regulation is being brought forward on the marketing and use of explosive precursors, and it separates chemicals into those that have a history of effective misuse across Europe and those that are less harmful. The great problem, as he recognises, is that many of those chemicals have legitimate uses in household activities, such as clearing drains and cleaning jewellery, so regulating them for legitimate use would be quite difficult, but we are determined to do what we can to identify the problems.

TPIMs (Expiry)

As of 30 November, eight TPIM notices were in force. The previous Government did not provide a running commentary on control orders, and for sound operational reasons we will not comment on individual TPIM cases. The next quarterly statistics are due to be published in March.

I thank the Minister for that response. Until last week, both the Home Secretary and the High Court backed TPIMs. What has changed, and how will the Government protect the public now that they have made that change?

It is worth highlighting for the House that TPIMs provide some of the most stringent restrictions in any democratic country. The independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, described them as a “harsh” measure. I highlight that the two-year limit for TPIMs is supported by David Anderson and his predecessor in that role, Lord Carlile, who was appointed by the previous Labour Government. There are measures in place to manage TPIM suspects when they come off their orders, and we have confidence in the ability of the police and the Security Service to manage risk, which they do every day.

Does my hon. Friend accept that this matter is a very strong reason for looking at the radical measures hinted at by our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in relation to the European convention on human rights? Until 10 years ago, all Governments of all complexions accepted that some foreign suspects were too dangerous to be allowed to roam about.

As my hon. Friend will know, the Government have pursued deportation with assurances in seeking to deport individuals from this country who would do us harm—we did so successfully in removing Abu Qatada from this country—but there will always be a cadre of individuals whom we cannot deport. We maintain TPIMs to be able to guard against risks from those individuals, and that is why we consider that TPIMs continue to be effective.

Does the Minister share my concern about the number of British citizens who are travelling to and from Syria to participate in extremist activity? The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation estimates that 366 British citizens have made the trip to Syria and back again, and some may well have reached the criteria that make a TPIM order appropriate. Now that the orders are expiring, is he satisfied that there are practical measures to monitor individuals of this kind?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the risk from Syria—that individuals may travel out there and then come back and pose a risk to us in this country. That is why the Government have taken a number of steps. For example, the Home Secretary has highlighted the change and strengthening of approach in relation to the royal prerogative. We will not hesitate to take measures to disrupt travel and to prosecute those involved in terrorism whether here or in other countries, such as Syria.

Will the Minister assure me that he will not follow the example of Labour Front Benchers who, in a debate last week, trampled on centuries of long-established principles of justice purely to look tough on this issue? Instead, will he continue to balance the principles of British justice with the rights of suspects?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the whole issue of the challenges that can be made in the courts. As control orders were being steadily eroded, we reviewed them very carefully as part of the counter-terrorism review at the start of this Parliament. The courts have upheld every TPIM notice that they have reviewed, and TPIMs have been endorsed by the courts, counter-terrorism reviewers, the police and the Security Service.

Last year, after Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed absconded from his TPIM, the Home Secretary told this House that he no longer posed a threat to the UK.

Turning to AM, another terrorist subject, Lord Justice Mitting concluded that AM was involved in

“a viable plot to commit mass murder by bringing down transatlantic passenger airlines by suicide bombings, which was disrupted by the arrest and prosecution of a number of individuals in the United Kingdom”,

and that

“there is every reason to believe that AM would have killed himself and a large number of other people”.

With AM’s TPIM order arbitrarily ending this month, will the Minister now confirm to the House that AM no longer presents a threat to the United Kingdom?

It would be wrong to comment on the detailed operational issues surrounding TPIM subjects, as that could undermine the very work of the police and security services. The police and security services have been clear that TPIMs have been effective in reducing the risk from such individuals, and they have tailored plans in place to manage them. If any individual engages in any further terrorist-related activity after the expiry of their TPIM, the police will not hesitate to prosecute.

Does this matter not underline the problems caused by European human rights and make stronger the case for human rights modernisation and reform to ensure that the UK Supreme Court has the final say?

As my hon. Friend will know, we are actively considering how to strike the right balance on human rights. The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims and the Secretary of State for Justice are looking at that issue closely to ensure that the rights and freedoms of individuals are upheld properly in this country.

TPIMs (Cost of Surveillance)

9. What the cost has been of providing surveillance for suspects subject to terrorism prevention and investigation measures to date. (902173)

Additional funding of tens of millions of pounds has been made available to the police and the Security Service each year for surveillance, technical capabilities and other measures to mitigate the overall risk as part of the TPIMs package.

What can the Minister say to reassure my constituents in Sunderland about the increased risk that they are at after the release in the past week of six very dangerous people on TPIMs, bearing it in mind that two people have previously disappeared without trace?

It is worth highlighting that under the previous Government’s control order regime, seven individuals disappeared in six years. We have increased spending on the security and intelligence agencies and protected counter-terrorism policing budgets in the 2015-16 spending round to ensure that the capabilities are maintained. That includes resources for surveillance and the management of TPIMs subjects. Upholding national security remains the priority of this Government.

Violent Crime

The coalition Government is taking decisive action to reduce violence, including sexual violence against women, children and vulnerable people, and gang and youth violence. That includes preventing violence from happening in the first place, providing effective support to victims, and ensuring that perpetrators are arrested, charged and successfully prosecuted.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Alcohol-fuelled crime, which is often violent, costs £11 billion per year. Newcastle city council has introduced a late-night levy to bring in revenue to deal with some of those issues. However, that does not address the wider issue or the problem of people pre-loading on alcohol from supermarkets. The Government’s alcohol policy is clearly in tatters. Why did the Home Office suppress a report on minimum prices ahead of the Government’s U-turn on that issue?

I am not aware of any report that has been suppressed. If the hon. Lady wants to write to me with the details, I will look into it. I assure her that the Government is taking a firm line with the alcohol industry. It has a responsibility to society for its products and for their misuse. The cost to the taxpayer is £21 billion a year, which is shared between the costs of antisocial behaviour and the costs to the NHS. We have a strategy and we expect the industry to co-operate. We do not rule out taking further action if it does not co-operate.

In strongly welcoming the fall in violent crime, may I ask the Minister what can be done, over and above what is being done, about the particularly difficult and pernicious problem of knife crime?

I am happy to say that there has been a reduction in knife crime under this Government. That is shown not only by the crime figures, but by the NHS data, which show that about 14% fewer people were admitted to hospital due to assault with a sharp object, including knives, in the year to March 2013. Police recorded crime also showed that knife crime was down by 10%. We created a new offence in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 for those who carry a knife in a public place or a school and go on to threaten and cause an immediate risk of serious physical harm to another person.

Psychoactive Substances

The coalition Government has banned hundreds of new psychoactive substances. We work closely with law enforcement partners to tackle this reckless trade. Concerted action, which started in November, has resulted in 44 arrests and seizures of new psychoactive substances, including 9 kg seized by Kent police. I am leading a review to look at how the UK’s response to such new drugs can be further strengthened.

I thank the Minister for his response and for the action that has been taken so far. However, may I draw his attention to the report, “No Quick Fix”, that was compiled by the Centre for Social Justice? It shows that although there are 234 controlled drugs, 251 uncontrolled drugs are available as we speak and the figure is increasing by one a week. What will he do to close down the supply chain, particularly through head shops on the high street and through the internet?

I am happy to say that we have already banned more than 250 new substances. We will continue to introduce bans and to use temporary control orders. I have asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the generic definitions that are used to ban families of drugs to get even speedier action.

I welcome the Government’s review of legal highs, but is it not three years too late? In that time, the Government have not introduced a single measure to tackle the myth that just because those drugs are legal, they are safe.

It is not true that we have not introduced measures. I have just referred to the fact that 250 substances have been banned. We continue to take strong action, including police action, to deal with those who are breaking the law. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, that a clear message should go out that just because something is deemed legal, it should not be assumed that it is safe. That is a central part of the Government’s message.

I congratulate the Government on the tough measures that they have taken on so-called legal highs and psychoactive substances. Apparently, some come in packages with cartoon-style images that are attractive to younger people. Will the Minister consider what can be done to restrict the packaging as well as the substances themselves?

I will happily look into that, and I share my hon. Friend’s view that that is entirely inappropriate marketing.

When does the Minister expect the review to be concluded, and will he consider giving police officers and trading standards officers more powers so that they can put an immediate stop on a new substance and put the onus on nefarious traders to prove that it is a hair product, plant food or whatever nonsense they call it?

We have a quick response already—faster than nearly every other country in the European Union—but I agree that we need to look further at that. The review is under way, as I mentioned, and will be concluded in the summer, coterminously with the international comparator study that my predecessor started, so we will also be able to examine how other countries are dealing with the challenge of new psychoactive substances.


The Government are working to build an immigration system that works in the national interest. We are reforming immigration routes, tackling abuse and improving customer services. We have abolished the UK Border Agency and created three distinct commands focusing on border control, visas and immigration, and immigration enforcement. Those are the right changes, but it will take substantial work and a number of years to fix the broken system that we inherited.

Does the Home Secretary agree that recent visa figures showing a 7% rise in the number of applications to study in Britain show that we continue to attract the brightest and best students from around the globe?

That is absolutely right. One of the key changes that we made to the immigration system was to introduce a greater degree of differentiation so that we encourage the brightest and the best. The figures that my hon. Friend quoted show that we are bringing the brightest and the best into our universities, and long may that continue. At the same time, we have rooted out abuse and continue to work to do so, particularly in the student visa system.

This morning on the “Today” programme, the Prime Minister said that the Government were simply introducing NHS charges for

“people who have no right to be here”.

Will the Home Secretary therefore table amendments to the Immigration Bill to exempt students and others who do have the right to be here and are making a major contribution to the UK economy, or has the Prime Minister got it wrong?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the changes that we are bringing forward in the Immigration Bill, which will do a number of things. They will indeed make it harder for people to be here in the United Kingdom when they have no right to be here. They will also make it easier for us to deal with people who are here illegally who I am sure everybody in the House wants to see removed from this country.

On Thursday, the Immigration Bill will come back to the House on Report. The Home Secretary will be delighted that there are 30 pages of new clauses and amendments. There are 50 Government amendments, and it appears that we cannot possibly have enough time in the four hours on Thursday to debate or even read those 30 pages. Will she now tell the House that we will have an extra day for Report?

The Leader of the House has announced the business and the time available for the Immigration Bill on Thursday. I recognise that there are a significant number of Government amendments. They are mainly small and technical but, like my hon. Friend, I would prefer that we did not have to bring so many technical amendments to the House at this stage.

Today, on behalf of the official Opposition, I have signed new clauses 7 to 10 to the Immigration Bill, tabled by the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) and several other Conservative Back Benchers, which would strengthen future European Union accession arrangements. Given that new cross-party consensus, will the Home Secretary join us in supporting those new clauses on Thursday?

The right hon. Gentleman must wait and see what happens on Thursday, but I have looked with interest at the amendments tabled by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips). I am pleased there is agreement across the House that we must take action in future on accession countries, and the number of people who may be coming to the UK from those countries.

Living Wage

15. What steps she is taking to ensure all directly employed and contract staff who work in her Department are paid the living wage. (902179)

Directly employed Home Office staff are already paid above the living wage, and we are working with our suppliers to ensure that agency workers are paid in line with Home Office pay levels. Contract staff working in the Home Office are paid above the minimum wage, but decisions on pay rates are for their employers.

The Home Office lags behind some other Departments, including the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions and No. 10, which are already living wage Departments. Does the Minister agree that Whitehall should lead from the front in tackling low pay and in-work poverty, and will he agree to meet representatives of the Living Wage Foundation to discuss how the Home Office can be accredited as a living wage employer?

We do encourage the living wage, as the hon. Lady will know from the statements she refers to. I am pleased to say that the Home Office pay settlement for the past year focused on enhancing the pay of its lowest-paid staff who, as a result, received significant increases—19.6% above the living wage in central London, and 6.6% higher outside London. I will reflect carefully on what she said and consider the appropriateness of such a meeting, given the issues at stake.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to achieve the living wage is by cutting tax for low earners, as the Government have already done? Will he lobby the Treasury to cut tax for low earners still further by raising the threshold at which low earners pay national insurance?

My hon. Friend has made his own representation through the point he has raised, but I absolutely support his recognition of the work the Government have done for those on low pay, and in taking people out of the tax system altogether.

Crime on Public Transport (London)

The latest figures show that the risk of becoming a victim of crime while travelling on Transport for London’s transport system is now at its lowest level since recording began in 2004.

The Minister will know that the Mayor of London has announced the wholesale closure of ticket offices across London. Does he accept that slashing staff levels will leave many commuters more fearful of crime and that it calls into question the ability of busy stations to respond to emergencies?

I do not accept that because those staff will be redeployed to work outside the ticket offices—not behind barriers but actually among passengers. Like me, I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that not only has crime fallen by 5.5% on the underground, but that bus-related crime has fallen by 3.2%. In Lewisham, bus-related crime fell by almost 14% compared with 2011-12, which I am sure she and her constituents will welcome.

Topical Questions

The Home Office’s legislative programme for the year ahead builds on the successes of our work since the last election. Net migration is down by nearly a third since its peak in 2010, with net migration from outside the EU now at its lowest level since 1998. The Immigration Bill will reform the removals and appeals system, end the abuse of article 8, and prevent illegal immigrants from accessing and abusing our public services or the labour market. Police reforms are working: crime continues to fall and stands at its lowest level since the independent crime survey began in 1981. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will, among other things, introduce simpler, more effective powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, which will provide better protection for victims and communities. The Joint Committee scrutinising the draft modern slavery Bill began its work last week. Tackling individuals and organised crime groups who subject victims to horrendous abuse will result in more arrests, more prosecutions and—most importantly—more victims being released from slavery and more prevented from entering it in the first place.

What plans does the Secretary of State have for next month’s illegal wildlife trade conference? Will she publish her action plan for that conference, and set out her plan for Britain to continue to play an important role in this area, on which there is cross-party agreement?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he will be aware, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the lead Department on that conference, but the Home Office is heavily involved. We are working with DEFRA and are committed to continuing funding of the wildlife crime unit.

T2. The Normington report found that the Police Federation harasses those with dissenting views, lacks financial transparency and is a weak voice for officers. The report made 36 specific recommendations. Does the Home Secretary agree that the current chairman presiding over that systemic failure cannot be the right person to reform it? (902190)

I have to say to my hon. Friend that the current chairman of the Police Federation initiated the review. He wanted properly to review the federation’s role and whether it represents officers properly. Obviously, a number of key recommendations have come forward. It is important that the federation has had the review. If any changes require Home Office input, we stand ready to work with the federation on them.

Last week, the Home Secretary refused to come to the House to answer a question on vulnerable Syrian refugees, and sent the Immigration Minister to convey to the House her decision that Britain would not provide sanctuary to any of the vulnerable refugees, torture victims, abandoned children and others whom the Opposition and hon. Members on both sides of the House have urged her to help. He told us that to do so was simply a “token”. Twenty-one MPs asked the Home Office to change its position and sign up to the UN programme, and each time the Minister said no. As a result of the pressure that the Home Secretary has been put under, and in advance of the vote on Wednesday, has she listened, and is the answer now yes?

First, the United Kingdom has a fine record in terms of the amount of money we are providing in humanitarian aid—it is the largest sum of money of any of the European Union countries. We have also accepted in the past three years several thousand asylum seekers from Syria. That is another way in which we are appropriately offering support. Through the mandate programme, we have the ability to take refugees who have family connections here and whose families are willing to support them. However, I am working with the Foreign Secretary to look at what further support can be provided by the Government. Further announcements on that will be made in due course.

I thank the Home Secretary for her answer. As she will know, hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that aid to the region is vital. The majority of people will be helped through that, but the UN and others have made it clear that a minority of refugees are too vulnerable to cope or even to survive in the camps. That is why it is so important to provide extra help. This is not an either/or.

Let me press the Home Secretary specifically on the UN programme. She will know that there is huge flexibility within the programme on the numbers of people whom Britain can offer to help, on Britain’s ability to do security checks on those coming forward, and on Britain’s ability to specify who and what kinds of refugees it can support. Will she therefore tell the House now whether she will agree in principle to sign up to the UN programme—yes or no?

This issue is of concern for hon. Members on both sides of the House. The Government are looking at the most appropriate way for us to provide support and enhance the support we are already giving. As I said in answer to the right hon. Lady’s first question, I am working with the Foreign Secretary, and announcements will be made in due course. She wants an answer from me today, but I can assure her that she will have a response from the Government in advance of the House considering the Opposition motion on Wednesday.

T4. My constituent, Rebecca Holmes, was murdered by an abusive ex-partner while under the protection of the police. We have waited two years for an Independent Police Complaints Commission report in order to learn the lessons. Can the Minister do anything to hurry such reports along, or at any rate to monitor how slowly they go? (902192)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have given the IPCC extra resources and extra powers so it can carry out its work more efficiently. It is independent, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment on individual cases, but if he would like to send me more details, I will happily take up the general point with the IPCC.

T3. I welcome the Home Secretary’s commitment to next month’s conference on illegal wildlife trade and her continuing commitment to fund the wildlife crime unit. Will she now consider making wildlife crime a notifiable and recordable offence? (902191)

I am glad the hon. Gentleman recognises that the Government is fully committed to tackling wildlife crime in all its manifestations. We are certainly happy to look at any suggestion on how we can enhance our efforts further.

Proposed changes to dangerous dogs legislation contained in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill could mean that police officers, vets or officers from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who deal with or remove a dangerous dog that bites somebody, will be charged with a criminal offence, attracting up to five years in prison or 14 years if anyone dies as a result. Will the Home Secretary look at such unintended consequences before we implement further knee-jerk legislation, compounding an area of law that is already a dog’s breakfast?

I do not recognise my hon. Friend’s description, nor would I describe the legislation he refers to as “knee-jerk”. It has been subject to proper consultation and due consideration by this House in Committee and elsewhere. It is important that we deal with dangerous dogs. It is also important to ensure that dog owners behave responsibly towards those who may be affected adversely by their activities.

T5. The police and crime commissioner for north Wales is a member of one of the coalition Government parties, but that did not stop him last week expressing great concern at the scale of central grants from the Home Office for policing. He was especially concerned about the rising cost of fuel and petrol. Will the Home Secretary tell the House what discussions she has had with police and crime commissioners who represent rural areas on this important matter? (902193)

I assure the hon. Lady that both I and the Home Secretary have many meetings with police and crime commissioners, both from urban and rural areas; indeed, I met all the Welsh PCCs in one group in recent months. If the hon. Lady and her police and crime commissioner are worried about fuel duties, I remind her that it is this Government who have frozen fuel duties and ended the fuel duty escalator that the Government she supported kept throughout their time in office.

Will the Home Secretary join me in congratulating Northamptonshire police, the police and crime commissioner, Adam Simmonds, and Chief Constable Adrian Lee on overseeing a 23% cut in violent crime—over halfway to their target of a 40% cut by 2016— that makes it the second most improving force in the country in this area of crime?

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the work done by individual officers, the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner in Northamptonshire. Their work is having a real impact on crime levels in the area, and that is of real benefit to those who live there. The Northamptonshire PCC has been at the forefront of looking at innovative ways for the police to work more effectively—for example, by bringing the blue light services together—and we support him in that.

T6. Given the responsibility of police and crime commissioners for setting force budgets, how many have been consulted on, and voiced their approval of, capping the police precept? (902194)

It is a matter for the commissioners themselves to decide whether to put up their precept, within the limits prescribed. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that this morning the Hertfordshire PCC announced that he was freezing the precept in his area. That seems to be a sensible thing for a Conservative PCC to do.

Does my right hon. Friend understand that many of us believe that, in the matter of Syrian refugees, the United Kingdom, as a permanent member of the Security Council, has a particular obligation? How can it be that we are not able to accept some of the children who have suffered so grievously—traumatised, orphaned and, in some cases, disabled—as a result of the unrest in Syria? Surely this is a matter for humanity on the part of the Government, or are we to allow our moral compass to be set by Mr Nigel Farage?

As I said in answer to the shadow Home Secretary, the UK has a good record in supporting hundreds of thousands of refugees in the region. I have heard the concern expressed on several occasions in this place by Members on both sides of the House on the specific issue of vulnerable refugees, and as I said in response to the shadow Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and I are considering what further the UK might do.

T7. Earlier, the policing Minister said he wanted police forces to do more to increase the recruitment of black and minority ethnic officers—I think he said the College of Policing should show some “early energies”. Why does he not go a step further and introduce a legal requirement for every force to increase the number of black and minority ethnic officers serving our communities? (902195)

In no area of the public sector do we introduce quotas of the type the hon. Gentleman suggests—he will recognise as well as anyone that they could cause at least as many problems as they solve—but I agree that we need to do more, which is precisely why the College of Policing is taking practical steps to look at the best way we can achieve this.

May I press the Home Secretary on her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) about the Police Federation? On the one hand, Normington made proposals that required legislation, but on the other hand, there are examples of the federation promoting injustice that Normington gave no answer to. Is there not a clear requirement for the Government to act on this matter?

As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), the Police Federation is considering its response to the Normington review, and I look forward to seeing what it proposes to bring forward as a result of its consideration. The Home Office stands ready to make the necessary changes to enable the federation to put in place the right structure to ensure that it is truly representative of police officers.

T8. The Independent Police Complaints Commission cannot suspend officers, it cannot compel them to give interviews, it cannot prosecute them and its budget is smaller than that of the Met’s complaints department. Given what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions, is it not time to reform this organisation so that we have a proper, independent, efficient investigatory body looking at the minority of police officers who offend? (902196)

It is absolutely time to reform and improve the IPCC, which is precisely why the Government have given it not just a bigger budget, but more powers, under legislation currently passing through Parliament, so that we can achieve reforms that make it efficient and large enough to do the very important job we ask it to do.

Each year, more than 1 million women suffer from domestic abuse, more than 300,000 are sexually assaulted and 60,000 are raped. These are shocking numbers. What steps is the Home Secretary taking to tackle violence against women?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should all remain concerned about the fact that violence, particularly domestic violence, against women has continued at levels unchanged for some time now. The Government have ring-fenced funding—for example, to support the specialist local domestic and sexual violence advisers and advocates—and made changes to the law, for example introducing domestic violence protection orders to ensure that the victim can stay in their home and that it is the perpetrator who has to leave it when action is taken. So support is being given in a number of areas.

Since the Home Secretary has accepted that there is much understandable concern across the House about the Syrian situation, would it not be far better for the House to reach a unanimous agreement on Wednesday, instead of dividing, given that we all basically want the same outcome, which is to assist as far as possible victims of violence and terror in Syria?

Indeed, it would be good if the House could come together and send a clear message, which is why I have said we will put before the House, and ensure it is aware of, our proposal on this matter. The Foreign Secretary and I continue to work on that.

The Government have taken significant steps to combat online child abuse, working with the police, technology companies and independent charities and experts, but an intensified risk is now posed by the hidden internet software Tor. What action can the Government take?

My hon. Friend has identified an important problem, that of Tor—The Onion Router—which is a secret part of the web. I hope that he will be reassured to learn that one of the specific tasks given to the industry by the UK-US joint taskforce, which I chair along with the assistant Attorney-General of the United States, is that of finding a way to root out criminality from secret parts of the web which are accessible to the terrible criminals who seek to exploit children online.