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Topical Questions

Volume 579: debated on Monday 28 April 2014

The Home Office continues its work to reform the police and cut crime. Under this Government, crime has fallen by more than 10% according to both the independent crime survey for England and Wales and police recorded crime, and the latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics last week show that England and Wales are safer than they have been for decades, with crime at its lowest level since the crime survey began in 1981. The Government are taking decisive action to cut crime and protect the public. We are tackling underlying drivers of crime through our drugs and alcohol strategies and antisocial behaviour reforms, we have intensified our focus on issues such as modern slavery, violence against women and girls, gangs and sexual violence against children and vulnerable people, and we have improved our national crime-fighting capability with the launch of the National Crime Agency. The evidence is clear: our police reforms are working and crime is falling.

The highly critical report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary raised troubling concerns about the police response to domestic violence when it comes to victims. When victims find the courage to contact the police, they need both to be believed and treated with respect. What further steps will the Home Secretary be taking to make sure that all front-line officers receive greater training in this area to make this a reality?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. The HMIC report was truly shocking and will have been of concern to all in this House who worry about the way in which domestic violence and the victims of domestic violence are treated by the police. I have written to chief constables making it absolutely clear that I expect them to bring their action plans for dealing with this issue forward by the autumn—by September or October of this year. I will be chairing a group that will be ensuring that action is taken, and we are of course working with the College of Policing, which this Government set up, to look at the training that is available to police officers.

T3. In the light of the Care Quality Commission’s recent mental health review, will the Secretary of State outline what action she is taking to eliminate the use of police stations as section 136 places of safety? What representations is she making to ensure that properly resourced and fully staffed places are provided in mental health units? (903675)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am clear that people detained under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 should be taken to police stations only in truly exceptional circumstances. I am pleased to say that the work we have been doing with the Department of Health and the triage pilots involving health workers going out with police officers in certain parts of the country are already bearing fruit, with fewer people being taken to police cells as a place of safety. The Health Secretary and I have already commissioned a review of the operation of sections 135 and 136 because we want to ensure that appropriate support and provision are available for people who are experiencing mental health problems, and to ensure that they are dealt with in an appropriate way.

New figures show that in the past 15 months there has been a 7% drop in the number of sex offences being taken to court, at a time when the number of such offences being reported to the police has gone up by 16%. Over the past 12 months, there has been a 9% drop in convictions for violent crime, even though the number of recorded violent crimes fell by only 1.5%. The Home Secretary has said that her police reforms and policies are working. Why, then, are more criminals getting away with it on her watch?

I challenge the right hon. Lady’s comments. The basic issue here is that the overall number of crimes has been falling, which is why some of the figures relating to the number of people being taken to court are falling. When concerns are raised in relation to how the police are dealing with domestic and sexual violence, of course we take action to look into the matter. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims said earlier, we have seen good movement in the figures relating to the way in which rape is being dealt with, particularly in relation to the number of successful prosecutions.

But the Home Secretary’s action is not working. Fewer rape cases are going to court, as are fewer domestic violence cases, fewer child abuse cases and fewer sexual offence cases, even though the numbers of sexual offences and domestic violence and child abuse cases being reported to the police are all going up. According to analysis by the House of Commons Library, the resulting drop in convictions is the equivalent of 13,000 more violent offenders, 3,500 more sex offenders, 13,000 more domestic abusers and 700 more child abusers getting away with their crimes. This is happening on the right hon. Lady’s watch. Those are the facts. The number of cases going to court is going down in areas where the recorded crimes are going up. What is she doing about it? She is the Home Secretary. Why will she not act to ensure that victims get the justice they deserve—

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for pointing out that I am the Home Secretary. We have seen a higher number of cases of sexual violence being reported, and it is good that people are willing to come forward to report such cases. Some of these are historical cases, and there has been an upturn in the number of people coming forward, particularly as a result of the revelations relating to Jimmy Savile and other such cases. As I said earlier, the number of successful prosecutions by the CPS for rape and sexual violence has hit an all-time high, so I suggest that the right hon. Lady goes away and looks again at her figures.

T4. With crime down by more than 10% since 2010, and by 11% in Warwickshire, will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the hard-working officers of the Warwickshire police force for their contribution to that? Does he agree that the Opposition were wrong to suggest that crime would rise as we started to deal with the legacy of deficit and debt that Labour left behind? (903676)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I would add to his point about the Warwickshire force the fact that it and its neighbour, the West Mercia force, have been among the most successfully radical in collaborating across force boundaries. One reason that they are providing such good services to the people of Warwickshire is that they have managed to merge back-office functions and specialist functions, meaning that they can spend more time cutting and preventing crime, which is what my hon. Friend’s constituents want.

T2. There were at least 68 deaths from legal highs in 2012, with more likely in 2013 and 2014. It is simply madness that children can walk into a shop and buy these harmful products. I know that the Minister has launched a review of legal highs—he referred to it earlier—but given that people are dying as a result of consuming these products, when can we expect meaningful action on this issue? (903674)

There has already been a great deal of meaningful action, including a month of action from police forces, which resulted in the successful seizure of products, and a number of arrests and prosecutions. I have also issued guidance to local councils on how they can deal with these so-called “head shops”, which has led to successful interventions to seize more material, so we are in fact taking strong action. I hope that the review panel, which will report very shortly, will recommend even stronger ways to tackle these chemical highs. However, we must not get this out of perspective, because the number of deaths from what we might call “traditional drugs” is still very high, and we need to concentrate on that.T5. Early one Sunday in September 2011, Bedfordshire police deployed 200 officers to free 24 people who were being kept in slavery, some of whom had been there for more than 20 years. Such operations are very expensive. In order to encourage the police to undertake more of them, what are we doing to make sure that they are refunded from the often considerable assets of the slave traders? (903677)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Anybody would agree that it is absolutely wrong that somebody who has been involved in a crime such as slavery should be allowed to keep their money. I am determined that this Government will give law enforcement agencies and others all the powers they need to get that money back. I also give this message to the slave masters: if you are involved in the disgusting and hideous trade in human beings, be under no illusion that this Government will find you, prosecute you and lock you up.

Is the Minister aware of figures from the Mayor’s office for policing and crime—MOPAC—showing that the number of Metropolitan police officers working on the ground in the London boroughs has fallen by 16%, or 3,000 officers? What action will he take to put more bobbies on the beat?

The hon. Gentleman can be assured that although the Metropolitan police force has had to make savings, as have police across the country, the overall level of crime in the Metropolitan police area has fallen by 13% since June 2010, showing that the Mayor, the deputy mayor responsible for MOPAC and the commissioner are doing a very good job in keeping London’s streets safer than ever before.

T7. In tackling the scourge of legal highs, may I urge the Minister to look at the work that Thames Valley police and Milton Keynes council have been doing to rid our communities of these substances? I have seen many distressing cases in my surgery of bright young people having been dragged into a downward spiral because they have had easy access to these drugs. (903679)

I welcome the steps being taken in Milton Keynes by Thames Valley police. I know that they raided the central Milton Keynes market and seized various chemical high products when young people were spotted using pills and powders that they thought had been bought from market stalls. That is a good example of what can be done with existing legislation. We have also banned hundreds of these substances as we have found them, but there is more to do, which is why I have set up this expert review panel.

It has been found that 86% of people on tied visas have had their employers keep their passport, and that 62% of them have received no salary at all. This Government changed the visas arrangement to ensure that domestic workers were tied to a single employer and could not change. Will this Government now reverse that?

We are aware of no evidence to suggest that someone’s having a tie to an employer with whom they have an existing relationship is a problem. This Government are determined to deal with the lack of enforcement on the part of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and others, in order to ensure that people on a domestic worker visa are treated appropriately within the law.

T8. The Government are rightly proud of having ended the shameful practice of child detention for immigration purposes. If those children are ultimately to be detained, is it not incumbent on the Home Office to ensure that their cases have been fully resolved before they turn 18, or, failing that, to be consistent in its approach until those cases have been completed? (903680)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the important steps that the Government have taken in banning the detention of children. Indeed he will also recognise the work of the family returns panel, which analyses those cases to assess whether it is appropriate for a child to be returned and in what circumstances.

The criminalisation of the drug mephedrone, once a legal high, resulted in a 300% increase in its use in my area. Will the Government look at the practical new approach that is being tried in New Zealand, whereby the responsibility for the safety of legal highs is being placed on those who profit from the sale of them?

The answer is that an international comparator study has been undertaken, and that includes talking to countries that have a whole range of different approaches, including New Zealand, Ireland and Portugal. We are assessing what works best with the object of minimising the harm from drug use.

T9. An increasing number of people are buying illegal drugs on the internet. Indeed, the recent global drugs survey found that 22% of respondents had used websites such as Silk Road. Given that increasing problem, what extra resources are being made available to the National Crime Agency, and how will the Minister prioritise this matter among the NCA’s work? (903681)

I know that my hon. Friend, as a member of the Centre for Social Justice’s addiction panel, has significant experience in this area. He is absolutely right that the National Crime Agency is looking at organised gangs that use the internet to further their trade in illegal substances, and I will be working with it to ensure that suitable disruption happens.