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Topical Questions

Volume 584: debated on Monday 7 July 2014

I echo the earlier comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). I too was deeply saddened to hear of the death of West Midlands police and crime commissioner Bob Jones, and my thoughts and prayers are with Bob’s family and friends and his colleagues. He had given years of public service as a councillor, a member of the West Midlands police authority for more than 25 years, and then as the area’s first police and crime commissioner, and his contribution to keeping the people of the west midlands safe was very impressive. I know that he will be greatly missed.

Last week I visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories to meet senior politicians from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. During my visit, the bodies of the three abducted teenagers were discovered near Hebron. Since then, we have also heard about the terrible killing of a Palestinian teenager. No reason, belief or cause can justify the abduction and killing of innocent civilians.

In spite of that harrowing news, I was able to hold encouraging discussions on how best to combat modern slavery as part of our efforts to garner greater international co-operation on that important issue. Those discussions will feed into the substantial work that the Government are doing to stamp out the horrendous crime of modern slavery. As I said earlier, the Second Reading of the Modern Slavery Bill will be debated tomorrow, and the Bill’s progress will take place alongside the work that the Government are doing to develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with this horrendous crime.

It is almost a year since my constituent Bijan Ebrahimi was horribly murdered, and we are still waiting for the results of the inquiry by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into the involvement of the police in the days leading up to his death. As the Home Secretary will know, a separate IPCC inquiry is proceeding, and the chief constable is currently suspended. Can she assure me that the IPCC has been given all the resources that it needs to bring both inquiries to a speedy conclusion?

I am sure the hon. Lady will recognise that as the cases that she has mentioned are live, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details. However, we are committed to ensuring that the IPCC has the resources that it needs to be able to investigate all serious and sensitive complaints against the police, and to carry out the rigorous scrutiny that the public expect. We have given the commission an extra £18 million and £10 million capital this year, so that it can deal with all serious and sensitive cases involving the police.

T2. Will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary say what steps she and her Department are taking to ensure the police use technology to a greater extent to improve their effectiveness? (904669)

We are taking a number of steps, because my hon. Friend is right that digital technology makes the police more effective, not just by giving them access to information out on the street so they can make better decisions, but by enabling them to stay out on the streets and not have to return to the station. I mentioned the innovation fund earlier. Over £11 million of its first £20 million was allocated to IT projects that give police precisely the sort of technology they need to keep crime coming down.

First, may I welcome the Home Secretary’s words about her visit and about the terrible loss of young lives in the middle east, and also her tribute to Bob Jones, who, as she knows, was a very kind and thoughtful man as well as a great public servant, and is a friend who will be missed by very many of us?

May I also join the counter-terrorism Minister, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), in remembering the 52 people who were killed on 7 July 2005 and pay tribute to their families and also the 770 people injured that day? That is why the whole House and the whole country recognises the continued need for vigilance against terrorism and those who want to kill, maim or divide us.

The Home Secretary will shortly outline her response to calls for action against historical child abuse, but let me ask her about the child protection system today. Since she changed the law, there has been a 75% drop in the number of people barred from working with children even though the number of offences against children has gone up. Why has it fallen so much, and is she worried about that?

There has, indeed, been a fall in the number of people who are automatically barred from working with children. That fall has taken place since 2010 because we did change the system: I think we restored some common sense to the barring regime, because the scheme is now focused on groups of people who work closely with children or other vulnerable groups. Unless they have committed the most serious offences, we no longer bar people who do not work with those groups, such as lorry drivers or bar staff. They were barred under the old scheme, and I do not think those bars did anything to help keep children safe, but anyone working closely with children is still barred and that is the important point.

I have listened to the Home Secretary’s response and I have to say I find it very troubling. What is to stop a lorry driver who is convicted of a very serious offence applying to work with children or becoming a volunteer in the future? The figures show the numbers who have been barred have dropped from 11,000 to 2,600. That means there are people who have been convicted of sexually assaulting a child, possessing or distributing abusive images of children, grooming or trafficking who are not being barred from working with children in future, and there has also been a serious drop in the number of those who are barred on the basis of intelligence about grooming even where convictions have not been secured. I really would urge her to look again at this because I am concerned that this system is exposing children to risk.

We all want to ensure that the system we have makes sure that those who will be a risk to children are not able to work with children, but I repeat the point I made in response to the right hon. Lady’s first question: under the previous scheme a large number of people found themselves automatically barred who were not directly working with children and were not working closely with children. The new scheme that we have has, in fact, barred some people who would not have been barred under the old scheme. The Disclosure and Barring Service can now pick up and consider serious offences by those who apply for criminal records checks to work with children and those in the new update service, so I say to her that the scheme we have introduced does actually mean some who would not have been barred under the previous scheme are today barred from working with children.

T3. The news of UK citizens becoming radicalised and then travelling abroad to participate in terrorism and conflicts is very worrying. Will my right hon. Friend outline how the Prevent strategy is being used to tackle the problem at source by stopping people being radicalised in the first place? (904670)

My hon. Friend rightly identifies the concerns in many communities at how Prevent is acting to safeguard them by working with families, communities and, indeed, with those front-line agencies that may be best able to pick up when someone is being radicalised and exploited. That focus remains, as well as, obviously, seeking to work with the internet industry to take down images that are seeking to promote terrorism or radicalisation.

T7. Over the past year I have been holding joint events with neighbourhood policing teams on dealing with antisocial behaviour, allowing constituents to share their concerns on a serious issue. Victims often report that they are left frustrated and concerned because despite the number of agencies involved, action is not always co-ordinated and progress can be slow. What will the Minister be doing about this? (904675)

I refer the hon. Lady to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which does a great deal to improve matters and which I must say some of her colleagues opposed when it came before the House. It introduces a range of sensible, well-judged new powers that will enable some of the problems that have occurred locally to be diminished. The measures include cross-working between different bodies involved in crime prevention.

T4. The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims will know that the Independent police and crime commissioner in Gloucestershire has taken the opportunity in both of the past two years to put up council tax by 2% rather than have a proper look for savings. Will the Minister, in a spirit of public service broadcasting, set out some areas where other police forces have taken the opportunity to keep council tax down? (904672)

Many police and crime commissioners across the country have taken different decisions about taxation, and across the country we have seen crime coming down. Of course the great virtue of the system we have introduced is that if people in Gloucestershire or anywhere else are unhappy with the decisions taken by their PCC, they can, unlike under the old system, vote in 2016 to get rid of them. That is why introducing democracy into police governance is a good thing.

T9. My constituent Peter Hobson works hard, but earning the minimum wage for a 40-hour week will never enable him to pass the income threshold for his wife to obtain a visa to live with him in the UK under the rules introduced by the Government two years ago. In a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on 6 December 2012, the then Minister for Immigration committed the Government to keeping the impact of these rules on family life “under review”. Will the Home Secretary publish the outcome of that review? (904677)

I hear the point the hon. Gentleman has made, but he may also know that an outstanding case at the Court of Appeal is precisely examining these issues. The Government are awaiting the judgment on that case and, obviously, we will reflect further in the light of it.

T8. At the weekend, millions of people turned up to watch the Tour de France across Yorkshire, and millions are on today’s route. Will the Home Secretary join me in paying tribute to Yorkshire police forces and the Metropolitan police? Does she agree that the presence of the French gendarmerie, with their experience of manning cycle routes, is another emblematic symbol of the importance of European police co-operation? (904676)

I am very happy to agree with my hon. Friend, not least because I was in Yorkshire before the Tour started last week to see the police preparations for the operation, which were extremely thorough, as we would expect. The fact that everyone in Yorkshire—I hope it is the same for everyone in Essex and London today—was able to enjoy a peaceful event, with the world watching us, is a tribute to the calm and well-ordered way the British police go about their business.

I understand that the National Crime Agency has suggested to chief constables that they should think carefully about requesting a registered intermediary. The number of requests has increased, and with that, of course, have come consequent costs to police budgets. Does the Home Secretary not think that the way forward might be a central budget for intermediaries requested by the police, so that the best evidence can always be obtained from vulnerable witnesses?

The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point, because clearly registered intermediaries do a good job. I will look at the details of what she says the NCA is saying, because the system does not appear to be working badly. I will certainly look at any details she may care to provide me with.

Does the Home Secretary agree that essential to restoring the public’s confidence in the immigration system is not just counting people into the UK, but counting them out of the UK? What progress is being made on that?

I can tell my right hon. Friend that this Government are committed to introducing exit checks by the time of the next general election. We have a programme that is working well; we already receive a significant amount of information on people exiting the country from the advance passenger information, provided through the airline industry. I have had discussions with representatives of the rail industry and our ports on how we can ensure that we are also getting exit checks for those who travel out of this country by rail and by sea.

I have been asked to raise this question by my constituents, Mr and Mrs Egan, who are foster parents. Their foster child had a passport which, the agency acknowledges, was handed in and destroyed. Apparently he cannot get another one until his natural father completes a lost or stolen form. The father is in Kurdistan and cannot be traced. As things stand, the child will have to wait three years until the destroyed passport expires before they can have another one. I am sure that this is not what anyone intends to happen, but the consequence is that the child will end up in emergency care instead of being on holiday with his foster parents. Will the Minister take a look into that case?

This is obviously a complex case, but I recognise the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. If he shares some further details with me, I will investigate further.

Human trafficking is an abhorrent crime, and I warmly welcome the Modern Slavery Bill. Will the Home Secretary listen carefully to the suggestions from UNICEF that it is important to make child trafficking a particularly serious offence with particularly severe penalties?

The Modern Slavery Bill introduces the stiffest penalty of life imprisonment for anyone convicted of the offences listed in the Bill, and that includes anyone committing those offences to a child. I am determined that we do not get into a situation where the defence has further arguments it can put forward by arguing over the age or possible age of a child which might mean the perpetrator of this heinous crime not being found guilty and not being convicted and receiving life imprisonment. I am convinced that the offences as listed cover the child exploitation cases that have been raised. I am also determined to bring this Bill forward in this Session so that we can convict people.

Can the Minister confirm whether the Glasgow passport office offers a full passport service? If the answer is yes, will he explain why my constituents have been directed to offices as far afield as Belfast, Durham and Peterborough to pick up their passports? If the answer is no, will he tell me why does it not offer such a service?

Many passport offices are handling the applications that are coming through. Applications are being routed to different offices. Our focus is on ensuring that the current excessive workload is being dealt with effectively. Indeed, the Passport Office is rising to that challenge, with the output rising week on week, and our focus remains on continuing that performance.

Public understanding and co-operation in the fight against terrorism is absolutely vital, yet at the moment we have five tiers of terrorism threat level, ranging from “low” to “critical”. Is the Minister of State confident that the public understand how they should respond when the threat level goes up and down?

We do have different threat levels, which are, I think, recognised and understood. Clearly, it is a question of communicating where there is a change in the threat level, and we do keep these issues under careful review.

As many as one in four road accidents are caused by drivers either speaking or texting on their mobiles. What work is being done to step up prosecutions for this very dangerous and life-threatening activity?

That is a matter I take very seriously, not least because of my previous role in the Department for Transport. We are engaged with mobile phone companies on a whole range of issues to ensure that their products are responsibly used, but the hon. Lady makes a valid point, which I will happily take forward. If she has any particular suggestions, I would be happy to hear them

Will the Home Secretary undertake to review the workings of police information notices, or PINs? Thousands have been issued by constabularies, including to myself, but in too many cases they do not even follow the Association of Chief Police Officers guidance, to the extent that people are not even aware that they are under investigation and therefore cannot defend themselves.

I am always happy to continue to look at the PINs system and how it is operating. I am very aware that my hon. Friend has had his own issues with the Sussex police in this regard and I am happy to keep it under close review.

Alcohol continues to be implicated in a high proportion of crime, especially crimes of violence. When will the Government take effective steps to reduce levels of alcohol abuse and the associated crime?

We are taking a large number of steps to deal with alcohol abuse, including the introduction of late-night levies, including the local action areas and the early morning restriction orders. We are also dealing with the industry and securing voluntary action from it. In fact, I am meeting the industry in about 45 minutes to see what progress has been made.