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Commons Chamber

Volume 592: debated on Monday 9 February 2015

House of Commons

Monday 9 February 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—

Police (Administrative Burdens)

We have cut red tape and freed the police from central Government control to enable them to focus on their clear goal, which is to cut crime. The work we have undertaken to reduce bureaucracy could see up to 4.5 million hours of police time saved across all forces every year—the equivalent of more than 2,100 officers back on the beat.

May I put on record my thanks to police officers across Basildon and Thurrock for all their hard work in keeping our community safe? Does this Government’s record show that when it comes to vital services such as the police, with true reform it is possible to do more with less?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The reforms we have put in place are working, and crime is down overall by more than a fifth since the last election. I join him in saying that work to cut crime is being carried out by police officers and staff day in, day out, and I pay tribute to police officers in Basildon and Thurrock and across the country for that work.

Did the Home Secretary listen this morning to the senior police officer from Essex who said that such are the cut backs to the police that he cannot cope in many areas of his responsibilities, including looking after the roads and keeping them safe despite a growing number of casualties?

Comments about changes to police budgets and the impact that they will have on crime have been made over the past four years—in fact, in 2010 the shadow Home Secretary said that cutting back police budgets would inexorably lead to a rise in crime. That was the implication she gave, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that crime has fallen by more than a fifth since the last general election.

21. My local police in Basingstoke have kept crime down even with the pressure on resources because they can determine how officers are deployed. Does the Home Secretary have plans to introduce any new targets that might take our officers away from those locally determined priorities? (907510)

No. My right hon. Friend is right, and in Hampshire since 2010, recorded crime has fallen by 26%—one of the highest falls across the country. I have no plans to reintroduce the previous Government’s targets, which meant that central Government were trying to tell the police what to do at local level, rather than allowing them to determine what suited their local areas and respond to the needs of local people.

The Home Secretary talks about freeing up police time, but is she aware of the barmy decision by Greater Manchester police to close Reddish police station and ensure that neighbourhood policing teams for Reddish have to parade on at the central Stockport police station? Far from freeing up police time to go on the beat in north and south Reddish, having to travel from the centre of Stockport to their beats is tying up the police. Is that not barmy and what will she do about it?

Operational decisions are taken by the police, but I seem to recall that the police and crime commissioner in Greater Manchester is a former colleague of the hon. Gentleman on the Labour Benches. Perhaps he should talk to him about it.

Rather than reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and make sensible savings, the Home Secretary has chosen to inflict the biggest cuts to our police service of any country in Europe. Government figures out today show a sharp dip of 23% in the number of traffic police, and an increase in road deaths, including a 6% increase for children. Does she accept that she is letting the motorist down, and that under her tenure our roads are now less safe?

No. The hon. Gentleman comments on the cuts made to police budgets, but those cuts were necessary—as were spending cuts across the public sector—because of the situation left by the last Labour Government when we were left facing such a big deficit.

Drug Crime

Thankfully, the long-term trend in drug use across the country, particularly in heroin and crack cocaine, continues to fall, but we must be vigilant, especially with synthetic drugs. I recently introduced a type of roadside drug testing, which is the first of its type in this country, and—I believe—the world.

I trust it will be remembered that there will be a record number of police in London by the end of March, thanks to the enlightened policies of the Mayor of London.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. What further action will be taken to combat people who continue to drive under the influence of drugs, so that we can drive that scourge off the road?

I was at Hendon training college only the week before last, and it was a pleasure to see the new recruits passing out. We will continue to bring technology forward. The police have been crying out for technology, at the roadside and in the station, to ensure we are as tough on drug-driving as we are on drink-driving. That is exactly what we will do.

I am sure the Minister would accept there is relatively free movement of drugs up and down and across the country. Is he in discussions with the devolved Administrations on the tackling of drug crime and the free movement of drugs?

The National Crime Agency looks at organised crime across the country. I am very pleased to say that the NCA is now in Northern Ireland, something we have been waiting for for some considerable time.

The chief constable of Durham constabulary, Mike Barton, has called for a change in our drugs policy, arguing that we would best tackle crime, and gang crime in particular, by changing our approach. Will the Minister listen to the increasing number of experts in law enforcement who want a new way to deal with this issue?

An increase in number of one, probably. I do not agree at all with the chief constable of Durham. I have told him so and I will continue to tell him. Drugs are a scourge in our society and we must do everything we can to crack down on them.

20. On 28 August, I spoke to a resident at my advice surgery who had concerns about a property near their home being used as a cannabis farm. I relayed those concerns to the police and a raid took place on 10 September. Some 627 cannabis plants were found, conservatively estimated to be worth £250,000. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the work of Lancashire police, in particular the ongoing Operation Regenerate, which is targeting organised criminal gangs and drug dealers in my area? (907509)

I am aware of Operation Regenerate: it is a fantastic scheme, which forces around the country are trying to replicate. The seizure will mean fewer drugs on our streets, particularly the most abhorrent types of drugs that are affecting our constituents. At the same time, the money that was going to be in criminal hands is now in the Treasury.

Special Constables

I am sure the whole House agrees that special constables make a vital contribution to the everyday cutting of crime in our communities. We continue to support special constables. I would like all Members to help to recruit more special constables in every one of their constituencies.

I thank the Minister and endorse his comments. May I draw his attention to a special scheme, whereby the business community works with chief constables to release members of staff so they can become fully trained special constables in a short, concentrated period of time?

I am aware of that scheme. Employer supported policing schemes, partnerships between employers and the police forces, are available around the country. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, I heard a Labour Member say that they are never available when one wants them. The specials do a fantastic job when other people are not available. We should commend every single one of them.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Kent police specials, whose 248 members volunteered to work more than 100,000 hours of police duty in 2014 and rightly won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the first special constabulary to do so? Is this not a model for how special constables can contribute a huge amount to making our streets safer?

My right hon. Friend brings a lot of experience to this question and I commend Kent police. If I may, I would also like to commend Hertfordshire police, where I had the honour of presenting long service awards to specials and other constables. One had worked an equivalent of three years’ full-time service as a special, something I am sure we all commend.

Foreign Criminals (Deportation)

We removed nearly 5,100 foreign criminals from the UK last year, and more than 22,000 since April 2010. More than 400 foreign national offenders have been removed under “deport now, appeal later” powers introduced in the Immigration Act 2014.

If we are to have a country that is at ease with itself, deporting foreign criminals, while not easy, is absolutely necessary. The Home Secretary and her Department have done a great job and have shown great leadership in this area. That bodes well for the future of the country under any Conservative Government. Does the Minister agree that if we are to have a country that feels at ease with itself even with minimal levels of immigration, we must continue to redouble our efforts to get rid of foreign criminals?

Foreign nationals who abuse our hospitality by committing crime in this country should be in no doubt about our determination to deport them. That is why we introduced the changes in the Immigration Act. Despite the 28% increase in the number of legal challenges, we are deporting foreign national offenders, and the measures we have taken are speeding up that process.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) a couple of weeks ago, the Leader of the House was good enough to recognise the importance of the rights of children in deportation and removal cases. Does the Minister think it right that the Government are having more success in removing innocent children born in this country than in removing criminals from outside the country?

The Government have taken steps to ensure that deportation is appropriate, and some removal centres have family issues absolutely at their heart to ensure that where we remove those who should not be in this country, whether family units or otherwise, it is done appropriately. We have a proud record on reducing and dealing with the deportation of children.

19. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the work of Assistant Commissioner Rowley and the Operation Nexus team, who do so much to find hardened foreign criminals in our country? Does he agree that it is vital to identify these people and, where possible, get them out of the country?

(907508)

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for highlighting the work of Operation Nexus, which has succeeded in removing 3,000 foreign national criminals by identifying them early in the custody suites and by working alongside our immigration enforcement teams and the police. This approach enables us to deal with any issues at the earliest opportunity and see that these people are removed.

Will the Minister confirm that in the last year of the Labour Government more than 5,500 foreign criminals were deported, but that every year since 2010 the figures have been lower? Why is this?

I can answer the hon. Lady’s question very directly—because there has been a 28% increase in the number of legal appeals. Despite all the appeals and legal challenges, however, we have removed 22,000 foreign national offenders. We are in no doubt about the Government’s resolve to deal with this issue. We introduced the Immigration Act and are speeding up the process. The Government are taking the right action.

Night-time Crime and Antisocial Behaviour

5. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of community-led responses to crime and antisocial behaviour related to the night-time economy. (907492)

Front-line professionals have new flexible powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, including problems in the night-time economy. We have overhauled the Licensing Act 2003 to give people a greater say in licensing decisions in their area and to give local areas the tools and powers they need to deal with problem premises. We have also enabled local communities to secure a financial contribution from late-opening premises towards policing the night-time economy.

Will the Minister join me in praising the street pastors, volunteer first aiders, first aiders and safe space volunteers in Truro and Falmouth who, on Saturday nights, do so much to keep people safe and take pressure off our much-valued police officers and paramedics?

I am delighted to praise the work of the safe space initiative in Falmouth and others like it, which provide an extremely valuable service. These schemes are run by local volunteers and officers who help with first aid. There are also the street pastors, which we also have in Haringey. I am sure that Members across the House would praise their work. The Government have also introduced the late-night levy power for local communities to use if they choose to do so. It enables local authorities to collect a financial contribution from businesses that profit from selling alcohol, and the funds raised can be used for safe spaces.

In parts of my constituency, the night-time economy includes kerb-crawling and street prostitution. Local residents are trying to work with the police to control the situation, but it is becoming increasingly difficult, with the cuts to community support officers and front-line police officers and the local authority cuts, to work with local communities. What is the Minister doing to support them?

The hon. Lady will have heard already that crime is falling across the country and has reduced by one fifth since the coalition entered government. We have taken action. I have written to local authorities to remind them of their powers, and police and crime commissioners are there to use their commissioning powers in respect of crimes that need addressing in their local areas.

Modern Slavery

This Government are determined to stamp out the abhorrent crime of modern slavery. Research carried out by the Home Office estimates that in 2013, the number of potential victims in the UK was between 10,000 and 13,000. This was included in the Government’s modern slavery strategy published in November, which sets out the wide range of actions being taken across Government to tackle modern slavery.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the West Midlands police on Operation Sentinel, which is leading a campaign this month to train 1,100 front-line officers to identify victims of modern slavery, safeguard them and raise public awareness of the signs of slavery and the need for people to report any suspicions they may have?

I absolutely will join my hon. Friend in congratulating the West Midlands police. It is exactly this type of initiative that will raise awareness and help us to tackle this dreadful crime. It is only by identifying the victims, and by people knowing how to identify the victims, that we will find them and give them the support they need.

Is the Minister at all concerned at the failure to ensure that the monitoring of private fostering arrangements for children from abroad actually takes place, which means that we could be missing completely a potential level of modern slavery?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, but through the work in the Modern Slavery Bill and through the strategy, we are absolutely determined that we will find all victims of slavery; and for children we are trialling child trafficking advocates so that we can ensure that children get exactly the support they need to give them the best opportunity in life.

Terrorism

7. What further steps she is taking to protect the UK from terrorism in response to recent attacks in Paris. (907494)

The first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens. We are committed to providing a strong, effective and appropriate security response to any terrorist threats to the UK. Since the shocking events in Paris, we have reviewed our security arrangements, stepped up protective security measures, including increasing patrols for vulnerable communities and sites to ensure effective security and safety. The police are confident that they remain flexible and able to respond to any increases in threat to protect all communities.

Does the Home Secretary share my view that the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill is a crucial element in the Government’s strategy to reduce the threat of attacks within the United Kingdom, as well as tackling the terrible problem of people leaving this country to take part in terrorist acts abroad?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill enhances our ability to deal with people across a range of aspects of the terrorist threat, enabling us temporarily to remove passports from people who are leaving the United Kingdom where it is thought they will be going to join terrorist groups to fight and potentially to train, while also taking action to ensure that those coming back who are a matter of concern will be able to come back only on our terms.

In her evidence in Parliament last week, Sally Evans, the mother of a convert, Thomas Evans, who is now fighting for al-Shabaab in Somalia, said she had received no support from the authorities in dealing with his fateful decision. Both she and her other son, Michael, have been traumatised by what has happened. Does the Home Secretary agree that we need to give more support to families such as the Evanses—but not just because it is the right thing to do, as it could also provide us with valuable information to prevent other young men from being radicalised in the way that Thomas Evans has been radicalised?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that many families up and down the country can find that a family member has gone to fight, whether it be in Syria or Iraq, possibly with ISIL or the al-Nusra front, or to al-Shabaab in the case he outlined. I pay tribute to the families that have spoken out about their experience and are using it to try to help ensure that more young people do not go to fight with terrorist groups as their family members have. It is also important to give support to families that go through this trauma, as it can often tear families apart.

22. On tackling extremism and terrorism, will the Government work according to the 2013 report on tackling extremism, which emphasised the need for freedom of expression and respect for faiths? If that is the case, does the Home Secretary agree that we need to be careful not to mock people’s faith, as this can lead to intolerance and play into the hands of extremists and terrorists?

(907511)

I agree. Freedom of expression and speech is a fundamental British value, but if taken advantage of by extremists, it can cause fear and set communities against each other. It is absolutely right that we expect people to respect each other’s faiths. There are people of many faiths in this country, and we want to see respect for those different faiths. That is crucial. I think that we should speak out for our values against those who would sow the seeds of hatred, intolerance and prejudice.

Surely the best response to the events in Paris is a considered, proportionate response. We must do nothing that would further compromise our civil liberties or the freedoms that we enjoy in this democracy. Will the Home Secretary listen to the many voices that have expressed concern about her counter-terrorism Bill, and ensure that that we do nothing—nothing at all—to question further the civil liberties that we enjoy in this country?

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that we wish to protect our civil liberties—the very freedoms that make our society what it is—and that we should respond proportionately to attacks when they happen, which is exactly what we do. I should point out to him, however, that the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill was going through the House before the Paris attacks. It was introduced in response to the rising number of people who have been going to fight in Syria in particular, who may be training out there or fighting and then coming back, wishing to do us harm. I believe that the Bill contains important powers, but that those powers constitute a proportionate response to the threat that we face.

Since the appalling attacks in Paris, my Muslim constituents have been talking to me about the climate of suspicion and hostility in which some of them feel they are living. We also know that Jewish communities are feeling more victimised and fearful of anti-Semitic attacks. What can the Government do to promote and strengthen relationships among our many very valued communities? Of course the deradicalisation and Prevent programmes are important, but there is a very important positive programme to be promoted as well.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is important to promote that interfaith working, and the relationships between different communities. The Department for Communities and Local Government has undertaken a number of activities with the aim of doing exactly that: encouraging respect for different faiths and between communities, and a greater understanding between communities. That is very important work.

The Home Secretary cut spending on community Prevent projects from £17.4 million to £1 million. She cut the number of areas delivering Prevent from 92 to 21, and in one year just four local authorities received funding for Prevent projects. At the same time, the Department for Communities and Local Government has funded just eight local integration projects, none of which is aimed at Islamic fundamentalism. Will the Home Secretary explain why local Prevent and integration projects have been so neglected under this Government?

I must tell the hon. Lady that her analysis is wrong. This Government did make a difference to the Prevent programme when they came to office. We observed that, all too often, people were seeing the Labour Government’s integration work under Prevent through the prism of the Government’s spying on them, and of counter-terrorism, so we changed the way in which Prevent operated. The Home Office has not cut its funding for Prevent, and I am pleased to say that Prevent programmes have reached more than 50,000 people in this country.

Identity Crime

We have developed a programme of activity to tackle the important issue of the manufacture and use of false identities, working closely with the national policing lead on identity crime.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Specialist Printing Equipment and Materials (Offences) Bill, which is being taken through its final stages in the House of Lords by Baroness Berridge, is vital to tackling the dire situation that is being caused by identity fraud?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his Bill, which the Government fully support. I know that, once it has completed its passage through the other place, it will make a significant difference to the tackling of identity crime.

Rural Crime

9. What recent representations she has received on the level of rural crime; and if she will make a statement. (907496)

I have received a number of representations about crime in rural areas from hon. Members, members of the public and interested organisations. We do not underestimate the impact that crime can have on those who live in rural areas. That is why we support the National Rural Crime Network, and awarded it £40,000 last year from the police innovation fund to assist its work.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that fly grazing is a heinous rural crime and is on the increase, and that it is frequently associated with other crimes such as stolen vehicles or driving without insurance? Will the Government introduce exactly the same law as applies in southern Ireland, to prevent these fly grazers from remaining for more than two days on any private land?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I agree that it is a heinous crime—and it is animal cruelty, in fact. Police and crime commissioners are making crime in rural areas a priority, and over 60% of PCCs in England and Wales have joined the National Rural Crime Network. That includes an online resource that allows police and partners and others to share information, training and case studies. Although we have no plans to introduce the criminal offence that my hon. Friend suggests, together with this kind of communication, organisations such as Horsewatch and Farm Watch can bring such crime down.

Cyber and Online Crime

10. What assessment she has made of changes in the level of cyber and online crime in the last 12 months; and if she will make a statement. [Official Report, 23 February 2015, Vol. 593, c. 1-2MC.] (907497)

We take cybercrime very seriously, and the Government have committed £860 million over five years to tackling it. We are also working to increase the reporting of online offences to Action Fraud, and official figures show that the recorded number of those crimes has nearly trebled since Action Fraud was set up.

Two of my constituents lost £250,000 due to identity theft and were simply referred to Action Fraud where they were given no information. What is the Minister doing to improve the performance of Action Fraud and to boost the resources of each local police force?

The hon. Lady and I have had several conversations about Action Fraud and I welcome her comments on real-life examples and what is going on. I am working with Action Fraud on an improvement plan. As she knows, the City of London police now have responsibility for both Action Fraud and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, and since moving to the City of London police, Action Fraud has disseminated over 40,000 crime packages to local police forces. However, we can and must do more to ensure that the victim knows about what happens and feels they have been taken seriously.

Cybercrime knows no national boundaries. Is this not a good example where working closely with others in Europe through the European Cybercrime Centre and Interpol will help us better develop systems to tackle cybercrime and keep us all safe?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. Europol is doing very important work to tackle cybercrime—that high-level malware-type crime that can have a major impact on businesses and infrastructure. Through the Serious Crime Bill we are introducing additional offences to tackle the serious misuse of the internet to impact on national infrastructure.

Can the Minister confirm that there are now delays of more than 12 months in processing and investigating some cases of online child abuse that have been reported to the National Crime Agency?

I do not recognise that statistic. The NCA is working very hard, and we have seen from the success of Operation Notarise just what it can achieve. I work closely with it, and I know it takes this issue extremely seriously and it will make sure all crimes are investigated appropriately.

For many of my constituents who have experienced crime in respect of their commercial enterprises, Action Fraud’s response has been little more than a mapping exercise. Will the Minister urge the Metropolitan police and all police forces to put this sort of commercial crime right up on the agenda?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right that we need all local police forces, including the Metropolitan police, to take that seriously. I would be keen to hear about the examples from his constituents in order to assist my work on the improvement plan we have put in place to make sure Action Fraud delivers what victims of crime need.

Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery

11. What recent discussions she has had with police and crime commissioners on the priority they give to prosecuting and preventing human trafficking and modern slavery; and if she will make a statement. (907498)

My ministerial team and I engage regularly with PCCs on a range of issues. Most recently PCCs attended the international crime and policing conference which I hosted in January, and at that event the new designate independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Highland, gave a keynote address about the importance of tackling modern slavery. I am committed to working with PCCs to ensure that the police remain focused on this terrible crime.

How many PCCs have made tackling modern slavery and human trafficking a strategic priority for their force?

PCCs have made a range of issues a strategic priority for their forces, as the hon. Lady will know. We are clear that the impetus for dealing with modern slavery is coming from the Government and that it is a priority for the National Crime Agency. Police and crime commissioners will of course set what they believe to be the most appropriate strategic priorities for their areas. I am interested that the hon. Lady wants PCCs to be interested in this matter, because her party wants to abolish them, and if that were to happen, they could take no interest in it whatever.

Terrorism

12. What progress she has made on ensuring that the Security Service is adequately equipped to tackle terrorism. (907499)

It is vital that our security and intelligence services should have the powers and resources that they need to keep us safe. We have taken steps to maintain capabilities through the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014, and we are increasing powers through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. An additional £130 million will be available over the next two years to strengthen counter-terrorism capabilities.

A terror suspect is arrested every day, and our intelligence services are crystal clear that they need greater oversight of internet communications. When will the Government bring the Communications Data Bill back to the House?

I pay tribute to the work that our police and security agencies do to keep us safe, and it is right that my hon. Friend should highlight that work in his question. Capability gaps identified during discussions on the draft Communications Data Bill have not been met, and we are clear that action needs to be taken. This issue needs to be addressed early in the next Parliament.

Radicalisation and Extremism

13. What assessment she has made of the role of voluntary organisations in tackling radicalisation and extremism. (907500)

Voluntary organisations and communities can play an important role in confronting and challenging extremism. Local Prevent projects have reached more than 55,000 people since early 2012, and the Government have supported community-based campaigns such as Families Matter and Making a Stand.

The Minister will be aware of the successful work being done by the Warrington-based Foundation for Peace with young people who are vulnerable to extremism, many of whom have now moved on to become young leaders in their communities. That work is focused mainly on parts of northern England. Would he support a wider roll-out, and will he meet me and members of the foundation to discuss how that could be achieved?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the work of the Foundation for Peace, which I visited a couple of years ago. I am aware of its continuing work, and I would be happy to meet him and representatives of the foundation to discuss the steps that they are taking. We are clearly looking for good practice that can be shared around the country to confront and combat extremism and radicalisation.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the many voluntary organisations that stand up against racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia? Does he agree that we all have a duty to stand up against all such forms of racism and extremism, as well as against those far right extremists who are promoting racism within our society at the present time?

I absolutely endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the responsibility that we all have to stand up against extremism and racism at a time when we are seeing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He is absolutely right to underline that call. Our work on Channel, which is about counter-radicalisation, focuses on all forms that might lead to terrorism, and some of the references that come through our Channel referral programme are indeed from the far right. That is why we take an all-embracing approach to our work.

Visa Applications

UK Visas and Immigration has enhanced the visa service provided to visitors to the UK from China by improving our visa application centres, introducing online applications for independent travellers and introducing a comprehensive range of premium services, including a new, 24-hour service. The 24-hour service is also available in India, and it will be launched in other key markets later this year.

Lancaster university is one of the top 10 universities in the country and it educates more than 1,000 Chinese students a year. Will the new changes help those students?

I welcome the approach that Lancaster university and other universities are taking. Clearly, we welcome legitimate students who are studying at our universities, and I am pleased that there has been a 4% increase in student visa applications from Chinese students. Our approach is very much about controlling immigration while attracting the brightest and best, including students to study at our universities.

One of the so-called improvements to our immigration system is the decision to require asylum seekers, including those from China, to make fresh submissions in person at Liverpool. Would the Minister care to dispute the comments of Dave Smith of the Boaz Trust, who rightly says that it appears to be pure discrimination and a cynical attempt to deter people from putting in fresh submissions?

I rebut that entirely. The proposal is about bringing into line arrangements that were already in place in relation to pre-2007 asylum applications. We have a specialist centre—a specialist unit—in Liverpool and it is ensuring that those further submissions are considered appropriately and effectively.

Crime Prevention (Urban Design)

15. What research her Department has undertaken on how architecture and urban design may assist crime prevention. (907503)

We have not conducted any recent research in this area, but a strong body of evidence shows how the design and build of our homes, schools and public places can prevent crime and antisocial behaviour.

We do not need research to tell us that—it is common sense. Without sounding too much like that most estimable man the Prince of Wales, may I urge the Home Office to do more to encourage new urbanist principles in urban design that are developing on the continent: walkability; high density, as in European cities and as opposed to urban sprawl; and modernist projects? All these ideas of involving the community in their community can only help to defeat crime.

I thank my hon. Friend, who is almost indistinguishable from the Prince of Wales. We have no current plans to conduct research on the impact of modern architecture and design on crime and antisocial behaviour, but we keep an open mind on all ideas. A Home Office-funded project published in 2010 looked at the crime experience of six contemporary housing schemes and its findings led to the development of valuable design principles on creating safe places to live for use by the police, architects and others. Anyone using their common sense when commissioning and designing a building would, obviously, wish to design out crime.

I have long held the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) in the highest esteem, but he will forgive me for saying that I had not previously noticed any particular resemblance.

Sex Abuse Cases

16. What steps her Department has taken to ensure that lessons are learnt from recent child sex abuse cases in Rotherham and elsewhere. (907504)

I have been absolutely clear that what happened in Rotherham was a complete dereliction of duty. We have taken immediate action to protect children in Rotherham, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has announced his intention to exercise his powers to intervene. I have been chairing a series of meetings with Secretary of State colleagues to consider the failures identified in Rotherham and the action we will take to address those issues at a national level. I will publish a report on the outcome of those meetings shortly.

In her important and shocking report on what was going on in Rotherham, Professor Alexis Jay spoke about the need to establish teams involving children’s services and education and local authorities, as well as the police. Will the Home Secretary update us on some of the proposals that will be coming forward from the cross-government meetings of Ministers?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I am sure he will understand when I say that I cannot go into too much detail at this stage, but the Secretaries of State meetings have brought the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Secretary of State for Education, the Justice Secretary, the Health Secretary, the Attorney-General and others together to look at what is a necessary cross-government approach on these issues. We have been focusing on the issues that Professor Jay highlighted in her report: the failure of local leadership; the culture of inaction and denial in the police and the local council; the failure of local agencies to work together to protect children; and the lack of support for victims. It is exactly in those areas that we will be looking at proposals and bringing those forward shortly.

“Look North” reported this morning that charities such as Barnardo’s are reporting unprecedented demand following these high-profile scandals, which is putting a real strain on them financially. Is there any help the Government can give such charities in tackling this very important issue?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course, this has not just arisen in relation to what has happened in Rotherham; we have also seen, as a result of the child sexual abuse inquiry that I have announced, larger numbers of people coming forward to a number of organisations dealing with child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation. The Government announced before Christmas that £7 million was being made available for a number of types of organisation dealing with these issues, and that process is now open for bids to be received.

Terrorism

It is clear that the UK faces a serious and enduring threat from terrorism. I cannot comment on intelligence matters or specific threat assessments, but I can confirm that specialist joint police, ambulance and fire teams are in place with the capability to respond to terrorist attacks in the country.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are many potential targets in rural areas, including reservoirs, sewage plants, communication masts and electrical substations? Rural populations would face enormous difficulties if such sites were attacked. Will he assure me that such infrastructure is included in anti-terrorism planning?

Yes. We have a longstanding programme in place to ensure that the country’s most critical infrastructure is protected against terrorist threats. I cannot comment on the details, but our priority is to ensure the continuity of essential services such as water, energy and telecommunications, which were referenced by my hon. Friend.

Topical Questions

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.

Speaker’s Statement

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) raised a point of order after business questions last week relating to the interception of communications. The passage in the report of the interception of communications commissioner to which he referred concerns the operation of the statutory regime for the interception of communications and suggested possible additional safeguards for journalistic sources under that regime. That does not on the face of it raise any issue for the House. The House will be aware that the Wilson doctrine, to the effect that Members’ communications will not be subjected to surveillance or interception under that regime, has been reaffirmed by successive Governments. A prospective adjustment of the statutory regime for journalists cannot therefore have any direct implications for the operation of the Wilson doctrine. I was grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for mentioning the matter and pledged to return to him and to the House with a response, which is what I have done. We will leave it there for now, unless he feels an urgent desire—[Interruption.] He does. Very well.

The issue under discussion is the question of the collection of metadata—in other words, data on those from whom we have received calls. It matters particularly with regard to whistleblowers and the like. When my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) asked about that, he was told by the Cabinet Office in terms that metadata were not protected under the Wilson doctrine, so our constituents and whistleblowers are still at risk.

I note the additional point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. However, it does not seem to me obviously a matter for the Chair to seek to interpret the Wilson doctrine, beyond reporting to the House, as I have just done, that the prospective adjustment in respect of journalists does not appear to me to constitute any prospective change to the doctrine. I have a sense that he wishes to continue the debate—I say that in good humour and with respect—but I have nothing to add this afternoon. If he wishes to pursue the matter further, he might profitably do so with Ministers, who look all agog and in eager anticipation of the prospect of that dialogue. I doubt that there is anything to which they look forward more.

Tax Avoidance (HSBC)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on tax avoidance and evasion by HSBC.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to this question and to the information released today in respect of an HSBC subsidiary’s involvement in facilitating tax evasion during the course of the previous Parliament.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a long-standing approach to tax evasion that is based on collecting the tax and interest due, changing taxpayers’ behaviour to discourage them from evading in future, and enforcing the most appropriate and effective penalties. Overwhelmingly, this means providing disclosure facilities to encourage tax evaders to sort out their affairs, backed by civil penalties to fine them for the offence. This has been the consistent approach under Governments of all parties. This Government have supported HMRC’s approach by increasing investment in its enforcement capacity and by strengthening its powers, including increasing the maximum fines for hiding money in tax havens to 200% of the tax evaded.

This approach has been very successful in tackling tax evasion, whether by plumbers, barristers and medics in the UK or by the wealthy hiding money in offshore accounts. HMRC has collected more than £1.6 billion from 57,000 disclosures as a result of a wide range of UK and international initiatives. Internationally, since 2010, HMRC has brought in about £2 billion in previously unpaid tax as a result of the UK’s agreement with Switzerland on a withholding tax on Swiss bank accounts, and the international Liechtenstein disclosure facility. In a small number of cases, HMRC will institute criminal investigations into serial tax evaders and those who deliberately conceal information from it, but in most cases disclosure and civil fines are the most appropriate and effective intervention. That is how HMRC has approached the receipt of data from leaks and whistleblowers, including the Swiss HSBC data that were shared with the department in May 2010.

Using the civil disclosure approach, HMRC has systematically worked through all the HSBC data that it has received and has brought in more than £135 million in tax, interest and penalties from tax evaders who hid their assets in Swiss HSBC accounts. HMRC received data from about 6,800 entities, and that, after removing duplication, resulted in information on 3,600 businesses and individuals. Of those cases, over 1,000 were challenged and the cases were settled. HMRC believes that the remainder are compliant but continues to monitor their activities.

HMRC is examining whether it has all the same data that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has, and that we have seen reported today, and it will be asking the ICIJ for any data that we have not already been given. HMRC received the HSBC data under very strict conditions that limited the department’s use of it to pursuing offshore tax evasion and prevented HMRC from sharing the data with other law enforcement authorities. Under these restrictions, HMRC has not been able to seek prosecution for other potential offences such as money laundering. However, the French authorities have today confirmed that they will provide all assistance necessary to allow HMRC to exploit the data to their fullest.

HMRC’s powers to crack down on international evasion are being further strengthened by the new international common reporting standards, which more than 90 countries have agreed to as an extra tool for closing down the options for tax cheats to pursue this increasingly high-risk practice. This has been as a consequence, in part, of the leadership shown by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the G8. This is further evidence of progress made by this Government—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

This is further evidence of progress made by this Government in tackling tax evasion and, indeed, tax avoidance—progress that was sadly lacking under the previous Government.

The Financial Secretary’s remarks simply do not go far enough. We need much more detail from him as to what the Government have been up to since they were made aware of this information and why they have apparently failed to act over such serious allegations.

First, when the French authorities passed this information to HMRC, who saw it and what was done with it? Were Ministers informed and what communications did HMRC have with the Treasury and No. 10? If there was no communication, why not, given the seriousness of the issue?

Secondly, what information did the Government seek from Lord Green about the allegations of malpractice at HSBC and his involvement in them prior to his appointment as a trade Minister? The Financial Secretary said this morning that the information was in the public domain before 2010. What information was sought and received? Any failure by this Government to question Stephen Green before his appointment would be an inexplicable and inexcusable abdication of responsibility, and the Government must address that point.

Does the Financial Secretary agree that the minimum to be expected now must be an immediate statement by Lord Green, with a full explanation of his role in these allegations while at HSBC; his knowledge of them while he was a Government Minister; and all communication he has had on these issues with Government Ministers?

Thirdly, at any point during Lord Green’s stint in government, did the Financial Secretary or any other member of the Government discuss allegations of tax avoidance and evasion at HSBC with Lord Green? In 2011, HMRC was open about conducting investigations into the UK individuals on the so-called Falciani list. Can the Financial Secretary give a categorical statement about what discussions have been had between May 2010 and now between HMRC and members of the Government about such investigations?

This Government have failed to back Labour in our calls to crack down on tax avoidance, whether on stopping hedge funds avoiding hundreds of millions—[Interruption.]

Order. I want to hear the end of this and I want the shadow Minister to be given the same courtesy as the Financial Secretary.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

This Government have failed to back Labour in our calls to crack down on tax avoidance, whether on stopping hedge funds avoiding hundreds of millions in tax on shares or on closing the eurobonds loophole, and now it seems that wrongdoing may have been overlooked on their watch. As Richard Brooks, a former HMRC tax inspector, has said, the Treasury and HMRC

“knew that there was a mass of evidence of tax evasion at the heart of HSBC”

in 2011, but they

“simply washed their hands of it.”

The essence of the hon. Lady’s speech was the accusation that wrongdoing has been overlooked on this Government’s watch, but events between 2005 and 2007 did not take place under our watch—the Labour party was in government between 2005 and 2007. The allegations relate to activity between 2005 and 2007.

The hon. Lady’s first question was on what was done with the information. I almost feel like apologising to the House for going through this information in such excruciating detail. A total of 6,800 cases were looked at and it was discovered that there were a number of duplications within those data: they were not clean data. That left 3,600 and there has been a full investigation of more than 1,000 of them—the remainder appear to have no case to answer—and a settlement has been reached. As a consequence, £135 million has been raised for the Exchequer that would not previously have been raised. If we put that in the context of the very many other measures that this Government have taken to deal with the problem, we will see that it demonstrates a Government willing to address it.

Let me turn to Lord Green. He was a very successful trade Minister and there is no evidence to suggest that he was involved in or complicit with tax evasion activities. If we are talking about complicity and asking about what happened on someone’s watch, what about the City Minister at the time, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls)? Sadly, he is not in the Chamber today. Indeed, let us look at the failure of the previous Government to address issues of tax evasion and tax avoidance. [Interruption.]

Order. I am struggling to hear the Minister. I think it is beneficial for the Chamber that we all hear the Minister.

The essence of the charge is that not enough has been done to address tax evasion or tax avoidance, but the reality is that this Government have consistently cleared up the mess that we inherited. It was the case that wealthy people could avoid paying stamp duty land tax—we have sorted that problem. It used to be the case that aggressive tax avoidance schemes were prevalent, meaning that people could sit on the cash for years while cases dragged through the courts—that has now been addressed through accelerated payments. It used to be the case that remuneration could be disguised through loans and other instruments and that no income tax would be paid—we have fixed that, although the Labour party voted against it.

This Government have enabled HMRC to increase yields from £17 billion in 2010 to £26 billion this year, which is dramatic progress. Just as we have dealt with tax avoidance, we are dealing with tax evasion—we are seeing progress on the exchange of information—and that is a very big improvement on everything we inherited.

Is this not further proof that Labour’s fundamental changes to banking regulation at the beginning of its period in government did a lot of damage and meant that banks could not be regulated properly—most notably, they led to the collapse of a number of HSBC’s important competitors—and further evidence that Labour Members are blaming this Government for things that went wrong on their watch?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. There are many issues that Labour Members should apologise for, but the one issue that they have apologised for was their failures in bank regulation, and this is further evidence of that.

Is the Minister aware that on his watch, as opposed to any other, there are currently about 3,250 people examining benefit fraud while only 300 HMRC people are examining fraud by wealthy tax dodgers, many of whom give a lot of money to the Tory party? Why is there one law for the rich and one for the poor? It is time he answered.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s numbers are wrong. The biggest department in HMRC deals with enforcement and compliance. He may be referring specifically to the affluent unit or the high net worth unit, both of which are raising substantially more money now than under the previous Government. Again and again, the reality is that HMRC is now more successful in raising money from the wealthy and anyone else who tries to avoid their taxes.

The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards spent the thick end of 18 months looking into the activities and standards of banks, as well as the abject failure of regulation under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. Does my hon. Friend agree that had the system in its report, which resulted in the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013, been in place, this would not have happened in the first place?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. One element of this is that we have to look at the regulation of banks, and there were clearly weaknesses in the system that we inherited. Just as we have addressed weaknesses in the way that tax was collected, we have addressed weaknesses in the way that banks were regulated.

Tax evasion is illegal in this country and in Europe. How many prosecutions have resulted from the revelations of tax evasion at HSBC?

As I outlined in my remarks, the main focus for HMRC has been the use of civil penalties. That approach has been followed consistently under Governments of all colours. There has been one prosecution in respect of this evidence. It is worth pointing out that prosecutions as a whole are on course to increase fivefold in this Parliament.

Successive Governments have incentivised particular investments using tax inducements, only to be surprised when things are taken too far. Will my hon. Friend publish a report that shows the extent to which this debacle was created by tax inducements introduced by the Labour party?

There clearly have been issues with some tax inducements being used for avoidance purposes. To be fair, this matter relates more to tax evasion. None the less, it is important that legislation is tested and it is important that we now have a general anti-abuse rule, which we did not have in 2010, to ensure that reliefs and exemptions are not exploited in a way that is contrary to Parliament’s intention.

In March 2012, a protocol was signed between the UK and Swiss Governments, changing the previous tax agreement. It included the provision for a one-off payment to cover past misdeeds and tax rates of up to 41%. Given the revelations from HSBC, is it the Government’s intention to look again at the protocol, or does the Minister believe that it is robust enough for what we are seeing?

The Swiss deal is on course to bring in £1.2 billion that would not otherwise have been brought in. Since the agreement was signed, we have made much further progress, with 90 countries, including Switzerland, signing up to the automatic exchange of information, which means that the era of bank secrecy is over and that it will not be possible to hide assets in the way that it was in the past. That is a consequence of the UK’s leadership on this front.

While we are pursuing those who have benefited from the HSBC tax evasion scheme, what is being done to pursue those who designed and offered the scheme in the first place, and what questions are being asked of the auditors of the bank, such as why they do not appear to have blown the whistle on the scheme?

One challenge in this case is that the behaviour was carried out by a Swiss subsidiary in Switzerland. It is for the prosecuting authorities in this country and HMRC to decide whether any action can be taken against that HSBC entity. To make a wider point, the Government have taken a lot of action to strengthen the powers against those who promote tax avoidance schemes. Indeed, we are implementing reforms to tighten those powers, making it much harder for people to promote tax avoidance schemes.

To the British people, this looks like one rule for the uber-wealthy and another rule for the rest of us. Will the Minister explain why there has been only one prosecution in five years?

Part of the issue is that, as I have said, HMRC has consistently used civil penalties as the most cost-effective way of collecting the revenue and changing behaviour. When these cases have been taken to the Crown Prosecution Service, it has taken the view that a successful prosecution would be unlikely without corroborating or additional evidence and just on the basis of the data from the leaks.

The last Government presided over an unsustainable boom in the financial services sector and, at that time, aggressive tax avoidance flourished. What steps has my hon. Friend taken to close the tax loopholes that were left wide open by the last Government?

My hon. Friend raises a good question, and this Government have closed 42 loopholes. We inherited a tax system in which not enough had been done to tackle tax evasion or avoidance, and we have addressed that over the past four and a half years. That is partly why the yield from HMRC’s activities has risen from £17 billion in 2010 to a forecast £26 billion this year.

Will the Minister confirm that he first received the files on this issue in 2010, and explain why in the past five years he has not seen fit to come to the House and share information about it? Indeed, he would not be here today had he not been dragged here by the Opposition.

This information about HSBC has been in the public domain since 2007—that is when the leaks occurred. The whole story may have come as a surprise to the hon. Lady, but it should not have done.

It is profoundly depressing that there is yet another scandal on the front pages to do with one of our banks, given the importance of a functioning banking system to our whole economy. It is also a bit depressing to watch people with the benefit of hindsight suggesting that they would have acted differently when in government. Will the Minister say how we can work across Parliament and all parties, to ensure a banking system that works for all small and medium-sized businesses that desperately require money to ensure ongoing economic growth?

I refer back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) about the work undertaken by the Banking Commission. I hope we have built a consensus around the significant reforms that occurred under this Government, which have put our banking sector on a much firmer footing.

Small businesses, which are the life blood of our economy, often complain to me about the lack of flexibility they receive when dealing with HMRC. How can the Minister justify promoting the former chief executive of a bank that was actively promoting tax evasion and avoidance to Ministers? What sort of message does that send to small businesses and wealth creators in my constituency?

HMRC has successfully run the time to pay arrangements over a number of years, which has provided support to a large number of small businesses up and down the country. Lord Green was a very good trade Minister—[Interruption.] Yes, “was”, because he is no longer a Minister, which may have escaped the notice of some Opposition Members. He was qualified to perform the role of trade Minister, and there is no evidence to suggest that he was involved in any of these activities.

Will my hon. Friend clarify the fact that the previous Government introduced stamp duty intermediary relief in autumn 1997, and that the shadow Chancellor, who was then City Minister, extended that relief in 2007—relief that Labour now attacks? Is that a further example of confusion on the Opposition Benches about how to deal with tax avoidance?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. That confusion was followed by the weekend’s confusion whereby countries that do not have a public central register—as opposed to other territories that do not have a public central register—are on a blacklist. Clearly the Labour party desires to say something about tax, but it is a pity that the bar is not set a little higher for it to say something sensible about tax.

The thing about the Prime Minister’s appointment of Stephen Green as trade Minister is that unfortunately the Prime Minister has got form on appointments—we have only to think of Andy Coulson. Somebody comes along from a company that has been up to no good, and the Prime Minister does not ask the important questions; he does not carry out due diligence but just goes, “Oh, you’re rich, you’re powerful. Come on in, no questions asked.” Does the Minister feel any element of shame that instead of tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance, this Government have effectively promoted it by putting it in the Government?

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that that is pretty desperate. He says we have not dealt with tax avoidance and tax evasion. Look at the record. Look at the way the yield has increased. Look at the rules that have been changed. Look at HMRC’s additional powers. Look at the culture change we are seeing in this country, in terms of tax evasion and tax avoidance. I just regret that 10 years ago there was such a lax attitude to these things. The Government of the time have to accept some responsibility for that.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the failure of the previous Government to act on this matter fits with a pattern of inactivity on the deficit, on banking regulation and, again, on tax avoidance?

I think that is right. I suspect that the reason why the previous Government had a lack of grip and focus on tax evasion and tax avoidance was that there was simply the view that the public finances were going to be fine whatever, and that they did not really need the money and did not need to strain in this area. That is why there was a lack of progress. I am pleased that we are making that progress now.

I do not want to personalise this; I have always rather admired Stephen Green for very many reasons. What I dislike is the culture that this HSBC scandal represents. The ordinary people in my constituency work hard and pay their taxes. They would get into terrible trouble if they tried to get away with anything. The fact is that those like PricewaterhouseCoopers, Grant Thornton and the banks, who have done these dodgy deals for years, have never had to pay.

When it comes to feeling abhorrence at the culture of those who think that they can not pay their fair share and can avoid or evade their taxes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he is absolutely right. It is necessary to take that on—to make changes in the law where necessary and ensure that HMRC has the capability to address these matters. People in businesses should pay the tax that is due under the law.

Labour first talked about introducing a general anti-abuse tax rule in 1997, but in 13 years did absolutely nothing. Will my hon. Friend confirm that we have now introduced such rules to deter the creation of abusive tax avoidance schemes?

I can indeed. The previous Government looked at this and said it could not be done. We have looked at it, and have put rules in place. Indeed, we are looking at introducing penalties for breaches of them as well. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point.

The Minister said a couple of times that there was no information or evidence against Lord Green at the time of his appointment. Can the Minister spell out exactly what due diligence was carried out at the time of his appointment?

On HSBC generally, there are clearly questions that need to be answered about what happened at HSBC between 2005 and 2007. HMRC has been taking action against about 1,000 people who were involved in this matter, where there is evidence that they have broken the UK law. HMRC will continue to take action in the event of any further evidence arising; I make that point about our approach. On Lord Green, what I would say is that he was a successful trade Minister. There is no suggestion, and no regulator has suggested, that he was at fault with regard to what happened with the Swiss subsidiary.

The Government should be congratulated on the results they have achieved in collecting taxes that had been avoided and evaded because of a lax regime before they came to power. This is really two points. First, should blame be cast on this Government for something that happened, and does need investigating, when the previous Government were in power? Secondly, on the appointment of Lord Green, there was presumably at least the same level of due diligence as there was when the last Labour Prime Minister put him on his close business policy advisory committee.

My hon. Friend makes two good points. For the good of the public finances, we have taken tough action to deal with tax avoidance and evasion, and we will continue to do so, because that is what the British people expect of us.

Despite all the ministerial excuses, is not the truth that these tax cheaters and spivs—disgraceful people—are so connected with the Tory party that this Government will not take any action? They are allies of, and donate large sums to, the Tory party.

Putting aside the paranoia and conspiracy theories, let us consider the Government’s record and the steps we have taken, time and again, to ensure that those who should pay more in tax do pay more in tax. That is the reality.

This is an artificially generated question, because there is a general election coming up. Everybody in the House is against evasion, which is illegal, and successive Governments have closed loopholes on avoidance. In fact, this Government have been rather good at that. Is this not just a general election question?

My hon. Friend is more worldly than I am, perhaps, but he raises an important point. We have tried to do many things to reduce tax avoidance and evasion, but I accept that we have not been able to go back in time and stop it happening before we came to office.

Ten years ago, when the Minister’s party was in opposition, Conservative Members, including the Chancellor, were calling for less, not more, regulation of the banks and the City. Will Lord Green be at the Tory party’s black and white ball tonight for the uber-rich, and will the Minister advise Lord Green, if he has any spare cash, to donate it back to the taxpayer, instead of to the Tory party?

I think the hon. Gentleman has just made the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) raised in the previous question.

Last week, Bill went missing. This week, it is Ed, who had sole responsibility for these issues in 2007. Why does the Minister think that no substantive action was taken in those years?

In his statement, the Minister said that the information was passed to HMRC under conditions restricting what it could be used for. Will he enlighten the House on what those conditions were and whether Ministers were consulted about the nature of those restrictions?

The restrictions were essentially that the information could be used only for pursuing tax evasion prosecutions, not for other matters, such as money laundering prosecutions, for example. On the precise arrangements and conditions, it is worth pointing out that the first request for information was made by HMRC in February 2010, under the previous Government. I am not sure what conditions Ministers were consulted on at that point.

Like me, small businesses in my constituency paying their taxes get angry when they see big international corporations getting away with avoiding their taxes. Will my hon. Friend update us on the action he is taking to ensure that multinational companies pay their fair share of tax to HMRC?

On multinational companies, I would make three points. First, we are ensuring that HMRC’s large business unit has sufficient resources to monitor large businesses adequately. Secondly, we are leading on international reform through the base erosion and profit shifting project with the OECD. Thirdly, I would highlight the diverted profits tax measure announced at the last autumn statement, which has been consulted on in recent weeks, and for which we hope to legislate in the Finance Bill before the end of the Parliament.

The public cannot understand why the names of these self-confessed tax swindlers are remaining secret. Will the Government publish the list of those with whom HMRC has come to an agreement, so that the public can see it and we can check it against the list of donors to the Tory party?

HMRC is essentially performing the same process that has been undertaken for many years, including when the right hon. Gentleman’s party was in office. It is consistent, for example, with the Liechtenstein disclosure facility, which was agreed by the previous Government, the point being that it is the most effective way of getting the tax, the interest and the penalty; of getting the money into the Exchequer; and of changing behaviour. I make no apology for HMRC pursuing that route as the first line, because it has proven to be effective.

Three years ago, HSBC was fined $2 billion for acting as money launderers for Mexican drug cartels. Those transactions, and those that we are discussing today, both happened before 2010. Is the Financial Secretary confident that the measures we brought in subsequently will stop either case happening again? Has he had a discussion with HSBC regarding continued transgressions of this type and its banking licence?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When it comes to banking licences, politicians should perhaps not be directly involved; we have a regulator for that purpose. Ensuring a change of behaviour in our banks is important. We have all been appalled by this behaviour over the last few hours––for some of us, it has been longer. This occurred some years ago, at the same time as we saw banks acting recklessly in a number of ways. It is really important for the banking sector to get its house in order. We know that the reforms we have undertaken as a Government can play an important role in ensuring that happens.

Let me ask a simple question. Was Lord Green interviewed about these matters by HMRC officials or the Cabinet Secretary at any time?

I am not aware of whether interviews were held on Lord Green’s appointment, either as a lord or as a business adviser, under the previous Government.

Is the Minister aware that in the years up to 2010, income tax receipts rose by 81%, while non-oil corporation tax receipts rose by 6%? Does he agree that an industrial-scale tax-avoidance culture arose, fanned by the prawn cocktail offensive, whereas this Government’s actions have helped to close the tax gap?

As a Government, we believe in low and competitive rates of corporation tax, but we also believe that those taxes should be paid. That is why we have strengthened the capacity of HMRC, why we are introducing the diverted profits tax, and why we are leading the way in international reforms of the corporate tax system.

The public are rightly concerned about the City financiers and hedge funds that donate large sums of money to the Conservative party, which is seemingly enriched by the tax avoiding and the dodgy dealings. The Minister says that it all happened on our watch. Why, then, in 2012, when this Government introduced the national loan guarantee scheme, did they not specifically exclude those companies that were based in foreign tax havens?