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Commons Chamber

Volume 590: debated on Monday 5 January 2015

House of Commons

Monday 5 January 2015

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Border Exit Checks

The Government are on track to deliver their commitment to introduce exit checks on scheduled commercial international air, sea and rail routes by April 2015.

It is clear that exit checks, which were scrapped by the previous Labour Government, are a critical part of any competent immigration system. I know that progress has been made, but how sure is the Home Secretary that she will hit the target of 100% exit checks by March?

As I indicated in my original answer, we are on track to ensure that we have exit checks in place by April 2015. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention the significance of exit checks in the immigration system, and I would like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friends the Minister for Government Policy and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Minister for Schools who have together been supporting the Home Office to ensure that we can meet our commitment.

19. Given the situation at our border in Calais, does the Home Secretary regret scrapping fingerprinting, which used to help us to identify and deport those who were trying to enter our country illegally night after night? (906762)

We are doing a great deal of work with the French authorities in relation to the situation at Calais. The hon. Gentleman mentions fingerprinting, and it is important that those who are coming to Calais and trying to get across to the United Kingdom should be fingerprinted when they first enter the European Union. In most cases, they are coming in through Italy.

But what is the Home Secretary doing to identify the 50,00 failed asylum seekers that the Public Accounts Committee has said her Department has failed to identify?

I think it is a bit rich for Labour Members to stand up in the Chamber and complain about the immigration system when many of the problems that we are dealing with have been inherited from the last Labour Government’s failed immigration policy.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the problem of illegal immigrants does not exist only in the locale of Calais? There is ample evidence that many of them are getting into lorries as far afield as Spain, and this is particularly affecting lorries bringing fresh food into this country, as their whole load has to be condemned when the immigrants are discovered. Is she aware that our retail sector is becoming increasingly worried about fresh food supplies? Will she meet me and representatives of the industry to discuss ways of getting on top of this issue?

I am certainly happy for either I or the Immigration Minister to meet my right hon. Friend and representatives of the industry. We are aware of this issue, and we are looking to introduce an improved ability to identify people in lorries when they pass through our juxtaposed controls in Calais, but as my right hon. Friend has said, the problem is that those people are often getting into the lorries further afield. Also, even if we find them at Calais, the load is still considered to have been damaged and contaminated.

Police and Crime Commissioners/Police Oversight

2. What assessment she has made of the effect of city deals and other forms of devolution on the future of police commissioners. (906744)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall answer questions 2 and 16 together.

Police and crime commissioners have brought direct accountability and localism to policing in this country, and, as we have seen in London, incorporating the role of the PCC in mayoral devolution has worked really well, especially under this excellent London Mayor.

I have to say that I have received no request for the grouping of questions 2 and 16, but we will see what we can do if the Minister continues to smile nicely.

I thank the Minister for that response. Given the terms of the Manchester city deal, does he agree that police and crime commissioners could become surplus to requirements? Would not culling them result in useful savings?

No; the police and crime commissioners are doing an excellent job. They bring accountability. The only bid to incorporate the PCC role at the moment is the bid from Manchester, and I look forward to seeing it working on the ground.

How will these arrangements work in the north-east of England, which has one economic zone—incorporating Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear—but two police authorities and two police and crime commissioners? Does the Home Office propose to merge the police authorities and their commissioners or to transfer their functions to a new individual?

It is entirely up to the local community to decide what it wants. If we look at other parts of the country, we can see that West Mercia and Warwickshire are working closely together. If the police authorities in the right hon. Gentleman’s area wanted to merge, they would need to put their business plan to us. It is not only the big cities that could come together; such proposals could involve rural areas as well.

Does the Minister recognise that the police and crime commissioners can work only within the resources and policy frameworks that are set nationally? Will he take this opportunity to support community policing and to reject the ridiculous suggestion from Tom Winsor that the police should ignore offences such as shoplifting and antisocial behaviour?

We will make sure that local communities decide what sort of policing goes on in their area, and PCCs have the role of making sure that is happening. There are excellent Labour and Conservative PCCs around the country, and I cannot understand why the Labour party wants to get rid of its own people who are doing a good job.

Mental Health

3. What steps she is taking to improve the approach of the police to working with people with mental health problems. (906745)

6. What steps she is taking to improve the approach of the police to working with people with mental health problems. (906748)

13. What steps she is taking to improve the approach of the police to working with people with mental health problems. (906756)

17. What steps she is taking to improve the approach of the police to working with people with mental health problems. (906760)

We have taken a number of significant steps in this area: we have launched schemes including street triage, and liaison and diversion; we have reviewed the Mental Health Act 1983; and we have introduced an agreement supported by more than 20 partners nationally to improve the way the police and their partners deal with people with mental health problems. Police cells are now being used less frequently as a place of safety, and I am pleased to say that our work is already having an impact.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the successful street triage initiative. Health is a devolved competence in Wales, so what work is her Department doing with the Welsh health authorities to ensure an efficient system of street triage there?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for pointing out that of course this matter has a different relevance in relation to Wales and the Welsh health authorities. We are working on health and policing with the Welsh Government, Welsh PCCs and the chief constables to spread best practice, but I am pleased to say that, through the non-devolved police aspects of this national work programme, funding from the Home Office innovation fund is supporting a pilot triage scheme in Dyfed-Powys—the first such initiative in Wales. It is another example of the benefits of PCCs, because it has been championed by Chris Salmon, the PCC there.

I wish you a happy new year, Mr Speaker.

Plymouth’s Charles Cross police station reputedly has England’s busiest custody suite. Does my right hon. Friend have any plans to locate a community mental health nurse at Charles Cross to help people with mental health and autistic challenges?

As my hon. Friend will know, the provision of mental health nurses in police custody suites is a local issue, but I am pleased to tell him that from April 2015 NHS England will commission liaison and diversion services across Devon and Cornwall, including in Charles Cross police station, and that will provide people in police custody who may have mental health issues and autistic challenges with access to mental health nursing.

It is clearly good news that the number of people detained overnight in police stations under the Mental Health Act has been reduced by 25% in the past year alone. Clearly, it is important that individuals who are ill need to be treated medically, rather than be detained in police stations. What further action can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that people who are ill receive the medical treatment they require?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the success of the work already being done across the country, including in London, to reduce the number of people with mental health problems who are being held in a police cell as a place of safety. Police cells should only ever be used as a place of safety for somebody with mental health problems in exceptional circumstances. We are encouraging police forces across the country to look at the success of the triage schemes that have already been undertaken and take on board the very good practice which is having a beneficial effect for those with mental health problems and for police resources.

May I urge the Home Secretary to make it absolutely clear that there is no place at all for children with mental illnesses being in our police cells? I believe she has confirmed that that is the case, but I would be grateful if she would do so again.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that a police cell should not be a place of safety for a child with mental health problems—we are very clear about that. That is one issue that has emerged from the review we have undertaken, with the Department of Health, of sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act, and I am clear that in future we should not see children being held in a police cell as a place of safety when they have mental health problems.

Some 1,600 acute beds in mental health facilities have been lost on this Government’s watch. What assessment has the Home Secretary made at local level about beds being available for people who actually need them? Does she really think it is acceptable that in some cases people are having to travel up to 200 miles to access a crisis bed? Is that not why people are ending up in police cells, rather than in mental health crisis beds where they should be?

Under this Government we are seeing a significant change in the way in which people with mental health problems are being dealt with by both the police and the NHS: it is this Government who have reviewed sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act; it is this Government who have introduced the street triage pilots, whereby more and more people are being taken to proper places of safety in health care settings rather than being put in police cells; and it is this Government who have put mental health clearly on the agenda in relation to health matters—unlike the Labour Government.

Police officers locally tell me that because of the cuts they are being used far too frequently as the service of last resort because the other services are just not there to step into the breach. Distressed family members have come to me when they are worried about the behaviour of their relatives, who they fear might harm themselves or someone else, but they really do not want to go to the police. What is the Home Secretary doing to ensure that the police are absolutely used only as a last resort and that other agencies are there to step in?

The situation in which the police were being used as a first resort rather than a last resort—particularly for those with mental health problems—carried on year after year under the previous Labour Government with no action being taken. This Government have introduced the street triage pilots, the liaison and diversion services, and the care crisis concordat, which has been signed up to by 20 national bodies and which is having a real impact out on the streets. We have more to do in this area and we will be doing more. The number of people with mental health problems taken to a police cell as a place of safety has fallen, and it has fallen as a result of the action that we have taken.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement that, under sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act, police cells should not be used for children. In our inquiry into policing and mental health, the Home Affairs Committee heard distressing evidence from families and guardians of young people with mental health problems taken into police cells. Will the Secretary of State consult those families and guardians on how policing of mental health for children can be improved as a matter of urgency?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am happy, as is my right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for policing, to ensure that we do more of what we are already doing, which is talking to people who have experienced this problem at first hand and therefore gaining more understanding of the issue. This matter has been addressed not only by the Home Affairs Committee but by the Health Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), which has produced a report making exactly that point about young people. It said that children should not be taken to police cells as a place of safety when they have mental health problems.

Migration Target

4. What recent assessment she has made of the likelihood of the next migration target being met. (906746)

Where we can control migration, our reforms have cut non-EU migration to levels close to those not seen since the 1990s. However, EU immigration has almost doubled to unprecedented levels in the past two years. Many EU migrants are coming to the UK to work because of this Government’s success in rebuilding the economy and creating jobs.

Does the Home Secretary agree that when the Prime Minister said “no ifs, no buts” about getting net migration down to tens of thousands, he made a promise to the British people that he now appears to have broken?

I have been very clear and said publicly that yes, we have been blown off course in respect of our net migration target. I have just indicated that in the figures I mentioned in relation to EU migration. The Prime Minister has set out a number of ways in which we intend to address that particular issue, but it is this Government who have been addressing issues across the immigration system that have led to non-EU immigration coming down to levels close to those of the 1990s.

I strongly support the work that the Home Secretary has done with regard to controlling bogus student visa applications. That was a huge problem that she has got rid of. However, how would she answer my constituent Sir James Dyson, who said that if her latest remarks about automatically sending all students home on completion of their studies were taken literally, there would be dire consequences for businesses such as his which rely on engineers and scientists from overseas?

We have been very clear in all the changes we have made to the immigration system that we welcome the brightest and the best to the United Kingdom. We have no limit on the number of people who are coming here genuinely to study in a proper educational establishment. I am pleased to say that visa applications from university students rose by 2% in the year ending September 2014, with an increase of 4% for the Russell Group universities. We also need to recognise that the latest survey showed that in one year 121,000 students came in from overseas and only 50,000 left. Figures suggest that in the 2020s, we will see 600,000 overseas students each year in this country.

Entrepreneurs in Shoreditch to whom I speak greatly welcome migration. The Home Secretary’s colleague the Business Secretary came to an event organised by Tech City News to applaud the input of migrants in Shoreditch, so who is right: the Home Secretary or her colleague the Business Secretary?

There is no difference between two members of a Cabinet in a Government who believe that the brightest and the best should be able to come to the United Kingdom to work. We listen to business, and when we changed the system for non-EU economic migration we made every effort to do it in a way that business applauded.

Immigration from the EU is the No. 1 issue in my constituency and across north Northamptonshire. The Prime Minister is the only party leader who will make any attempt to reduce immigration from the EU, and he has given a further guarantee that if he fails to do that the British people will have the chance to vote in a referendum by 2017 to get out of the EU. I am looking forward to that referendum; is the Home Secretary, and might she be voting to come out?

Order. The question relates purely to the likelihood of the next migration target being met, so this is not an occasion for a general dilation on the EU. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was not hoping for any such thing.

My hon. Friend was attempting to tempt me, Mr Speaker, but I am grateful for your guidance in this matter. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Prime Minister is the only party leader who has set out an intention to deal with free movement in the European Union and to do it in a way that enables us to do what everybody wants and to have the degree of control over our borders that we wish to have.

Will not the Home Secretary just concede that her immigration cap did not work and could never work, because we live in an interconnected, globalised world of which the free movement of people is a key feature? Will she agree that any future attempt at a UKIP-inspired immigration cap will be as disastrous as the last UKIP-inspired immigration cap?

I said in my original answer that we have been blown off course from the net migration target. The hon. Gentleman says that it is impossible to bring about changes in net migration, but I remind him that migration from outside the European Union has come down to levels close to those of the 1990s.

It is clearly progress that net migration from non-EU countries is now at levels not seen since the 1990s. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what action the Home Office is taking to ensure that those who have no right to be within the jurisdiction are removed from the country, such as foreign prisoners when they have completed their sentence of imprisonment and those who have been found by an immigration appeals tribunal to have no right to asylum here? What action is being taken to ensure that those people leave the country when they are told that they have no right to be in the country?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of dealing with those who have no right to be here. We are addressing it in a number of ways. For example, we are working hard with a number of other countries to ensure that they are willing to take back their foreign national offenders; we have ensured that there are fewer appeal routes for people who no longer have a right to be in the United Kingdom; some foreign national offenders have a right of appeal outside the country rather than inside the country; and we have undertaken a pilot with university students in the south-west to remind them when their visa comes to an end so that they leave the country. The issue is being addressed in a number of ways.

Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration

I take this opportunity to thank John Vine, who left his post as the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration at the end of December. His work has been invaluable in assisting Ministers and improving the operation of the immigration system, and I shall meet his successor once appointed.

Recent National Audit Office figures have shown that the Government’s border management and immigration policies have not stopped 10,649 foreign national offenders sitting in British prisons. One of the Home Secretary’s predecessors lost his job over this issue. A year on from the Department’s latest plan of action on this matter, there is still no real impact on the figures. When will the Home Secretary and a new chief inspector get a grip and deal with the problem properly?

As the Home Secretary has already said, we have got a grip on the issue. We are taking further steps through the operation of the Immigration Act 2014 to ensure that if there are appeals, they are heard outside this country’s jurisdiction, and that article 8—the right to family life—does not trump the ability to remove someone from the UK. It is that work and work across Government that are making sure that we are able to remove foreign national offenders from the UK.

I join the Minister in paying tribute to John Vine for his work as chief inspector of borders and immigration.

The chief inspector’s latest report on British citizenship applications shows that, on the Minister’s watch, scant regard was given by the Department to checks on criminal behaviour, fraud or immigration status. Since that report’s publication, what steps has the Minister taken to check histories and remove citizenship, if appropriate? Will he instigate proper investigation and record keeping? If he will not, a future Labour Government will.

Contrary to what the right hon. Gentleman just stated, the chief inspector was clear that criminal record checks had been carried out in all cases that were examined. We have reminded caseworkers of the need to ensure that the appropriate guidance is adhered to, but I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that the issues identified by the chief inspector arose in large measure from decisions of the last Labour Government to grant leave to people without going through the full requirements. We are still clearing up the mess that they put us in and we are focused on turning the ship around.

Crime Levels

Police reform is working and crime is down by more than a fifth under this Government, according to the independent crime survey for England and Wales. England and Wales are safer than they have been for decades, with the survey showing crime at the lowest level since it began, in 1981.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will she join me in congratulating Thames Valley police? We saw a 30% drop in recorded crime between June 2010 and June 2014. What does that say about the extent to which Thames Valley police are keeping my constituents safe?

I am happy to do as my hon. Friend suggests and congratulate Thames Valley police on all they have done in reducing crime by 30% in their area, but I also congratulate all police forces that are rising to the challenge of driving efficiency and cutting crime. Effective policing plays a key part in reducing crime, as does tackling the underlying drivers of crime, which this coalition is also doing.

The Minister does not have much to say about card crime, which is up by a quarter, or online banking fraud, which is up by 71%. More and more people shop online, particularly over Christmas and the new year, but Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary found that just 2% of police had any training in cybercrime. When will the Government stop being so complacent about crime that is still rising?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. Up to now, cybercrime has been a lesser interest. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the trend among all people now is to buy online, but I would say that what is illegal offline is also illegal online. Policing cyberspace is just as important as policing the streets, and that is what our police force is doing.

The police in my constituency do an excellent job. Will the Minister join me in congratulating them on reducing crime by 13% and keeping us all safe in the great city of Brighton and Hove?

I am more than happy to congratulate my hon. Friend’s local police on their efforts to reduce crime and their success in doing so. As I said, I congratulate all police forces across the country who are managing the reductions efficiently and cutting crime.

I might not have put it that way, but when one compares murder with shoplifting, that is one issue. The important point is that all crime should be tackled, regardless of what it is. Someone might start with shoplifting, but who knows where they will end up? Our objective is to cut all crime.

Indefinite Leave to Remain

9. What assistance her Department offers to people without five years’ residency applying for indefinite leave to remain, who have been delayed in entering the country on a spouse visa because they are waiting for a determination on a British passport application for a child born outside the UK due to delays in obtaining the initial spouse visa. (906751)

In considering immigration applications, UK Visas and Immigration will not generally take into account the time taken to establish the British citizenship of a child of the applicant. That is because the child’s status will affect the immigration requirements on the applicant, such as the minimum income threshold to be met by foreign spouses, which should be dealt with before an application is made.

Is the Minister aware of the impact on family life of these long delays? Such are the delays that by the time the spouse’s visa is granted, there may be one or two children, and then the mother will often have to make a decision about whether to stay abroad and be delayed there by starting the probationary period or to come to this country and leave the children abroad.

I am obviously happy to look at any individual cases that my hon. Friend may wish to highlight and I can examine further. A British passport is not issued to a child born overseas until the Passport Office is satisfied that all the relevant identity, nationality and child protection issues have been identified. I am sure that my hon. Friend would support that.

Syrian Refugees (Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme)

10. How many Syrian refugees have been resettled in the UK under the Government’s vulnerable persons relocation scheme to date. (906753)

We remain on track to relocate several hundred people under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme over the next three years. Between the first group of arrivals on 25 March and the end of September, 90 people were relocated to the UK under the scheme. In addition, over 3,400 Syrians and their dependants have been granted asylum or other forms of leave to remain since the start of the crisis.

The Minister will no doubt be aware that 2015 has already seen two worrying trends for Syrians fleeing the violence of war: first, an increase in restrictions imposed on those seeking to settle in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon; and secondly, even more refugees boarding boats and taking risky journeys in the Mediterranean. Does he recognise that our unwillingness to offer anything more than tokenistic safe legal routes for resettlement and family reunification of refugees exacerbates both those trends? We have no moral standing when arguing with neighbouring countries that they should keep their borders open, and desperate people will take any route to try to improve their lives when facing violence such as Syria’s.

This Government have taken important steps by providing aid that is benefiting hundreds of thousands of people in the region, and focusing on some of the most vulnerable cases that the vulnerable persons relocation scheme is designed to address. On borders, we are supporting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and we are in dialogue with Syria’s neighbours, recognising the importance of effective management and also the fact that international law is clear that refugees should not be turned back in these circumstances.

Italian Ministers told the European Scrutiny Committee that increasingly people coming on boats and being rescued from them are refugees from areas such as Syria, not just economic migrants. When will the Government sign up to the UN programme so that we do our fair share, like other countries?

This country is doing its fair share in many different ways through the direct aid that is being provided—£700 million that is directly affecting and benefiting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people—and the asylum that is being granted through the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. We are also working overseas with countries affected to create a long-term settlement of this issue, as well as confronting the organised crime that exploits the vulnerable.

The UK does indeed have a very proud tradition of offering refuge to those in desperate need. The Government’s relocation programme for Syrian refugees was supposed to help orphan children, sexually abused women, victims of torture, and those needing specialist medical treatment. Other European countries are providing this support, with 310 people going to Ireland, 1,000 people going to Norway, and 1,200 people going to Sweden. As the Minister said, in the UK last year only 90 people were accepted. How many victims—specifically, how many orphan children and sexually abused women—will the UK be offering support to this year?

We remain on track to support several hundred vulnerable individuals over the next three years. The figures underline that. Those who benefit from the scheme are chosen by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with whom we work in close co-operation. It is therefore the UNHCR that advances and puts forward individual cases based on the vulnerability-type factors that the hon. Lady identified.

Border Security (Calais)

11. What recent discussions she has had with the French authorities on border security at Calais. (906754)

It is in the interests of both the UK and France to work together to tackle migratory pressures at Calais. The Home Secretary last met the French Interior Minister on 5 December. We continue to work closely with the French authorities on all matters of border security and cross-border criminality to maintain the integrity of our joint border controls.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the £12 million in the agreement will be spent on bolstering security and not on a welcome centre at Calais? Will he also reject representations from UKIP that the border controls at Calais should be scrapped and brought back to Dover?

I am very pleased to underline the points that my hon. Friend makes. We are not providing financial support for any day centres. Our financial support is focused on security at Calais and on confronting the organised criminality that seeks to take advantage of those trying to come to the UK. The juxtaposed controls absolutely benefit this country and we have no plans to change that.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I saw for ourselves the security measures that have been introduced with the help of the Government, though part of the fence that we saw blew down over the Christmas holidays because of high winds. As the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said, the area is now a magnet for those who wish to come to our country. Does the Minister agree that the problems in Calais are best addressed at the external frontiers of the EU? That means Frontex doing much more to ensure that the Mediterranean is policed properly but humanely, so that there is no repetition of what happened to the Ezadeen ship as it arrived in the EU very recently.

I agree that the problems lie beyond the UK’s shores. That is why, for example, we have taken part in the Khartoum process, which is an EU-African Union mechanism to focus on human trafficking. With reference to the EU border, Frontex has in place Operation Triton. As we are not within the Schengen zone, we do not participate directly, but are providing assistance. This is a matter that we continue to discuss with other EU Ministers.

The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee is quite right about our trip to Calais, where we found that in the past year more than 10,000 potential migrants had been apprehended by the good work of the border police and by the investment of no less than £150 million by Eurotunnel on fencing over the past 10 years. Is not the real problem that when potential migrants are apprehended, the French police take them 2 miles outside town and release them without even taking their fingerprints, so they can come and do it all over again?

I agree with my hon. Friend on some of the incredibly good work being undertaken at the northern French ports, particularly the work of Border Force, and the investment that has been provided there. We are investing further in security at Calais. We continue to have discussions with the French authorities on how we can strengthen the response, and those discussions will continue in the weeks ahead.

Given these discussions, why have the French authorities set up a Sangatte 2 camp in Calais? What effect does the Minister think that will have on the situation?

The French Government will clearly make their own determinations and responses on matters relating to what happens on French soil. Our focus is on security at the juxtaposed controls and on combating organised crime, on which we have good joint working with the French and other Governments. It is clear that we should not establish measures that may act as some sort of magnet and may make the problem worse.

Regionalising Police Forces

The Government have no plans to move away from the localism that local police forces give us. Localism is something for which the hon. Gentleman campaigned for many years.

Does the Minister recognise that although there may be advantages to be gained by regionalisation, such as economies of scale, larger police forces could mean a greater distance between the public and the police and less local accountability?

I am slightly confused, because the hon. Gentleman campaigned for the introduction of police and crime commissioners when he was a Conservative Member and sat on the Government Benches. Is he now saying that they should not be there? Perhaps it is just a UKIP policy: one day one thing, and the next day another. At the end of the day, local democracy means that local authorities can make decisions. If they want to amalgamate, they can submit a business plan to us. Manchester has done that, but it is the only one.

Would not regionalising policing mean either the abolition of PCCs or a multiplication of several times over in the size of their constituencies? Does the Minister agree that either course would be a terrible slap in the face for those who campaigned so hard for so long for the system we now have?

There are many present in the Chamber—including, perhaps, one Opposition Member—who have campaigned for localism over many years and who passionately believe in it. PCCs give that to the community and I cannot understand why anybody would change their mind about them.

Proposals to merge Northamptonshire police with an east midlands police force, as advanced by the Labour party when it was in power, would have been disastrous for Northamptonshire. The present proposals from the police commissioner and the head of the local fire brigade to increasingly merge their operations make lot of sense on so many levels. Will my right hon. Friend encourage this?

Not only will I encourage it, but I have seen it going on around the country. Taxpayers’ money needs to be spent efficiently and it must be done in a way that is right for the emergency services. I have seen that happen, and if it happens in my hon. Friend’s constituency then so be it, but it will be a local decision.

Lincolnshire Police Budget

15. What recent discussions she has had with the chief constable of Lincolnshire on the budget of the Lincolnshire police. (906758)

The Home Secretary and I meet all the chief constables regularly and I personally met the chief constable of Lincolnshire very recently.

With more than 8,000 front-line police officers out of 16,000 cut already, is not the Lincolnshire chief constable right to warn that the loss of a further 6,000 front-line officers, along with other cuts, will simply mean that police forces across the country will collapse? They will go and there will not be any need for PCCs because there will not be any forces.

I am sure the residents and constituents of Stoke-on-Trent South will be interested to hear about the hon. Gentleman’s interest in Lincolnshire. At the end of the day, it is for Lincolnshire and its chief constable to decide what they want to do and we will support them in those decisions. They do not have to be about a reduction in police officers; actually, we have seen an increase in the number of police officers on the ground in Lincolnshire.

I am surprised that my otherwise good friend the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) is suddenly taking such an interest in the Lincolnshire constabulary. To put things in perspective, the reason our budgets have suffered for many years is the sparsity factor formula put in place by the previous Labour Government which transferred resources from rural authorities to places such as Stoke-on-Trent. Having said that, we have still managed to cut crime in Lincolnshire by 20% over five years.

To be honest, I perfectly understand that any chief constable and PCC will campaign for extra money, but at the same time I cannot understand the sudden interest taken in Lincolnshire by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello). When this Government came to power, 91% of police were on the front line; that figure is now 93%. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) is absolutely right to say that there has been a 20% cut in crime in Lincolnshire.

Like many other chief constables around the country, the chief constable of an efficient and effective police service in Lincolnshire has made it clear that the Government’s proposed cuts will see meaningful neighbourhood policing ceased; response times get longer; officer safety put at risk; the ability to investigate historical child sex exploitation cases limited; and public confidence in policing severely eroded. Is he right to say that and is it right for the Home Secretary to spend £50 million on next year’s PCC elections when what the public want is for that money to be invested in front-line policing?

I do not recognise the figure of £50 million, but it is not unlike the Labour party to make up figures as it goes along. At the end of the day, Members either believe in localism or they do not, and running down the police of this country, as the Opposition do regularly, is not the answer. We need to support our police, make sure we can get the austerity through and make sure that more police are on the front line. That is what we are doing.

Special Demonstration Squad

18. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the findings of the investigation by Chief Constable Mick Creedon into the activities of the special demonstration squad. (906761)

Operation Herne is conducting a criminal investigation into the conduct of former special demonstration squad officers, and that work is continuing. As I said in my statement to the House on 6 March 2014, there will be a public inquiry into undercover policing and the activities of the special demonstration squad and I will update the House on the public inquiry as soon as it is appropriate to do so.

I thank the Home Secretary for her attention to this matter. It has taken the Met nearly two years to reply to my freedom of information request about their theft of dead children’s identities for undercover policing. From only three out of 18 year groups had a child’s identity not been taken for the purpose of legend building. The so-called legends are broadly as likely to have been stolen from dead children as to have been invented from scratch. Given their feet dragging on this matter, what confidence can the Home Secretary have that police attitudes to undercover practices have truly changed?

I know my hon. Friend has taken up and worked very hard on this particular issue. I believe that one of the assistant commissioners from the Metropolitan police gave very clear evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on the fact that the approach to the use of dead children’s names and identities has changed within the Metropolitan police. They are very clear that this should not be happening now, and as I say, they have changed the action they take.

Citizenship Applications

20. How many applicants have been granted citizenship over the last 20 years; and what estimate she has made of the number of errors or mistakes made in decisions on citizenship in that period. (906763)

The published national statistics of British citizenship grants show that there have been more than 2.4 million grants of citizenship over the last 20 years. The recent report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration endorsed decision making in the overwhelming majority of cases examined.

None the less, will my hon. Friend say when errors were made and what the consequence of such changes would have been? Is he able to find out how many such citizenship errors should not have been made?

The Government are clear that the grant of UK citizenship is a privilege for those who deserve it, not an automatic right for those who do not. Some of the issues identified by the chief inspector relate to a decision in 2007 to grant a large number of people the right to remain here indefinitely even if they did not meet the rules, and we are working through a process on that. We have also tightened the rules so that if someone has a bad immigration history, they are banned from becoming a British citizen for at least 10 years.

Topical Questions

A few days before Christmas, Merseyside police officer Police Constable Neil Doyle was brutally killed while off duty. I am sure the whole House would want to express our condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

Before the Christmas recess, I set out proposals further to reform policing in England and Wales. I announced plans to introduce a statutory limit of 28 days on pre-charge police bail to prevent individuals from spending months or, in some cases, years on bail only for no charges to be brought. I published joint proposals with the Department of Health to reform the use of sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 to ensure that those with mental health problems, particularly children, receive proper health care and support, rather than the closing of a police cell door when they are in crisis.

Under this Government, police reform is working and continues to work. According to the independent crime survey for England and Wales, our reforms have seen crime fall by more than a fifth and the proportion of police officers on the front line rise to more than 90%. Although police spending rose year on year when Labour was in power, we have successfully delivered savings to reduce the deficit while protecting the front line.

I thank the Home Secretary for that reply. Has she noticed the progress made by Staffordshire police in dealing with the scourge of uninsured vehicles by confiscating and ultimately crushing them in public, and would she recommend the use of that practice elsewhere?

I am happy to applaud the work done by Staffordshire police. The issue of uninsured vehicles is a problem that affects people across the whole country, and I am sure that other police forces will want to look at the work of Staffordshire police force and its success.

May I join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to PC Neil Doyle, as well as his colleagues and his friends and family, and all police who take so many risks to keep us all safe?

James Dyson has called the Home Secretary’s new plan to expel overseas postgraduates “short-sighted”, and has said that it will lead to “long-term economic decline”. The Conservative former Minister for Universities and Science, the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), has said that it is “mean-spirited” and will damage our exports and our universities. Even Conservative central office backed away from her policy yesterday, so does the Home Secretary stand by her plan? Does she believe that overseas graduates should all have to return home before they can even apply for a high-skilled job in British science or the NHS—yes or no?

The right hon. Lady will have heard my previous responses on that issue, and I am clear that our policies are right and ensure that the brightest and best are coming to the United Kingdom. Of course we want people who wish to come here to do genuine degrees at proper educational establishments, but the Government have been clearing up the abuse that was allowed to run rife with student visas under the previous Labour Government, and 800 colleges are no longer able to take in overseas students. We want the brightest and best to come to the UK, and that is exactly what our policies are destined to ensure.

The Home Secretary has ducked the specific question of whether she wants overseas students to have to leave the country before they can apply for any high-skilled job in Britain. I hope that means that she is backing away from the policy and that it was simply a proposal from her special advisers—that is obviously why they have been banned from the Tory candidates list.

The Home Secretary needs to reflect on all her immigration policies because border checks have got weaker, asylum delays have risen by 70%, low-skilled migration is up, and her net migration target is in tatters, but the numbers of overseas university students fell last year. Criminals have been given citizenship, the Syrian scheme has been delayed, yet the Home Secretary claimed that her immigration policy is an achievement to be proud of. Will she tell the House whether she is proud of targeting postgraduates while illegal immigration gets worse? How proud is she of giving killers British citizenship while Syrian refugees are refused entry?

I will tell the right hon. Lady what I am proud of. I am proud that this Government have taken immigration seriously and looked across every route of migration into the United Kingdom. We have dealt with—and continue to deal with—abuse in the student visa system, which was allowed to increase significantly under the previous Labour Government, and non-EU migration is now at the levels of the late 1990s. That is a direct result of policies undertaken by this Government, and the Labour party needs to get its story in order. On the one hand people have been told to back off from conversations about immigration on the doorstep, yet on the other hand the right hon. Lady seems to want us to do a variety of things that her Labour Government failed to do when in office. We are dealing with the mess of the uncontrolled immigration system that was left by the previous Labour Government; this Government are getting to grips with our immigration system, unlike the Labour party.

T2. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Metropolitan police on a 14% reduction in crime over the past five years, and a 4% reduction in the last year alone? Does he agree that outer-London boroughs such as Havering need resources, as well as central London? (906825)

I congratulate the Metropolitan police on their excellent work—indeed, I was on patrol with them fairly recently and I know well the part of the world that my hon. Friend represents. Not only has crime fallen by 15%, but that has been done by increasing the amount of police on the front line from 86% to 91%. That is something we should all be proud of.

T3. A recent study by the university of Bedfordshire and Victim Support found that one third of 11 to 17-year-olds have suffered physical violence in the past year. Will the Minister make it a priority to ensure that young people are taught how to report crimes and are fully supported throughout the process? (906826)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Abuse is not acceptable and victims of abuse need to know where to get the support they need. The Government are committed to ensuring that that is the case.

T4. I welcome the Government’s extra funds to support victims of sexual abuse, but will my right hon. Friend outline exactly how we will do that? (906827)

The Government have announced an additional £7 million for victim groups that support survivors of sexual violence. Two million pounds is available for organisations that are reporting an increase in referrals prompted by the independent panel inquiry into sexual abuse. There is another £2.85 million Home Office fund for providers of support across England and Wales, and a £2.15 million uplift on current Ministry of Justice funding to 84 existing rape support centres. Effective, timely support for victims of child sexual abuse is a matter of national importance.

T5. There has been a net loss of 293 police officers from the Cleveland police service since 2010, and our police commissioner says that the budget has been cut by another 5.1%, which could further jeopardise public safety. Does the Home Secretary agree that such losses and cuts are the reasons behind the drop in confidence in policing for the first time in a decade? (906828)

Crime in Cleveland has dropped by 16% in the past four and a half years, and by another 2% this year. Cleveland police should be congratulated, not run down.

T7. Does the Home Secretary share my concern at the rise in rural crime, some of it organised, some of it opportunistic? Will she take this opportunity to make rural crime a target for police activity, so that action is taken to stamp it out? (906830)

My hon. Friend will know that, in her force constabulary area, there has been a 16% cut in crime, thanks in large part to her excellent PCC, Julia Mulligan. As an MP for a rural constituency, I too take rural crime very seriously. My hon. Friend is right that much of rural crime, particularly that involving large agricultural vehicles, is undertaken by organised crime groups. I am pleased that the regional organised crime units are working with local forces to ensure that we tackle rural crime and make it a No. 1 issue.

T6. Considering the warning that Tony Robinson has been given about his obligations under the Official Secrets Act, what guarantee can the Home Secretary give that other special branch officers, former special branch officers and others with knowledge of prominent people and historical child abuse will be able to speak out without such obstructions again? (906829)

I am very clear that the Official Secrets Act is not a bar to giving evidence to the police or to the inquiry. Arrangements are in place that enable Crown servants to disclose such material when it relates to child abuse. I am clear that that lawful authority should be given in those cases, but I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue on a number of occasions. I am willing to continue to look at it to ensure—I want this, as he does—that all evidence available is made available to the inquiry, and where appropriate to the police, for proper investigation.

T8. I listened carefully to the Home Secretary’s earlier answers on immigration, but may I ask her to ensure that efforts to curb immigration will not harm our higher education system or deny British businesses access to skills that they can find only internationally as a result of any new restrictions on visas for graduates at British universities? (906831)

My hon. Friend raises the important issue of the UK’s excellent offer to international students. I am pleased that Britain remains the second most popular destination for international higher education students, but it is right that we clamp down on abuse. As the Home Secretary has indicated, there is a migration issue to address when 121,000 non-EU students come to Britain and stay for more than 12 months, and yet only 51,000 leave. Many universities are acting appropriately to ensure that students leave at the end of their studies, but we are clear that our policies support the brightest and the best coming to the country, and that they support the university sector in that way.

The charity Youth with a Mission provides missionaries in Wrexham who help with food banks and work hard in the local community. On 23 December, the charity received notification that its highly trusted status was being suspended. Will the Home Secretary look closely at that faith-based organisation? Many churches within Wrexham have approached me because they are concerned that that help will be removed from my local community.

I am not aware of the specific case the hon. Gentleman raises, but if he wishes to give me the full details of it, I will ensure that it is looked into.

Drones have been a feature of this place for generations, but drones of the 21st century—unmanned aerial vehicles that provide a growing security threat, invasions of privacy and potentially criminal activity—are a matter of great concern. Does the Home Secretary agree that the current regulations need to be reviewed from her Department’s perspective?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. We continue to keep a close eye on the regulations. I would not say that they are being reviewed, but we will look at whether they need to be addressed in view of that current threat.

Let me give the Home Secretary another chance to answer the question that she has failed to answer so far. When Sir James Dyson describes her plans to further restrict post-study work opportunities as a short-sighted attempt to win votes at the expense of the economic interests of the UK, it is a serious matter. Will she think again?

I say to the hon. Gentleman exactly what I have said in answer to the other questions that I have been asked on this matter. As a Government, we are very clear that the brightest and the best should be able to come here and we have no limit on the number of people who can come to an educational establishment to study for a genuine university degree, but we have sorted out, and continue to sort out, the abuse that remains from the system that was run by the last Labour Government.

I recently met the chief officer of the special constabulary in Bedfordshire, Mr Wayne Humberstone, who is leading a growing force that is about to start operating out of a rural police station in Riseley in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to stress again the importance of the special constabulary to effective policing and to encourage employers to allow more employees to make such a contribution to society?

All hon. Members should encourage employers in their constituencies to allow people who work for them to become specials and serve their community. I pay tribute to the work that has been done in Bedford. The specials in my constituency of Hemel Hempstead do a fantastic job and we should all encourage people to become specials.

A growing number of my constituents are victims of cyber-crime, but they complain that they hear nothing once the crime has been reported to Action Fraud. As the Minister could not tell me how many successful prosecutions there were for cyber-crime or what proportion of cases reported to Action Fraud were investigated, how can we have any confidence in the crime figures and what will she do to ensure that cyber-crimes are properly investigated and prosecuted?

Cyber-crime is a crime that we are getting to grips with, and we are learning about the parameters of cyber-crime. Action Fraud is doing excellent work, but I agree that it needs to do more to make sure that people who report fraud get full information. I am working closely with Action Fraud to make sure that they do.

Will Ministers make it a priority to introduce mandatory reporting of female genital mutilation and to strengthen policies and procedures to provide victims of FGM with much needed appropriate support?

My hon. Friend will be aware that at the Girl Summit in July the Prime Minister announced our intention to introduce mandatory reporting of this unacceptable practice. We are consulting on how best to introduce the new duty. Alerting the police to cases of FGM will allow them to investigate the facts and increase the number of perpetrators apprehended. The NHS will support anyone affected by FGM and will offer appropriate advice and procedures when needed.

In October the Immigration Minister said, in response to a National Audit Office report, that he intended that this country would join the Schengen information-sharing agreement, which would provide our border posts with information about people involved in serious crime—such as the person who murdered the son of my constituent, Mrs Elsie Giudici—during the course of the year. Is that facility now available, and if not, when does he expect that to happen?

We are finalising the arrangements for joining the second-generation Schengen information system for the benefits that I have identified and to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I regard it as an important enhancement to our work in identifying those with criminal records. It is being advanced and I expect it to be in place very shortly.

Rail Network (Disruption)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on the major disruptions to Britain’s rail network over the Christmas period.

As I made clear at the time, the disruption at King’s Cross and Paddington after Christmas was totally unacceptable. Passengers deserve a reliable rail service, they deserve clear information, and they deserve rapid help when things go wrong. I am sorry that in this case they did not get those things.

Before I give the House further details of what happened, I wish to pay tribute to the 11,000 engineers who were working on the track across the country over the holiday period on 300 projects at some 2,000 work sites, often in difficult conditions—a record level of activity and investment and part of the £38 billion being invested in our railways by this Government, working to create capacity, increase reliability and make our railways safer. The vast majority of complex projects were completed on time. For instance, a vital new flyover opened today at Reading—a complex scheme on time and on budget—and London Bridge reopened after key work on the Thameslink programme which will continue for some time. When things go wrong, however, we expect the industry to have proper contingency plans, so let me turn to what happened at Christmas and what is being done to put them right.

First, at King’s Cross, Network Rail had in place a vital scheme to replace and modernise some seven sets of points and crossings, and associated track and overhead wiring. It involved the replacement of more than 1 km of track, some 12,000 tonnes of ballast and 14 dedicated engineering trains. That work needed to be done and was planned for Christmas to limit impact. It had been planned that two lines would be opened on 27 December to operate a limited service in and out of King’s Cross, but some elements of the work took longer than expected. A decision was taken to run an alternative service terminating at Finsbury Park. As a result, many passenger journeys were seriously delayed and disrupted. The planned modified services were able to restart on Sunday 28 December.

Secondly, at Paddington, work on signalling was intended to allow lines to reopen in the morning. Safety testing meant that trains were able to operate only as far as Ealing Broadway until mid-afternoon. Neither of those situations should have occurred. It is inevitable that major investment in the railways will, from time to time, mean some disruption, but all of us who use the railways need Network Rail to complete such vital engineering works on time, as were most of its other schemes. Let me turn now to the response.

I worked closely with Network Rail on the day and afterwards, and I have left it in no doubt of the importance of getting this right. Mark Carne, the chief executive, ordered an urgent review of what went wrong. A report, which will be published, will be provided by the end of this week. One of the questions that needs to be answered relates to the timing of its major works programmes. The industry’s conventional wisdom is that it is generally better to carry out major disruptive work over holiday periods when passenger numbers are lighter than usual. The Office of Rail Regulation is conducting its own parallel investigation, which will determine whether any regulatory enforcement action is required and ensure that lessons are learned. It will work closely with Passenger Focus.

I and my officials were briefed on key elements of Network Rail’s engineering programme and the associated planned changes to services. We were not, however, involved in planning for the operational aspect of the works programme or the contingency planning. That is as it should be. Network Rail is an operationally independent body and it needs to be able to get on with its job without political interference. If it gets things wrong it will be held to account. We have made it clear to the company that we expect it to deliver the outcomes for which it has been funded over the current control period, including the largest programme of investment since the Victorian era and a reliable daily service. When services do not run as planned, passengers are entitled to be reimbursed if they are delayed significantly. Train operators have compensation schemes in place. In the new franchises, we are improving compensation compared with that left by the previous Government.

Things should have been done better. I have set out my understanding of the events at King’s Cross and Paddington after Christmas. The level of disruption is wholly unacceptable and I am confident that Network Rail will learn the necessary lessons to minimise the chances of it happening again.

In his new year message, the Prime Minister said that Britain faced a choice between competence or chaos. Ministers at the Department for Transport clearly did not get the memo, because at Christmas we saw both chaos and incompetence on our rail network, resulting in misery for passengers who have seen their fares rocket by more than 20% since 2010—three times faster than the growth of wages. The recent chaos all started with the Secretary of State’s decision to allow a near shutdown of train services on Boxing day, letting 17 operators run no service whatever with vastly reduced services everywhere else. The next day, work overran at more than 200 engineering sites, resulting in thousands of passengers facing appalling disruption.

It was right that Network Rail accepted its responsibilities, and so too should the contractors, but is it not also time for the Secretary of State finally to face up to his share of the responsibility? The Office of Rail Regulation published a damning report back in November on Network Rail’s performance. Was this report not a massive warning sign for Ministers that there would be serious delivery challenges associated with the planned maintenance work over Christmas? What assurances were sought by Ministers on whether the plans for the Boxing day shutdown were robust enough, whether adequate contingencies were in place and whether there was sufficient resilience in the system to ensure that continued disruption would not run into the weekend?

Where were Ministers during the rail chaos? They were AWOL. It was only after days of disarray that the Secretary of State finally put down his selection box and leapt to action, releasing a statement on the Saturday evening in a desperate attempt to shift the blame entirely on to others. On Sunday morning, the rail Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), sent a message to the thousands of passengers who had had their Boxing day and weekend ruined. What words of sympathy and consolation did she offer? She said she was “so chuffed” with the state of the railways—Calamity Claire, the gift that keeps on giving.

These problems happened on this Government’s watch. The warning signs were there. The Secretary of State has spoken about the lessons that must be learned, but must they not be learned by Ministers too and an apology be made to the travelling public?

I am sorry the hon. Gentleman did not hear me apologise. I think his script was prepared before he heard my answer. I have made it fairly clear that what happened was unacceptable, whereas all we have heard from him is empty noise—from a party with no plan and no ideas, from a man who was special adviser at the Department for Transport when Railtrack collapsed and the network fell apart, from somebody who knows all about chaos, because that is exactly what he caused then. He called his predecessors “trainspotters” in the Daily Mirror, but now he pretends to know how to run the railways. I will not take too many lessons from him.

The hon. Gentleman says that fares have gone up by 20%, but in fact, in real terms, they have gone up by 3%, and this year’s rise was the lowest in a decade. It was his party in government that put them up by 42% in cash terms—a policy that we have ended. He said that Network Rail’s bonuses should reflect what has happened, and I agree, but will he add that the bonus payments agreed by Labour in 2009-10 were nine times this year’s figures?

Order. The precise details of how the Secretary of State spent his Christmas are a matter for him, as they are for each of us individually. He is answering good-humouredly and should be given the opportunity to continue.

It will not surprise you, Mr Speaker, that I spent Christmas in Derbyshire, and I was in constant touch with Network Rail. Yes, I issued a statement on the Saturday—let me take the hon. Gentleman through these things: Christmas day was a Thursday, the problem occurred on Friday and I spoke to Mark Carne on the Friday and the Saturday and have spoken to him several times since the incident.

As I said earlier, this was the biggest set of engineering works taking place over Christmas. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Secretary of State should tell Network Rail which safety aspects and bits of engineering works it should not do? Is that the kind of micro-management we could expect from him? He needs to read Labour’s last policy document before he was appointed—he is the third shadow Secretary of State I have encountered since becoming Secretary of State, and he obviously cannot keep up with what has been said before. Previously, Labour has said that the Secretary of State should not micro-manage the industry. I agree.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the investment in financial terms and in the work done on improving and upgrading our rail network is warmly welcomed, but that the other side of coin is that there is a responsibility through Network Rail to ensure minimal disruption to commuters and passengers—not simply during key holiday periods but on every other weekend of the year—who too often hear on a Monday morning about the overrunning of engineering works and cancelled services? What can be done to hold Network Rail more to account to minimise such problems?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The problem happens when we are doing the sort of massive upgrade to the system that we are doing. Over the five-year period between 2014 and 2019, some £38.5 billion will be spent on upgrading the railway infrastructure, and some of that will lead to delays through overrunning engineering works. I know that particular problems have affected my right hon. Friend’s constituency over some weekends, and I think we should look further to see whether there is a better way of doing the engineering work. Let me point out that 18 months ago, over a period of eight weeks, Nottingham station was closed down while 2,000 people were working on it. That is sometimes an option, but when we are talking about the main London termini, that is really not an option. [Official Report, 7 January 2015, Vol. 590, c. 1MC.]

Over Christmas too many passengers suffered twice—first from major disruption, when any contingency plan simply failed; and, secondly, from lack of information about what was going on. Does the Secretary of State believe that this was about individual events or was it indicative of a major problem with major works on the railways for which ministerial involvement was required?

I partly agree with the hon. Lady, and I know that her Select Committee will see both Mark Carne and Robin Gisby for a hearing next week. I am sure the Committee will pursue the matter with further questions. The truth of the matter is that there is no doubt that there was a failure to communicate with the passenger. The decision was an attempt in certain ways to help some passengers, but with hindsight Finsbury Park was never really an option for main trains to terminate, and perhaps that should not have been done. However, not to have done that would have meant cancelling at short notice many trains on which people were relying.

Some of my constituents were badly inconvenienced, and I would like to hear the Secretary of State’s confirmation that they can claim compensation, which would be some recompense. What else can be done to get it over to Network Rail that it needs to raise its standards of customer care, concern and efficiency, because it is still vastly inefficient by global standards?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. Compensation is something to which passengers are entitled if the delays were severe and over a certain period. That should happen. On the point about Network Rail overall, as I have said, a number of the projects undertaken have been completed successfully—not least one in Reading that affects my right hon. Friend’s constituency. Anyone using that line can see the huge investment, not just in the station but in the new viaduct, which will have a huge impact on reliability for my right hon. Friend’s constituents and others.

I note that the Secretary of State said that, with hindsight, Finsbury Park was perhaps not the best option. Would it not have been better to have had some foresight and some contingency planning in relation to that?

As I have pointed out, most of the schemes with which Network Rail was involved were done on time and to schedule. Of course lessons will be learned from the incidents around Finsbury Park; I would expect them to be. This brings us back to whether during huge engineering works we want to close down the whole system or take action at a time that one hopes will be the least inconvenient for the vast majority of travelling passengers. I believe that this country’s railways and the people who work on them have seen the development of a hugely successful industry—moving from 750 million passenger journeys a year 20 years ago to 1.6 billion journeys last year. That should be regarded as a great success story.

Is not what is happening on my right hon. Friend’s watch a massive restoration and renewal of our railway system? That must carry more risk of delays, but experience shows that delays do not occur only at Christmas. Should Network Rail consider prescribing a rather longer period in which work should be completed? Passengers will at least be understanding if they are reasonably confident that there will be a return to normal service at a given date, and that they will not be as massively disrupted as they were this Christmas.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. It may be possible for that issue to be revisited by the inquiry that is being conducted by the Office of Rail Regulation, and the industry’s inquiry relating to the best time for big repair works to be carried out. In the past, the aim has always been to carry out repairs over the holiday period, because that disrupts fewer people. As I have said, there were works on nearly every section of the railway throughout the country: on the midland main line, on the Scotland, Anglia and Wales lines, at Reading, and on the west coast and east coast main lines, and a huge amount of work was also being done at London Bridge.

Following another rail crisis some six years ago, it was decided to take many engineering staff in house. Now similar problems have arisen, so it can only be that Network Rail’s management is at fault. Is it not time to seek a root-and-branch investigation of Network Rail’s management systems, and to look again at the much better methods of operation employed by British Rail before the disaster of privatisation?

The hon. Gentleman is renowned for his rose-tinted glasses, which are now returning him to a period when there were 750 million passenger journeys a year. Last year there were 1.6 billion, and I regard that as a tremendous success. More people are using the railways in this country than have done so for many a generation. It is only the hon. Gentleman—along with, perhaps, other Members who are sitting with him on that Bench—who looks back with rose-tinted glasses to a period when everything was fine.

Will my right hon. Friend explain from which budget the fines and compensation will be paid? Is it not perverse that the budget that should be paying for these very improvements is to be used to compensate the companies that have been inconvenienced? Will my right hon. Friend look very closely at the way in which the Office of Rail Regulation has operated since the changes were made, to establish whether it is fit for purpose and is holding Network Rail to account?

I think that the ORR does a good job in holding Network Rail to account, but I will of course take seriously what my hon. Friend has said about its performance. If she wants to send me further details of her complaints, I will certainly consider them.

As the Member who represents Finsbury Park, may I ask the Secretary of State to say a big thank you to all the staff who coped with an utterly impossible position on Saturday 27 December, when the station was so overcrowded with passengers? They deserve our recognition and thanks for the hard work that they do.

The Secretary of State will recall that we had a meeting in his office last year about the future of Finsbury Park station, where a piecemeal improvement has been taking place over many years. Does he not agree that there should now be a serious examination of the capacity problem at that station, given the increasing number of rail passengers, the dangerously overcrowded underground platforms, and a management mix between Transport for London and a train operator on the main line? Will he meet me again so that we can have a new discussion about Finsbury Park and the need for it to be improved?

I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking all the people who were involved in ensuring that the vast majority of the vast number of people who turned up at Finsbury Park were kept as informed as possible, in extremely difficult circumstances. This is certainly one of the issues in which I intend to take a further interest, and I shall be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, possibly at Finsbury Park.

I agree with my right hon. Friend about the successful implementation of a very large number of works. Nevertheless, what happened at King’s Cross was inexcusable, and—as will be discovered when the report is published—represents a failure of both management and leadership, with which I hope my right hon. Friend will deal.

May I also ask my right hon. Friend to turn his attention to the East Grinstead to Victoria line, which has been running with similar impediments and terrible inconvenience, largely because the rail companies cannot get enough people to drive the trains? Drivers are available, but they are apparently taking part in training courses. Things would be in a pretty pickle if British Airways did not have enough pilots, would they not?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for acknowledging some of the difficulties and the difficult conditions facing those engineers working over the Christmas period in getting, as I have said, most of the schemes they embarked on back up and running on time; so when things go wrong, it is particularly disappointing. As to his point about the East Grinstead line, I will look at that, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry).

I wrote to the Secretary of State in early December suggesting that Network Rail was incompetent, responsible for serial disruptions on the line to Clacton and East Anglia and unaccountable. Rather than make excuses and justify shoddy performance, will he consider serious, grown-up reform to make sure that this public quango is properly and meaningfully accountable to the long-suffering public?

There is unprecedented development on the railway network. I think that is absolutely vital, and I am very keen that a lot of the first-class pieces of engineering done by Network Rail continue to be done by Network Rail, along with the huge investment that we are making in the whole system.

My constituents were caught up in the chaos on the east coast main line on the 27th, like so many others. They recall poor communication not just during their journey but in advance of it, for planning purposes. They were, of course, also caught up in the Finsbury Park chaos and held around Stevenage for anything up to two hours. What can the Secretary of State do to ensure that communication is improved and our public transport network is properly operational throughout holiday periods?

I do not want to keep on repeating myself. I have talked about the necessity of doing these big engineering projects over what is usually the less busy period, as opposed to creating the scale of disruption that would occur if they were done in the normal working week or at other times of the year. We will need to look at this; some of the suggestions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) made that clear. On communications, I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman: the communications were not up to scratch in any way, shape or form, and the whole industry has got to try to address that.

The south-west was cut off from the UK last winter and Network Rail performed miracles in getting that line back up and running. I therefore find it extraordinary that reasons such as the weather have been used to excuse the chaos and incompetence of this debacle, particularly out of King’s Cross. Why did the Secretary of State feel that it was not necessary for Ministers to ask for a basic reassurance that an overrun on any of the big programmes could be managed? Why were contingency plans not in place, and why was the rail regulator warning not adhered to?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about Network Rail re-establishing the Dawlish link last winter. I would say that that also came after some very bad weather, which created the problem, and some of the work on that coastal line is still ongoing, 12 months later. On the work that was taking place over this Christmas period, there were 2,000 locations nationwide and the vast majority of work was done on time and to the accepted standards. Two locations had particular problems, and we need to learn the lessons from them and make sure they do not happen again.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks, and I agree with my right hon. Friends the Members for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) and for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). One of the problems is that these works are not necessarily one-offs, and they are recognised only when they go wrong and not when they go well. My constituents in West Drayton will be pleased to know that they can get some compensation, but can the Secretary of State think of any way, perhaps from his previous incarnation, in which some incentivisation for Network Rail, whether by carrots or possibly sticks, might be useful?

I am not sure that thinking about a previous incarnation would serve me very effectively in my job as Secretary of State for Transport. I would point out to my right hon. Friend that the carrots are there, and that the Office of Rail Regulation might well be providing the sticks. It is right to record our recognition of the tremendous work that was done by many engineers across this period. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) has just said, last Easter most Members were praising Network Rail for the fantastic job it had done in restoring the Dawlish link.

Does the Secretary of State accept that an underlying problem is the fragmentation of the railways, with no single guiding mind responsible for providing an integrated railway system? Will he look again at my Railways Bill, which precisely would create a coherent railway system and bring it back into public ownership? This is not about nostalgia. We have only to look at the success of the east coast main line. When East Coast was in public ownership, it delivered far greater public satisfaction than any of the other lines.

I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating Network Rail staff on the extraordinary maintenance programme and welcome his swift action in calling Network Rail to account. Will he assure the House that when Network Rail reports to him it will, first, ensure that the systemic failure at King’s Cross is not repeated and does not become endemic across the industry; and, secondly, that, as more services become operational, punctuality is improved?

Network Rail will publish the report that has been ordered by the chief executive by the end of this week, in time for the appearance of the chief executive and Robin Gisby before the Transport Select Committee. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance to commuters of the railway’s reliability.

The Secretary of State should have had a warning about these problems from Network Rail’s performance in the run-up to Christmas. If he had been travelling on Southeastern Trains, he would have suffered a great deal of disruption on several days during that period. If he had been on top of his game, he would have asked Network Rail about its capacity to manage the engineering schemes, but he failed to do so. What sanctions will he put in place so that the management of Network Rail can be held to account for their failures over the Christmas period?

I will go back to the Department and try to find the letter that the hon. Gentleman sent me warning me that the possibility of delays was so obvious. I think he is speaking with the benefit of hindsight, rather than having warned us about the delays beforehand. I travel on many different parts of the rail network, and I see the huge amount of work that is being carried out on it.

The Southern commuters I represent in Redhill faced a total suspension of services into London Bridge between 20 December and 4 January. They now face three years of reduced service and today, the first day back, the service collapsed, apparently because of signal problems. At a public meeting with me, Southern undertook to explore how it could reduce the cost of season tickets for those long-suffering commuters over this period, but it is now hiding behind its relationship with the Department for Transport. Will the Secretary of State and the rail Minister work with me and Southern to find a way of ensuring that my commuters pay a fair price for a much reduced service?

London Bridge is going through one of the biggest transformations that any station is likely to go through. It has some 220,000 daily users, and this work cannot be undertaken without causing some disruption. Those of us who were using St Pancras station when it was experiencing disruption for many years will know that, at the end of the day, we ended up with a far better station. I accept my hon. Friend’s point about the in-between periods. The rail Minister and I will be more than happy to meet him and to talk through this programme, which is, as he says, going to go on for three years.

At what point was the Secretary of State aware of the contingency plan that Network Rail had put in place to funnel passengers to a clearly inadequate solution through Finsbury Park? Why were solutions such as using the Hertford loop or allowing commuters from north Yorkshire, Teesside and the north-east to use their tickets to go through St Pancras to Sheffield and Leeds, so that they could connect with Transpennine and other services, not examined?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I was told of the difficulties on the Saturday afternoon. I spoke to Mark Carne then or at least on the Saturday evening—I would have to check that exactly, as I had several conversations with him over the Christmas holiday period. The hon. Gentleman’s point about re-routing on the Midland main line was interesting and I do want to check how the contingency arrangements were worked out, as I do not think they were worked out satisfactorily.

As my right hon. Friend has said, the situation was inadequate and unacceptable. Does he agree that when such situations occur passengers want information quickly, but that an inadequate number of staff were available? Does he also agree, however, that rather than jump to conclusions, as the shadow Minister has, the best way forward is to await the various reports? Will my right hon. Friend assure us that he will act on their recommendations?

Indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I will not just get that report—he serves on the Transport Committee, along with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), and I am sure it will also issue a report, which I will look at with great interest. The point just made by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) about communications in respect of alternative uses and other lines is valid.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, specifically in relation to what happened at King’s Cross, the travelling public will not be impressed with his bland assertion that “some aspects” of the work were delayed? Does he know which aspects were delayed? Is he able to share that with the House? Does he accept that the travelling public, including those poor people caught up at Finsbury Park, feel that so long as Network Rail can get away with just saying, “Aspects of the work were delayed”, these delays will continue to happen?

I referred at the start of my statement to the seven points being changed at King’s Cross and the amount of work that was being done. The work over the Christmas period amounted to a £200 million investment—by far the biggest investment in the railways over the Christmas period for many years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those Labour Members who are hostile to a privatised railway and yearn for a return to public sector railways need to be reminded that Network Rail is a public sector operator? Given that it is in the public sector, will he urgently review its governance structure, because the absurd sub-board of 30 to 50 supposedly independent members seems to be inadequately scrutinising the board of directors and the chief executive?

My hon. Friend makes interesting points that are worthy of a longer debate rather than just a very short answer. The truth is that Network Rail was reclassified last September when it came on to the public books. What I felt then was the most important thing, and still do, is that the work being done as a result of the huge investment that is going in to make the railway both safer and a better system should go on with minimal disruption. The executive board he mentions is not of the size he suggests, and it is a way of trying to involve the general public as well. But the points he makes concern issues I will certainly look at.

We have heard much rhetoric from the Secretary of State about additional investment in the railways. In December, did not his Department, under his direction, cancel the investment in phases 1 and 2 of modular signalling improvements in north Wales? Will he confirm that he has authorised that?

What I will confirm is that we are investing some £38 billion in the railways, which is more than any previous Government have invested. In 13 years, Labour electrified 10 miles of track. We will be electrifying more than 800 miles, which is a record of which this Government are incredibly proud. [Official Report, 7 January 2015, Vol. 590, c. 1-2MC.]

Under nationalisation, the railways suffered from decades of neglect and under-investment. I pay tribute to Network Rail for the work it is doing to sort out that problem, particularly as my constituents of Elmet and Rothwell regularly use the east coast main line. Does my right hon. Friend find it incredible that many Opposition Members feel that the answer is to nationalise the railways and go back to the bad old days?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As I have said, we have seen a tremendous increase in the importance of the railways. I do not want to bore the House, but I will repeat the figures that I have already mentioned. Under British Rail, 750 million journeys were made every year. Last year, the figure was 1.6 billion. Growth year on year is the result of the way in which the franchises are selling tickets and promoting the railways.

The Secretary of State quite properly said that the network failure was unacceptable, and he quite properly said that Network Rail would be held to account. But he did not say how it would be held to account. Will he please advise the House what he is doing to hold it to account, and what penalties it will pay?

I have mentioned two reports that are under way. One will be given to the chief executive of Network Rail by the end of the week. It will be made public in time for his appearance before the Select Committee. The Office of Rail Regulation is rightly investigating what happened at King’s Cross and Paddington. When I have those reports, I will consider what further action to take.

Is it not worth noting that some railway companies such as Chiltern Railways were able to run a service on Boxing day? Indeed, as a consequence of privatisation and investment by Chiltern Railways, running times between Banbury and London have been halved and we are now seeing more passengers being carried faster on certain railway lines than at any time in the history of the railways.

Indeed, and my right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the improvement in services in his area. We are hearing further calls for even greater improvements, particularly in capacity, as more people are using the railways. But I agree with him about what Chiltern Railways has done for his constituency and for the constituencies along that line.

What lessons has the Secretary of State learned from this sorry episode over the Christmas period? Does he recognise that the frustration comes not just from cancellations and long delays but from the complexity of the compensation system, with different train companies applying different terms and conditions? There are also times when people end up on a rail replacement bus having paid top fares for a rail journey.

The hon. Gentleman asks a number of questions. I will try to answer them all. The new franchises I am issuing have changed the way in which compensation is awarded, and they are a great improvement on those awarded by the previous Government. He also asked me about bus replacement services. If he wants us to carry out improvements on the network, alternatives have to be made available. I accept that our changes and improvements are an issue, but we are investing a record £38.5 billion in the railways between 2014 and 2019. [Official Report, 7 January 2015, Vol. 590, c. 2MC.]

Would my right hon. Friend care to speculate on whether the report will be able to shed light on who was warning that the risks of this engineering programme were uncontainable and likely to spill over into the commuting timetable? Is it not important that Network Rail improves its risk management and learns how to talk about risk more openly and publicly, rather than the report’s simply allocating blame and punishment, which would not be a constructive way forward?

My hon. Friend is right that we need to learn the lessons from any such incident. I am not aware of receiving any letters from the shadow Secretary of State before the incident saying that we were trying to do too much. In fact, I am not sure that I had any representations from any Members saying that we were trying to do too much and were too adventurous. My hon. Friend is right that we must learn the lessons and ensure that we do not have similar incidents in the future.

Why does the Secretary of State pretend he is in charge when the reality is that the Network Rail board reports to its members—the 46 public members identified by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone)—and a similar number of industry vested interests? Does the Secretary of State not understand that the board was set up in such a way by the previous Government only to try to get borrowing off the books? Now that that has failed, why does he not deal with this preposterous management structure?

As I said earlier, the simple fact is that Network Rail is challenged at the moment with the biggest investment in the railways since the Victorian era. Indeed, in the hon. Gentleman’s own constituency a brand-new station is being built by Network Rail. Perhaps he wants it cancelled; I will take that as a representation.

My constituents coming from Biggleswade, Sandy and Arlesey into King’s Cross were of course inconvenienced and annoyed by what happened, but they are sensible enough to appreciate that the improvements being done were for their benefit and for the benefit of the line, as they have seen over the past few years. May they also add their sensible voices to those expressing concern about any possible sanction impacting on investment in further improvements rather than on those who made the decisions in the first place?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. It is vital that we do nothing to put back the very ambitious programme for improvements to our railways that will, in the long term, benefit all our constituents.

The Secretary of State seems to want to blame the shadow Secretary of State and other Members of the House for not warning him that this was about to happen. When he said sorry in his original reply, was he taking responsibility personally as Secretary of State for Transport for the chaos that occurred or was he simply apologising on somebody else’s behalf?

I was saying as Secretary of State for Transport that I was very sorry for any inconvenience to passengers. Along with the chief executive of Network Rail, I have put in place measures to ensure that we learn from what went wrong in these incidents, which were clearly unacceptable. The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that when I made these points in the last Transport questions and in giving evidence to the Select Committee just before Christmas, nobody said that we were being over-ambitious.