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Topical Questions

Volume 661: debated on Monday 10 June 2019

As we approach the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, our thoughts are with the families of the victims and everyone affected by the tragedy.

We continue to increase support for the police and victims of crime. More money has been made available to tackle serious violence, with further allocations to the worst-hit police forces from the £100 million fund. We are making calls to the 101 non-emergency number free from April 2020. I have announced plans to change the law to give trained police drivers more confidence to pursue suspects, better protected from the risk of prosecution.

In his remarks about facial recognition technology earlier, the Minister for Policing rightly spoke about the need to take the public with us. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the imposition of Big Brother-style surveillance and fining people for covering their face with their coat is no way to secure the public’s trust? Will the Government halt the use of live facial recognition technology in policing until there has been a proper public debate, Parliament has considered a framework and there are civil liberties safeguards?

I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that it is absolutely right that the police, and those involved in law enforcement more generally, take advantage of changes in technology. Facial recognition is one of the technologies that are advancing and it is right that we test it properly. Police forces are piloting its use. The whole point of a pilot is to look at the results and then determine whether it makes sense to take the pilot forward. That may well include the need for proper guidance and perhaps even legislation.

T2. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the current legal age for marriage in the UK, 16, can lead to exploitation in the form of forced marriages? (911234)

I am very much aware of that. Forced marriage is of course a terrible form of abuse. The Government have introduced a range of measures to tackle the crime, including the creation of a specific forced marriage offence and the criminalisation of the breach of a forced marriage protection order. My hon. Friend raised the important issue of under-18 marriages. It is right that we consider our position, which is under review.

The Government’s call for evidence on violence and abuse towards shop staff is welcome. However, research by the Charity Retail Association shows that more than a quarter of charity shops are reporting an increase in incidents of violence or verbal abuse against their volunteers. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that retail volunteers are included in the review and that they, too, will benefit from any proposed protections?

The statistic the hon. Lady cited is sobering. I see no reason why charity shops should not be included in the review. I encourage all Members of Parliament to advertise the call for evidence, which we are holding precisely because we want to find out the nature and extent of the problem. I very much look forward to discussing it with the hon. Lady in due course.

T7. What measures is the Home Office taking to increase police funding and get more officers on the streets of Fylde? (911239)

My hon. Friend has been persistent in making the case for more funding for Lancashire police, so he will welcome the additional £18.4 million of cash in 2019-20, on top of the exceptional grant for the costs of fracking. Chief Constable Andy Rhodes is recruiting additional officers, and I know that my hon. Friend will play his full part in lobbying the police and crime commissioner and Andy to make sure that Fylde gets its fair share of that additional resource.

T3. With theatre productions cancelled, couples attacked on public transport and hate speech spouted outside schools, what is the Home Secretary doing ahead of Portsmouth Pride to protect the LGBT+ community? (911235)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue. I am sure he has in mind the horrific attack that was reported at the weekend and that I condemn in the absolute strongest terms. There is no place in our society for such hate crime. My understanding in respect of that particular incident is that the Met has arrested five individuals. The Government are absolutely committed to tackling all forms of hate crime, including LGBT hate crime, and we will continue to do all we can.

T9. I warmly welcomed the implementation of the seasonal agricultural workers pilot scheme that was launched this year, but does the Minister agree that we need to review that scheme this year as opposed to waiting for another year? We know that it works and we know that our soft fruit farms need it. We should have it made permanent and extended as soon as possible. (911241)

First, I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she has already done to bring this about. She was one of the Members of the House to make the case for the scheme so powerfully and that is exactly why we have it. The intention is to see how it works while we have freedom of movement, but she has raised an important point. I think that it is worth considering an earlier review and I will be happy to discuss it with her.

T4. Can the Secretary of State advise us: what costs have been incurred to date by the Home Department in preparation for a no-deal exit from the European Union? (911236)

The Home Office has been preparing for a potential no-deal exit, not because it is what anyone expects or wants, but because it is the responsible thing to do. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman right here and now what the total costs are, but I am happy to write to him with more detail. But it is right that we make these preparations, whether they are for border issues, immigration issues or customs and security.

The strong message that came out of the referendum is that people want an immigration system that provides control, but they also want an immigration system that is underpinned by the principle of fairness, where everybody is treated equally, regardless of where they come from in the world. Is the Minister confident that the new system that we put in place will deliver on both those objectives?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. That is absolutely the principle underpinning the proposals put forward in the White Paper, which was published in December last year. We want to have a single immigration system that treats everybody from every country according to the skills and talents that they can bring to the United Kingdom, not one based on where they come from.

T6. The Carol Black review of drugs is specifically not considering legislative reform, but that may be exactly what we need to address the violence and harm associated with the drug market, so will the Secretary of State look again at the terms of reference of the review and at least consider that as in the scope of part two of the review? (911238)

The independent review of drugs misuse to which the hon. Gentleman refers is, I think it is fair to say, the most comprehensive review that has ever been commissioned on such a subject by a Government. It has a broad remit and, when Dame Carol Black reports back—I think there will be an interim report this summer—we will take it very seriously.

T8. The Home Secretary might not be aware of this, but he did rather upset people when he last spoke about his childhood in east Bristol. May I urge him to look at what the police are doing there with the early intervention and diversion scheme, which has had a 90% success rate in turning young people away from involvement in gangs and drug crime? (911240)

If I understood the hon. Lady correctly, she is referring to my comments about Stapleton Road, but I was referring to the Stapleton Road that I knew 40 years ago and I do accept that things have moved on. In fact, I was at Stapleton Road just a few days ago. I very much enjoyed myself and met some of the local residents, which was fantastic.

One always has to be careful about what one says about Bristol. For my own part, I fought the Bristol South constituency in 1992, but the good news for Bristol and perhaps for the nation was that Bristol South fought back.

T10. What recent assessment has the Secretary of State made regarding the number of girls and women being sexually exploited in connection with county lines drug trafficking, and what steps is his Department taking to tackle this specific problem? (911242)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. She is right to identify the fact that there is emerging evidence that gangs are ensnaring girls, in particular to rape them, but also to conceal weapons and drugs for the larger gang. If I may, I will write to her with the precise details. I am pleased that she has raised this because we tend to think of male members of gangs, but she is absolutely right to remind us that this includes girls as well.

Can I give the Minister a brief message from my constituents? They say that perpetrators of organised crime are constantly improving their ability to use new technologies to defraud them, and they have no resistance to having the best and most modern technology possible in the fight against crime.

One of the biggest challenges is how to get ahead of organised crime. Organised crime uses technology to organise better, and we need to organise better to counter it. The hon. Gentleman will have heard the different views in this House about technology and surveillance, and it is important to get the balance right. Members should be under no illusion that technology is giving the very baddest people in our society a real advantage, and that takes long-term investment to address.

Last Thursday, I travelled to the Netherlands with Teagan Appleby’s mother, Emma, to pick up the medical cannabis that has reduced Teagan’s seizures from 300 to four a day. In the absence of NHS prescribing, parents like Emma are having to go abroad, or pay exorbitant import and pharmacy charges. Emma had a UK prescription, so met the criteria presented to her at border control to the letter. Why, then, did the Home Office make UK Border Force detain the medicinal cannabis that Teagan so desperately needs?

The hon. Lady will know that I took immediate action to change the law to make medical cannabis available when I first heard about young children who are drug resistant and have severe epilepsy. But rightly—even with that change—it is necessary for a clinician to be involved and for a prescription to be given. Although medical cannabis is now legal with a clinician’s approval, it is still a controlled drug and it is necessary to have some controls to minimise the risk of misuse, harm and diversion. I am very sympathetic to the case that the hon. Lady has raised. We are discussing it with the Department of Health and Social Care and will do all we can to help.

Scotland had a 10-year strategy to develop a public health approach to tackle violence, although people in Scotland would argue that it should have been a 15 or 20-year strategy. Will the Government show us how serious they are about taking a public health approach to this issue by committing to a 20-year strategy from the start?

Earlier I mentioned the consultation, which—to correct the record—closed at the end of May. I hope that the hon. Lady will input into that consultation. If she has made that suggestion to the consultation, we will be taking it very seriously.

I do not want to spawn intra-family discord. We have heard a voice from Lewisham, so we have to hear a voice from Leyton; I call John Cryer.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Further to Question 7, it is widely known that fire crewing per pump has been cut across the country from five to four, and even from four to three. Although we all know that this is an operational matter, is not the safety of firefighters a ministerial matter as well?

The safety of firefighters is of huge interest to Ministers, and it is something that we do keep an eye on, but the hon. Gentleman is right in his fundamental point: these operating decisions are best taken locally. [Interruption.] He makes a face, but we cannot have a Minister sitting here and making judgments on what is right when it comes to allocating resources to risk in Cleveland, Cumbria or anywhere else.

I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but we have time for only one more question. I call Alison Thewliss.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

My constituent, Eryaar Popalzai, came to the UK from Afghanistan at the age of 14 some five years ago, as an unaccompanied minor asylum seeker. Since his further submissions in 2017, he has yet to hear anything from the Home Office. He is an incredibly vulnerable young man and has been getting therapy from Freedom from Torture for three years. What do I tell him when he comes to my surgery this Friday?

I am happy to take up this specific case with the hon. Lady after questions, if she would like. One of the changes that the Home Office has made over the course of the past few weeks is to ensure that we are prioritising older cases and cases of more vulnerable asylum seekers, so that we can get through the backlog of cases and ensure that people such as her constituent get a response.