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Topical Questions

Volume 608: debated on Monday 11 April 2016

In 25 days’ time, the public will go to the polling booths to vote for elected representatives in local authorities, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and for the mayoralty of this great city. We have a great tradition of democratic accountability in this country, and I am proud that on 5 May that principle will be extended to policing. For the first time since we introduced them in 2012, the public will be able to hold their local police and crime commissioner to account for their record in office. It is easy to forget what went before PCCs: the unelected, unaccountable and invisible police authorities, which no one knew existed. Today, a majority of the public know about their PCCs, and PCCs have been associated with greater clarity of leadership and heightened accountability by the Home Affairs Committee. Even the Labour party, which until recently opposed PCCs, and the Liberal Democrats, who did everything they could to sabotage the first elections, support the role and have nominated candidates in May’s elections. PCCs have worked hard over the past three and a half years to keep their communities safe, so I hope that the House will join me in congratulating the first PCCs on their successes and encouraging the public to hold them to account in the most powerful way possible on 5 May: at the ballot box.

Levels of violent crime and domestic abuse remain unacceptably high in Croydon, and the borough was of course hit hard in the 2011 riots, so it is very worrying that it is about to lose a third of its remaining neighbourhood police bases, on top of 83% of its police community support officers—reductions that are much higher than the average in London. Will the Home Secretary therefore meet me to discuss real public concerns that these cuts will damage the fight against crime in Croydon?

To repeat what I said earlier, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government have protected police budgets over the comprehensive spending review period, when precept is taken into account, which is in sharp difference to what the Labour Front Bench suggested—cutting them by 10%.

T2. My right hon. Friend may be aware that I am participating in the police parliamentary scheme, seeing at first hand the excellent work of Greater Manchester police. What is being done to ensure that there are adequate and safe levels of community policing in my constituency? (904341)

I congratulate all hon. Members who take part in these parliamentary schemes. I would also recommend the fire scheme and the armed forces scheme. With the Chancellor’s help, we have managed to protect budgets, subject to the precept. For anyone interested in neighbourhood policing, I would say that those who have a Conservative police and crime commissioner and a Conservative mayor have more chance of having more officers on the beat.

In the aftermath of the attacks in Brussels and Paris, the security of the UK border is uppermost in people’s minds. However, we are a fortnight into the new financial year, and the Home Secretary is still refusing to answer questions on the budget for Border Force. A whistleblower says staff were told three weeks ago to expect front-line cuts of 6%, although, since media reports of that came out, we hear that the Home Office has been back-pedalling. I hope the Home Secretary is backing down, because our borders cannot face cuts on this scale. I therefore invite her to clear the issue up today: what is the 2016-17 budget for Border Force, and is it up or down on last year?

The right hon. Gentleman has written to me on this subject, and I have responded to him. The Home Office’s budget was published under the comprehensive spending review as normal last November. As with the rest of the Government, individual allocations within Departments are not routinely published. However, what matters—he is right—is that we have a secure border, and that is why we have a transformation plan with Border Force and why we have changed Border Force over the last few years from the dysfunctional United Kingdom Border Agency we inherited from the last Labour Government.

It will not have escaped the notice of the House or anybody watching that the Home Secretary has not answered the question. We know that financial transparency and this Government do not go well together, as we are about to hear, but what are the Government trying to hide? I hope the delay in publishing the budget is due to the fact that she is listening to us and backing down on those 6% cuts.

Let me turn to another area where the Home Secretary is moving under Labour pressure: police bail for terror suspects. I have called on the Government for months to close a loophole that has allowed individuals on bail, such as Siddhartha Dhar, to leave the country for Syria. I welcome the fact that the Government last week indicated that they are prepared to move on the issue, but I am worried that they are not going far enough. Does the Home Secretary agree that passports and travel documents should be surrendered as a condition of release from police custody? Will she work with Labour to amend the Policing and Crime Bill to that end?

We have been looking at this issue for some time, and we have decided that we will bring forward an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill. However, it is important that the police continue to have a degree of operational judgment about the conditions they wish to put in place in relation to bail. The type of bail the right hon. Gentleman is talking about is pre-charge bail—a situation where somebody has not yet been charged with an offence. Decisions will be taken, as they were in the case of Siddhartha Dhar, by individual police officers as to the conditions that should be applied, and that should continue to be the case.

T4. How many of the approximately 800 British citizens who have joined militant groups in Syria have returned, and how many of them are back in communities? (904343)

Around half of those who have travelled to Syria have returned to the United Kingdom. Obviously, the sort of action it might be necessary to take against individuals is considered on a case-by-case basis. That includes considering the sorts of activities in which they may have been involved in Syria and whether any intervention is necessary.

T3. Last week, 18-year-old Mohammed Hussain, a Kurdish refugee, died underneath a lorry as he attempted to flee violence and be reunited with his family in Manchester. The tragic story of Mohammed highlights the dangerous routes that many refugees are forced to take. When will the Government open up family visa opportunities to British citizens and settled residents so that we can prevent deaths like that of Mohammed from happening again? (904342)

The hon. Gentleman highlights the appalling risks that some people have taken to get through the security and other steps that have been put in place. Our very clear message to those people is that they should claim asylum in France. On the issue of resettlement, we are certainly making the process clearer and working with the Red Cross and others on the guidance provided.

T5. Has the Home Office team had time to reflect on the extraordinary National Union of Teachers motion that condemned the Prevent duty? Do Ministers agree that we all have a responsibility to do all we can to prevent young people from engaging in terrorism and extremism? (904344)

It was Ruskin who said:

“Let us reform our schools, and we shall find little reform needed in our prisons.”

It is in that spirit that the Prevent duty missions teachers to identify those vulnerable young people and safeguard them from being drawn into terrorism. Schools are stepping up to that mark, as they know their students best. They are well equipped and well prepared, and they are safeguarding our children and so securing our future.

T6. The Home Secretary recently said at the launch of the Conservatives’ PCC election campaign that “the Conservative Government has protected overall police spending for the next four years”.However, Sir Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, has confirmed House of Commons Library research that shows that forces will see a £160 million cut next year alone. In the light of that, and given the importance of the upcoming elections, will the Home Secretary admit that funding for our police forces has not been protected and is being cut again for each of the next four years? (904345)

If we take the precept into account, we can see that police funding has been protected over the past four years. The one person we did not listen to was the Labour shadow Secretary of State, because he wanted to cut it by 10%.

T7. What success have the Government had in recent months in deporting overstayers who have been working here illegally? (904346)

I underline the important work in confronting crimes linked to those working illegally. In 2015, more than 38,000 people were removed or deported from the UK, including a 28% increase in voluntary returns. That highlights the fact that people realise that it is so much tougher to get work here.

What recent discussions have Ministers had with chief constables about the growing menace of scrambler bikes being ridden recklessly on our roads, with the potential to cause great accidents, usually by young men wearing masks and without number plates?

I had those sorts of discussions when I was at the Department for Transport, and we continue to have them. Unlicensed, unauthorised and unsafe vehicles on the roads are a menace, and the police should use all the powers they have.

T8. The Investigatory Powers Bill, which is going through the House, provides important capabilities, along with new safeguards, to tackle cybercrime. Will Ministers update the House on how the changing nature of crime is being fought by the Bill?


The motives of terrorists, paedophiles and people traffickers may differ, but their means are the same, and they take advantage of the internet. The Bill will provide the police and security services with powers that are necessary to keep us safe. Powerful new measures, steely determination and an iron will mark all that we do.

Anyone from Malawi who wants to visit the UK has to apply online with a credit card. Given how few people in Malawi have access to electricity, let alone the internet or banking facilities, what steps is the Home Office taking to make sure that people who have a legitimate request can apply?

The hon. Gentleman has raised that issue with me previously, and I am happy to continue to discuss it with him and with the all-party group. Clearly, agency and other mechanisms are available, but we will continue to ensure that we have a high-quality visa service.

T9. It is right for the police to be given more powers in relation to the use of Tasers, stop-and-search and the Investigatory Powers Bill, but with greater powers should surely come greater responsibility. Therefore, will the Home Secretary confirm to the House that proper safeguards will remain in place to ensure that the police continue to have the support of the general public? (904349)

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance, in relation to the Investigatory Powers Bill and, crucially, the double lock authorisation that will be available for the use of the most intrusive powers; in relation to the work that we have done in introducing the “best use of stop-and-search” scheme, to ensure that stop-and-search is properly used and properly targeted; and in relation to the work that we have done with Chief Constable David Shaw to identify rather better how Tasers and other restraint are being used. The police need those sensitive powers. What people want to know is that they are being used properly, and the Government are ensuring that that is the case.

Over the past 12 months, a further 39 uniformed police officers and PCSOs have been lost from Enfield’s streets, while violent crime, including assault and possession of a dangerous weapon, has increased by 13%. Ten days ago, there was an attempted drive-by shooting in my constituency. That situation in a London suburb is totally unacceptable and very frightening for residents. There can be no doubt that the hollowing out of neighbourhood policing is putting public safety at risk. What does the Minister intend to do about this situation?

What we intend to do, with the help of the Chancellor, is to make sure that the Metropolitan police has got the funding that it asked for, not to cut funding by 10%, as the Labour party requested. Neighbourhood policing is an operational matter for the commissioner and the Mayor, but I repeat what I said earlier: looking at the statistics, we can see that if we want more police on the beat, we should vote Conservative.

As part of special branch, Hampshire marine unit provides vital crime prevention along our coastal borders and within the marine environment of the Solent and the Isle of Wight, through operations such as Project Kraken. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that vital crime prevention service is protected under current reforms?

My hon. Friend raises an important point and describes the variety of tasks that our police forces carry out, and the variety of skills and operational capabilities that they need. I am very conscious of the marine capability requirements in Hampshire. It is, of course, an operational matter for the police to determine how they spend their budget and what they use it for. Crucially, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has ensured that we can protect police budgets, when precept is taken into account, over the next four years.

Two weeks ago, when four of my colleagues and I were in Calais, the French authorities tear-gassed the Calais camp simply because a protest was going on outside it. Does the Home Secretary approve of such measures, and if not—if she agrees with me that measures should be proportionate to the situation and that refugees must be treated humanely—will she contact her French counterpart and express the concerns of this Parliament?

I was in Calais last week having discussions with the French authorities about those issues, and the very clear message was that those who are there should claim asylum. That is the best and most effective way for them to get the help that they need, and that is the clear message that needs to come from this House.