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Topical Questions

Volume 689: debated on Monday 8 February 2021

I am proud to say that on 31 January the Government launched the Hong Kong British national overseas immigration route. The commitment to create this route was made following the Chinese Government’s imposition of the new national security law in Hong Kong. It is an unprecedented and generous offer and reflects the historical and moral commitment of this country to the individuals who retained ties with the UK at the point of Hong Kong’s handover.

Through this route, we will welcome BNO status holders and their family members to the UK on a pathway to citizenship. From 23 February, those with a BNO, Hong Kong special administrative region or European economic area biometric passport will be able to apply for the route through the fully digitalised process, using new technology developed through the UK’s points-based immigration system. I am clear that we must give BNO status holders every opportunity to thrive in the UK, and officials are working with colleagues across Departments to look at integration. This absolutely speaks about global Britain and how we will always stand up for what is right in the world, welcoming those who come to the UK in the right and proper way.

On 20 January, my constituent Andy Aitchison, an accredited journalist who had taken photographs that morning at the demonstration at Napier barracks in Folkestone, was arrested by five police officers at his home, charged with criminal damage and held for questioning for seven hours. The police confiscated his mobile phone and photo camera card. Last Friday, the charges were dropped and the case closed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be a review of the guidance given to police before such actions are taken against accredited journalists, and does she agree that Mr Aitchison should have a clean record, as he has committed no offence?

Regarding the case that my hon. Friend has highlighted, he will know that Kent police were called following a report of a particular protest and an incident. All decisions on arrests are an operational matter for the police, and the police make arrests in line with their duties to keep the peace and to protect communities. I am afraid at this stage that is all I can say, because an arrest has been made, but I have no doubt that Kent police will continue to keep all interested parties, including my hon. Friend, updated on this particular case.

I would like to begin by wishing the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) a swift recovery following his recent surgery.

Hotel quarantine for travellers will be introduced on a far too limited basis for 33 red list countries on 15 February, more than 50 days after the South African variant was discovered in the UK. To prevent a variant reaching our shores that could threaten the vaccination programme, that should be a comprehensive policy. Worse still, analysis over the weekend showed that, of the 41 countries that have confirmed they have cases of the South African strain of the virus, 29 are not subject to the hotel quarantine controls. Neither are a further six with the Brazilian variant. When will the Government publish the specific scientific basis for their existing red list?

The hon. Gentleman and I have spent some time at this Dispatch Box discussing this particular issue, and I think it is important that I make a couple of points to emphasise the work of the Government. The new health measures at the border are necessary to protect public health and our world-class vaccination programme. We have throughout the pandemic kept all measures under review, and that is absolutely right. He mentions new variants. However, I do want to emphasise, in the light of the many discussions that have taken place at the Dispatch Box between the hon. Gentleman and me, and colleagues from other Government Departments, that the Labour party has repeatedly flip-flopped on hotel quarantining measures. The Government have been very clear about measures that will be announced, some in due course, because a lot of operational and logistical planning is taking place around these measures. At the same time, it is worth recognising that there are many people on the frontline looking at the implementation of this policy, which is based on the advice by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and other Government advisers. It is important that we take time to absolutely make sure that these measures are put in place in the right way.

First, the Labour party has not flip-flopped on this. The 14-day blanket quarantine was only necessary because of the Government’s own failure on testing. Secondly, although the Home Secretary and I have had plenty of discussions about it, she was very clear about her own views last March that the border should have been closed, and we have all seen that on the video.

Is it not true that Ministers have been behind the curve throughout? There was no formal quarantining system until June last year, and when it was introduced, it proved ineffective. The South African variant is already here. Border testing was only introduced in recent weeks. On the hotel quarantining policy, we hear today that no formal contracts have been agreed—too little, too late. Is not the truth that the borders policy is a gaping hole in our defences against the virus? When is the Home Secretary going to take charge of this situation and put in place the proper protective measures that she knows are needed to protect the health of the British people and safeguard the vaccine roll-out?

I appreciate that it has been a while since Labour has been in government, and Labour Members will obviously fail to realise that there is cross-Government work on the delivery of these measures. We are in a pandemic. Just to restate this to all colleagues in the House, health measures at the border have been in place since January last year. Those measures have been developed, as everyone would expect, as the situation changes; they are calibrated measures. I think it is an absolute shame to see the hon. Gentleman joining his colleagues in playing party politics with this crisis while attacking the Government, because although he originally welcomed the measures on the border that we brought in last year, he then wrote to me calling for the “blunt tool” of our border quarantine to be lifted quickly. Labour’s behaviour throughout this pandemic has shown the British public that it has no interest in being constructive or acting in the national interest, and that is exactly what we can see right now, while the Government are getting on and dealing with this hotels policy.

The Government have made it clear that they want to change the law to make it easier and swifter to deport illegal immigrants, foreign national offenders and those making bogus claims for asylum. That is something that I fully support and the overwhelming majority of the country will support. Will the Home Secretary give us some idea as to when that legislation will be brought forward to Parliament, because, as far as I am concerned, the sooner, the better? (911981)

My hon. Friend makes some very good, strong and important points that, absolutely, the British public support the removal of foreign national offenders, those who come to our country to cause harm, and also those who are, quite frankly, making asylum claims that are not legitimate. We intend to introduce legislation later this year. I have spoken frequently about the need for a firm but fair asylum system, with fairness to target those who genuinely need our help. I have already spoken about one new safe and legal route that this Government have supported. Absolutely, fairness is needed, and firmness is needed to stop abuse of our system and to make sure that we remove those who come to our country to create harm and participate in criminality. I should remind my hon. Friend—he will know this—that Labour has been campaigning against that over the past 12 months.

The South African variant has now been identified on many continents, and the risks to the vaccine programme are concerning. Can the Home Secretary confirm, following her letter to me last week, that even under her future plans, the majority of passengers will not be covered by hotel quarantine, no one will be tested on arrival before going on public transport, and less than one in four travellers will get a follow-up phone call check? Is this worrying information correct, and why are there all these gaps?

The answer to the question is no, because as I have repeatedly said in this Chamber throughout the pandemic, all our measures are kept under review. We already have 100% compliance checks taking place at our airports. Ironically, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) was complaining at me three weeks ago about queues at Heathrow airport, but those queues were there because compliance checks were being undertaken. It is absolutely right that those checks take place, including through the passenger locator form, the pre-departure testing, and the impacts and liabilities that are now on the carriers.

I have already stated that my colleagues across Government will report to the House on the subject of hotel quarantining, but it is really important to say that, yes, there are concerns about new variants. We are working across Government—and, I have to say, a lot of people are working valiantly on the frontline—on vaccine roll-out, but we keep all our measures under review, obviously to protect the vaccine but also to ensure that as the number of passengers coming into the country reduces, full checks are in place.

Our police have had to deal with a wide range of issues during this pandemic, including selfish people who have ignored the restrictions, behaved irresponsibly and risked the health of themselves and others. Does my right hon. Friend agree that now more than ever, we should be supporting our brave police officers as we roll out the vaccine? (911983)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has already heard me speak about the amazing work of people on the frontline, which includes our police officers but also our serving fire officers, who are working in local resilience forums to deliver and safeguard the vaccine and make sure people are getting vaccinated—including, no doubt, at local sites in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The British public are fed up of seeing egregious breaches. It is the police on the frontline, day in and day out, who are not only protecting the public but putting themselves in harm’s way, and we are absolutely right to support them.

We have heard several times today about Napier barracks in Kent, very near to my constituency, and I support calls by the hon. Members for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), the Bishop of Dover, Kent Refugee Action Network and others for the Home Secretary to close this facility. Meanwhile, Clearsprings Ready Homes, the company awarded the contract to run Napier, stands to earn £1 billion from its Government work. Does the Minister or the Home Secretary disagree with all those I have mentioned and believe that company is doing an adequate job in providing safe, suitable accommodation and services to asylum seekers, most of whom have fled war, torture and persecution? (911980)

It is absolutely right that we provide accommodation—the right kind of accommodation—for people who have come to our country to claim asylum, and we have a statutory duty as a Government to do so. No one would dispute that at all. With regards to Napier, I spoke to one of the ward councillors at the weekend, and I have been in touch with local MPs and representatives from the local authority. We are working with everyone to make sure that base is secure, which it absolutely is; that it is covid compliant, which it has been from day one; and that all the suitable accommodation measures are put in place, which is absolutely correct.

Workington has a significant problem with unauthorised Traveller encampments. Can my right hon. Friend update me on planned legislation, but at the same time offer reassurance to groups such as 1st Seaton 5th Workington scout group in my own village, which has relayed concerns to me about the impact on individuals and small groups who might wish to get closer to nature? (911984)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, we have already mentioned this afternoon that the legislation will soon be coming before this House, and I am sure that his constituents and many other constituents will welcome the change. I would like to give my hon. Friend and his constituents reassurance that the legislation we will bring forward will address many of the issues related to groups that have that disproportionate impact on the local community.

Organisations working with asylum seekers and refugees are reporting that vaccine misinformation is spreading among those communities. How is the Home Office working to counter that misinformation, and what steps have been taken to ensure that accurate information on vaccines is available in refugees’ and asylum seekers’ native tongues? (911982)

First, on misinformation and disinformation on the vaccine, as I said earlier, we are working across Government to ensure that the right information is being put out. With specific reference to refugee groups, we have health facilities, and refugees have access to medical help and support, and obviously that has continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic. When it comes to people getting the vaccine, as I said earlier, everyone should ensure that when their turn comes, they take the jab and ignore this misinformation. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member is shaking her head; everyone across Government is working night and day to deal with misinformation. I have said it many times; I hope that all colleagues in the House will unite across the board and forget political divisions to ensure that everybody who should get the jab absolutely takes a jab.

I have been running a campaign in Wolverhampton to raise awareness of what support is available should people become victims of crime. I thank the Secretary of State for all the work she has done in our great city, but can she tell me what more can be done to provide support for these victims and ensure a safer Wolverhampton? (911985)

I thank my hon. Friend, and I look forward to coming back to Wolverhampton, obviously when circumstances permit. I also thank him for the great work he is doing with local groups, organisations and police to protect the victims of crime, but also to do much more on preventing crime. The police uplift, more police officers, the record sums of cash that we are putting into policing—all of this will go towards preventing crime, but also ensuring that victims are safeguarded.

Today’s reports of hundreds of travellers coming from the United Arab Emirates via Dublin show loopholes in the existing quarantine arrangements. Why are next week’s new quarantine arrangements not plugging all those loopholes and making sure that everyone who comes here, from whichever country, is covered, in order to prevent further incoming variants such as the South African one, which is already in my borough of Sefton, stamp out excess variants coming into this country and protect people here while we roll out the vaccine? (911988)

As I have said several times already, all measures are under review. Colleagues across Government are working to implement the hotel quarantine policy and the logistics involved in that, but this is not just about hotels. This is absolutely about compliance and enforcement, and we have measures in place at our ports and airports to ensure that people are being checked and to ensure compliance.

In Stoke-on-Trent, one in every 250 people is now an asylum seeker, putting disproportionate pressure on local services. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing through Operation Oak to ensure that genuine refugees are proportionately spread, instead of putting all the pressure on places such as Stoke-on-Trent? (911987)

My hon. Friend and I have spoken about this previously, and I very much recognise the pressures experienced in his constituency. Obviously we have had accommodation pressures throughout the pandemic, and we are implementing a recovery programme, with which he is familiar. Within that, we are looking to accelerate, where we can and in a covid-compliant way, working with Public Health England and all the relevant organisations that he is familiar with, the movement of people out of contingency accommodation and into much more dispersed accommodation across the UK.

The Home Secretary must have seen the survey by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers of attacks on shop workers in 2020. Of the 2,700 surveyed, 88% had suffered verbal abuse, 61% had been threatened by a customer and 9% had been attacked. When will the Government bring forward legislation to protect shop workers, who are in the frontline in combating this virus by providing so much support to us? (911990)

The hon. Gentleman will know my very strong views on this—I have spoken about it previously. Last year when the pandemic started, we saw the most appalling abuse and attacks on shop workers. We are working with colleagues in Government, so please let me give the hon. Gentleman my assurance on that. This type of violence and abuse should never, ever be tolerated at all, and we will also continue to work with employers to ensure that they are doing everything possible to protect shop workers—their employees.

At the same time that many elements of our lives have moved online, so too has crime. From emails phishing for online banking details to covid-19 vaccination scams, cyber-criminals are using increasingly diverse and sophisticated methods to steal our details, take out money and put us in danger. Can my right hon. Friend outline her Department’s latest intentions to tackle cyber-crime and keep us all safe? (911989)

My hon. Friend raises such an important point. He is right to say that throughout the pandemic we have seen criminality manifest itself and reinvent itself—and, quite frankly, become far too agile and a bit clever as well. Cyber-security and cyber-crime absolutely top the list when it comes to criminality, and there is a lot of work. We now have a new national cyber-security strategy supported by almost £2 billion of investment. Through the national cyber-security programme we are constantly bolstering our police and law enforcement response at a national level, working with those organisations at grassroots level—local levels and regional levels—deemed to be vulnerable. I am afraid there are far too many vulnerable organisations that absolutely need to step up and enhance their own cyber-security.

The Home Secretary will surely be aware that the new fixed rosters imposed on Border Force staff at Heathrow last month are simply not working. In fact, staff say they are shambolic and not covid-safe. Indeed, the Public and Commercial Services Union balloted for strike action as a last resort and got a 96% yes vote. Will the Home Secretary assure the House that she will advise management to return to the previous roster system and work constructively with the trade union to agree a package of covid-safe measures based around the previous arrangements? (911992)

First, it is important that the House recognises we always work constructively with the PCS union when it comes to the protection of Border Force staff. Secondly, the rosters were changed to enhance covid-compliance measures and so that there was fairness across all staff, who could be protected in their shift work. We continue to work with the union, and we are committed to doing that, but my absolute priority is to ensure that Border Force staff are protected, because they come into contact with members of the public every single day.

My hon. Friend will know the details of the scheme and the numbers that were published six or so weeks ago. We are working on the new scheme with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which as the lead Department will look at the roll-out with seasonal agricultural worker providers. We have a number of providers, and he will be familiar with them, but we are happy to provide him with a written update because I know that is of great interest in his constituency.

I, like many, have serious concerns about the suitability of William Shawcross as the independent—[Inaudible.] Can the Home Secretary explain how a man who called —[Inaudible.] (911993)

Will the Home Office exercise discretion and flexibility for current UK-based Hongkongers by incorporating the time they have already spent in the UK under a tier 4 or tier 5 visa, should they wish to apply for the new British national overseas scheme? (912002)

The scheme has only just been launched. I reassure the hon. Lady that we are working with all sorts of civil society organisations, and I have spent a lot of time in dialogues and roundtables with a range of representatives. Therefore, having just launched the scheme, which is a bespoke humanitarian route created for BNOs, we are absolutely looking at how we can ensure that the route works well. We are also engaging with non-governmental organisations and civil society to ensure that we do not miss people.

Given that planning permission for the asylum seekers temporary accommodation at Penally in Pembrokeshire is due to run out at the end of March, can the Home Secretary confirm that the local community will this time be fully consulted on the camp’s future and that all new transfers to the site will cease in the intervening period?

If I may, this is an important point that the Minister responsible for immigration compliance and the courts, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), touched on. I am so disappointed to hear that colleagues across the House are not supportive of asylum accommodation, when many local authorities fail to co-operate with the Home Office to identify sites in their constituency. Quite frankly, the hypocrisy of basically saying, “We don’t want asylum seekers here, send them elsewhere.” is simply not acceptable. We consult with everybody—I can assure the right hon. Lady—

Order. Home Secretary, I am sure that you did not mean the hypocrisy of a Member. It was a general term.

I will correct that, Mr Speaker. In the broadest possible sense, we cannot have this situation where local authorities literally refuse to engage with us while at the same time saying that consultation is not taking place.

We know that Greater Manchester police are in special measures and that the chief constable is on gardening leave. We know that victims of crime in Greater Manchester are at risk. We even know that police officers going out on calls are at risk, because they are not getting the information. The Mayor of Greater Manchester tells us that he is not getting the information from the police. I know that the Home Secretary has previously replied that she is not getting the information from Greater Manchester police. Can she tell the House when she expects to get the information from Greater Manchester police that will enable us to know if there is an improvement in the appalling situation?

The hon. Gentleman is right: it is an absolutely appalling situation. He will also know that the Mayor’s responsibility is to ensure that Greater Manchester police act immediately on the force improvement plan. My hon. friend the Minister for Crime and Policing has been working assiduously on this and has met the deputy Mayor and the acting chief constable. We have a force improvement plan and we intend to use it to get information and data as well as to hold everybody to account over what has happened with that failure in data collection and, ultimately, the impact that has had on victims.

I am suspending the House for three minutes to allow the necessary arrangements for the next business.

Sitting suspended.