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Topical Questions

Volume 592: debated on Monday 9 February 2015

The Government take the welfare of vulnerable people in the state’s care extremely seriously. Last week, I was glad to see the Home Affairs Committee support our steps to reduce the use of police cells as a place of safety for people with mental health problems. Our reforms helped cut the use of police cells by 22% last year, and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary is currently conducting an inspection of the welfare of vulnerable people in custody, which will report shortly.

But the state’s care extends beyond police custody, which is why I have today announced an independent review of the welfare of those in immigration detention to identify whether improvements can be made to safeguard the health and well-being of detainees held in immigration removal centres and short-term holding facilities and those being escorted in the UK. Detention is a vital tool, but the well-being of those in our care is always a high priority and we are committed to treating all detainees with dignity and respect.

Finally, concerns have been raised about the exploitation of domestic workers from overseas. I therefore announce an independent review of the visa arrangements for overseas domestic workers, which will be carried out by the barrister, James Ewins, who is an expert in modern slavery issues.

I thank the Home Secretary for her reply. May I draw her attention to the reply that was given a few moments ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) in relation to internet-based crime and to the increase in telephone-based crime? In particular, I am talking about those who target elderly and vulnerable people and offer to stop nuisance calls, when in fact they are involved in a scam in which they extort large sums of money in fees and charges. Are the Home Office or the police service running any initiatives to counter that particular problem?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the concerns that many people have about that type of crime. I am pleased to say that we have taken action on cybercrime, and we have set up the national cyber crime unit in the National Crime Agency. Both actions were taken by this Government. The unit has already had some success in looking at those crimes, particularly the ones that involve defrauding elderly people who are taking calls and responding to them. We have seen some success, but of course this is an area in which we clearly have more to do.

T2. May I take this opportunity to welcome the Government’s Serious Crime Bill? Among other measures, it will improve the safety of my constituents on the Isle of Wight and in other coastal communities by giving police and others the powers they need to really go after the Mr Bigs and organised crime gangs, including those that import illegal drugs? (907479)

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for the Serious Crime Bill, which contains a number of important measures to tackle those Messrs Bigs about whom he talks, including the ability to seize their assets. If we can deprive criminals of their assets, they are much less likely to be able to carry on with their criminal lives.

The Home Secretary should have called an independent inquiry into allegations of abuse by Serco staff at Yarl’s Wood 18 months ago, before, and not after, renewing Serco’s contract. Yesterday, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, national lead on counter-terrorism, said that the police face serious increases in pressure as a result of Syria and that

“We certainly need more money”.

Peter Clarke, former national lead on counter-terror, has warned that fighting terrorism depends on a “golden thread” through national, regional and neighbourhood police, yet the scale of cuts means that the thread is being broken. The Association of Chief Police Officers has warned that the Home Secretary’s plans mean that 34,000 police jobs and more than 16,000 further police officers will go over the next five years. Does she agree that the police need more resources to tackle terrorism, and if so, why does she want to cut 16,000 more police officers?

I have to say to the right hon. Lady that throughout our time in government we have protected CT police funding. She might have missed it, but late last year the Prime Minister announced that £130 million of extra money was being made available to the agencies and police to deal with terrorism.

But Peter Clarke is warning about the impact on neighbourhood policing. The Home Secretary will know that online crime is going through the roof and 999 delays have gone up. The terrorist threat has increased, neighbourhood policing is being decimated, and there are fewer traffic police enforcing the rules and more deaths on the roads. On child abuse, in particular, there has been a 33% increase in the number of cases reported to the police, an 11% reduction in the number of cases passed for prosecution and year-long delays in dealing with online cases because the police and NCA do not have the resources and capacity to do the job. Let me ask her again: is this the right time to cut 16,000 police officers? Yes or no?

First, on neighbourhood policing, it is absolutely clear from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary that forces can successfully manage to balance their books while protecting the front line and delivering reductions in crime. I remind the right hon. Lady once again that there has been a fall in crime of more than a fifth under this Government. The Labour party needs to get its story straight. On the one hand, the right hon. Lady stands up in this House and claims that more resources should be going into the police while, on the other, the shadow Chancellor, whom I think she might know, makes it very clear that under a Labour Government there would continue to be cuts.

T3. Will the Home Secretary remind the shadow Home Secretary that without a strong economy we cannot have strong policing? (907480)

I am very pleased to accept the point that my hon. Friend makes. He is absolutely right and, of course, it is this Government’s long-term economic plan that is delivering the strong economy that delivers the public services.

T4. I suspected earlier that the Home Secretary would seek to blame somebody else for her cuts, but she is responsible for a reduction in Greater Manchester police’s budget of £134 million with a further £157 million to come out in the next three years. Will she acknowledge that it does not free up police time for officers to parade in one part of the division only to have to travel to another part of the division for their beat? Or is it that her mantra of freeing up police time is precisely what I suspect it is—bluster? (907482)

If anybody is blustering, I just heard it. At the end of the day, there is a Labour police and crime commissioner and a chief constable who decide where operational police are. There are more police on operations in Manchester today—

The hon. Gentleman can say what he likes from a sedentary position, but it is a Labour PCC that is doing it.

T5. My right hon. Friend will be aware that in Harlow we have had more than 100 illegal Traveller encampments over the past year, causing huge amounts of misery for local residents. The chief constable of Essex says that he does not have enough powers to deal with that and cites the human rights of the Travellers. Will my right hon. Friend meet the chief constable and set out what powers there are for him to deal with this problem? (907484)

This is a very important issue across our constituencies. I praise my hon. Friend for the work he has done to highlight the massive issues and massive cost of illegal sites. I will meet the chief constable of Essex again, but I, with the local government Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), have written to him to highlight the powers that the police have and that they should be using them.

T6. The Home Secretary will recall that working towards departure dates was a key strategy in dealing with last year’s passport crisis. My constituent, Mr Reed, applied for his passport this year well within the time scale. When it did not arrive, he contacted my office. We contacted the Passport Office with a week to go and were told that the Passport Office is no longer working to departure dates but has reverted to processing passports on the basis of when they are received, rather than when they are needed. As a result, my constituent lost his holiday. Another summer is coming. Will the Passport Office be using departure dates in an effort to avoid the crisis that we saw last year? (907485)

I am happy to look into the individual case that the hon. Lady highlights. The Passport Office is meeting all its current service standards in relation to renewals, so if a specific problem occurred in that case, we will certainly look into it.

T7. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s announcement today of a review of visa arrangements for people coming from overseas to work in people’s homes. Can she provide the House with a few more details about the review, including timings? (907486)

I can give my hon. Friend some further information. The terms of reference for the review have been placed in the Library, so they are available to see. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced, James Ewins, whom those who served on the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee will recognise as an adviser to that Committee, is carrying out the review. It is important to say that the measures to protect victims of modern slavery apply to all victims of modern slavery, irrespective of their immigration status. There are some people who give the impression that overseas domestic workers do not qualify for support under the modern slavery strategy. That is not the case.

In 2010 the House passed the Equality Act, which required the Department to undertake research into discrimination by caste and descent in the UK. Such discrimination has been proved by the research, but no regulation has yet been introduced and, as I understand it, the Department is consulting for a further two years or more in order to avoid placing regulations before the House. Will the Home Secretary give an undertaking that those regulations will be brought forward to outlaw this form of discrimination in this country?

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of discrimination in relation to caste, which is a matter of some concern, I know, to a number of people. The issue is now being considered by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities, and further work is indeed being done. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns on this matter are passed on to my right hon. Friend.

There have been significant and difficult changes to the pensions for police officers and they will obviously want to have informed discussions with their families. Is the correct and sufficient advice from people with a knowledge of pensions available to police officers, or does my right hon. Friend think further action could be taken?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter not only here in the House, but with me privately last week. I am working to ensure that police officers get the right sort of advice not only from the Police Federation, but from our own officials. I will make sure they get that because they need such information when making difficult decisions about the future.

We know that as internet trading grows, there is a massive growth in online crime and fraud, including by organised criminals. How can the Government say that crime is falling when these crimes are not recorded in the crime survey? When will Ministers start to include them?

As the hon. Lady knows, fraud has historically been an under-reported crime. Action Fraud is trying to get reporting levels up. I am working closely with Action Fraud, City of London police and others to improve investigation rates and make sure that the victims understand what is happening.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her strong stand against anti-Semitism, but can she tell the House what further action she can take to make sure that the perpetrators are brought to justice for anti-Semitic attacks and any other forms of hate crime?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and I am sure that everybody across the House is very clear that we deplore acts of anti-Semitism. I was pleased a few weeks ago to bring together the Campaign Against Antisemitism, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the chief executive of the College of Policing to discuss how they can issue better guidance to ensure that police officers deal with hate crimes and that we see prosecutions being taken forward so that those who are guilty of this terrible crime are properly dealt with.

The Minister will be aware that one in 20 cardholders in Britain have been victims of plastic fraud and that levels of fraud reported by Action Fraud have gone up by 10% over the past year. She says that she is trying hard to do something. When will she succeed?

The hon. Lady knows that we need to increase the reporting of fraud. The dedicated cheque and plastic crime unit, which is run by the City of London police and the Metropolitan police and works with Financial Fraud Action UK, is doing an enormous amount of work to improve that. Also, given that the UK has significantly higher levels of plastic payment than other parts of the world, we should be very proud of the great advances we have seen, including with chip and pin and contactless payment, which are incredibly safe here in Britain.

Last week the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that the regime governing UK agencies getting information from the US National Security Agency about the private communications of people in the UK was illegal and had been until last December. Will the Home Secretary ensure that any and all data that were held illegally by the security agencies, or any other agencies for which she has responsibility, are now deleted?

Last week’s judgment reaffirmed the IPT’s earlier ruling, which found that the current regime governing the intelligence agencies’ external interception and intelligence-sharing regimes are lawful and compliant with the European convention on human rights. Those activities have always been subject to strict safeguards, and the judgment was about the amount of detail about those safeguards that needed to be in the public domain. The IPT has made it clear that no further action is required.