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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 707: debated on Monday 17 January 2022

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Small Boat Channel Crossings

18. What progress she has made on reducing the number of illegal small boat crossings in the channel. (905049)

I would like to begin my remarks this afternoon by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington. He was a member of the shadow Home Affairs team, and he sadly passed away the week before last. Jack was well loved by everyone and a hugely respected Member of this House. Along with all colleagues, I would like to pay my respects to him and send my condolences to Harriet and their family.

These crossings are unfair, unacceptable and lethally dangerous. They are totally unnecessary, as France and other EU member states are safe countries with long-established asylum systems.

I thank the Home Secretary for that reply, and I associate myself wholeheartedly with her remarks about the late member for Birmingham, Erdington.

I know that the Home Secretary has been requesting the assistance of the Royal Navy to reduce the number of illegal channel crossings, and I look forward to seeing growing co-operation between her Department and the Ministry of Defence. Does she agree that it is surely right to deploy all the available resources and tools to shut down the routes used by the cruel people smugglers and to protect lives at sea?

My right hon. Friend’s question is an important one because, as all hon. Members will be well aware, I asked for MOD naval assets and support back in 2020, because no Department can resolve the complex issue of channel crossings on its own. It is also right, having called for MOD involvement, that we now bring the whole machinery of government, the ultimate utility, together to ensure that we work collectively to protect our borders. My right hon. Friend is right about the wider issues on immigration, and that is why we have the new plan for immigration.

I fully echo the Home Secretary’s remarks about the late Member for Birmingham, Erdington. He was well liked and respected by many of us on this side of the House.

Does the Home Secretary recognise the anger felt about this issue, not least by the many people who fully respect this country’s proud tradition of asylum and the tremendous contribution made so many people who have come to this country legally?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why this Government are unapologetic for the fact that we now have the Nationality and Borders Bill and the new plan for immigration. We are operationalising these changes primarily because we need a system that is firm but also fair to those who need genuine help when fleeing persecution and claiming asylum. That is effectively what this Government are doing.

If everyone is agreed that the channel crossings are so dangerous, we must clearly do whatever is necessary to stop them. Surely the quickest way to stop them is simply to turn the boats back and escort them back into French waters. I do not think it would take long for the word to get around that these crossings were futile. Has not the time come to do just that, on humanitarian grounds as well as to protect our borders from illegal immigration?

My hon. Friend will know that that is the policy of this Government. Border Force was commissioned to do this with the MOD, and through the hybrid ways of working that I have commissioned across Government, they will be doing exactly that. Routes have been tested and technology is being used, and the way in which boats can be pushed back has also been well tested, with the basis to do that. That is our policy.

My right hon. Friend is aware that the British people want to see decisive action being taken to reduce the number of small boat crossings in our channel. Does she therefore share my disappointment that the Opposition refused to support our measures to end vexatious and unmerited claims, and chose instead to side with those entering the UK illegally?

We could rerun the debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill, which I would happily do. This Government are determined not just to reform what is a broken asylum system—we are lifting up every aspect of the dysfunctionality of the system—but to tackle the root causes of illegal migration. In March 2021 the new plan for immigration was published, and we had the Nationality and Borders Bill in this House last autumn. The Opposition seem to be on the wrong side of the argument. They do not really want to support an end to illegal migration or stop the people smugglers.

Is there any truth in the reports that the Government want to have asylum seekers processed offshore in countries such as Gambia? Has any such country actually agreed to this? Does the Secretary of State accept that having people processed hundreds or thousands of miles away might meet the letter of our obligations to asylum seekers but certainly does not meet the spirit?

I absolutely disagree with the right hon. Lady’s question. Had she read the new plan for immigration—the policy statement published for the benefit of all Members in March 2021—she would know that this Government are considering all options for outsourcing processing and for removing people with no legal basis to be in our country. I completely recognise that she disagrees with the policies of this Government—[Interruption.] It matters not which countries. We will continue to discuss this with a range of countries, because I, as Home Secretary, and this Government are determined to fix the decades-long problem of a very broken asylum system. Frankly, under successive Labour Governments there were mass failures to remove people with no legal basis to be in the country.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to our dear friend and colleague, Jack Dromey. We very much look forward to the tributes later this month. Especially today, at Home Office questions, we very much miss his kindness, his passion and his wit alongside us on the Front Bench.

We hear that responsibility for ending dangerous crossings of the channel is to be taken away from the Home Office and handed to the MOD, but we have been here before. In 2019 the Government brought in the Navy to patrol the channel, and those patrols ended after just six weeks, having cost £780,000 and without a single boat having been intercepted. Can the Home Secretary explain how today’s proposal will be any different from 2019 and prevent lives from being lost at sea?

Of course I can. I restate what I have said in the House many times about the hybrid approach we need: no one Department can solve this issue in the channel on its own. Let us be crystal clear about this. I originally commissioned the military aid to the civil authorities request that went to the Ministry of Defence very early on, back in 2020. Of course my decision to bring in the MOD is vindication of our need to strengthen our defences in the channel.

This is about a number of things—[Interruption.] I can hear Opposition Members making noise about this issue. However, the reality is that we want to stop illegal crossings. People are dying in the channel and in the Mediterranean. All aspects of pushbacks and turn-backs—of the approach we take in the channel—are operational. This has been tested, there is a basis on which to do it, and individuals are trained. The MOD, maritime policing and Border Force originally came together, and they will continue to work together. This is, first, a global migration issue but, secondly, the British public will support the Government in doing everything possible to protect our borders. That is why a blended approach is absolutely vital.

I wholeheartedly endorse the Home Secretary’s comments about the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington.

The Home Secretary should have pointed out that, unlike the endless Downing Street parties, arriving in the UK to claim asylum is not unlawful, as the Court of Appeal reminded her just last month. It is only her atrocious anti-refugee Bill that will see Afghans, Syrians and Uyghurs arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for up to four years. Why does she see relentless flouting of lockdown rules as forgivable for the Prime Minister but seeking safety here from Assad, the Taliban or genocide as worth four years in prison?

I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s contributions. As we saw on Report and Third Reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Scottish National party choose to deploy political gimmicks—I am being kind to the SNP—to frustrate the will of the public when it comes to reforming asylum and illegal migration. It is fair to say that the Conservative party in government, through the Nationality and Borders Bill and the new plan for immigration, will do everything possible to tackle the unscrupulous exploitation of people who cross illegally and will provide sanctuary to those who need our help and support—those fleeing persecution who need refuge. Frankly, when local authorities in Scotland are not even helping to accommodate these people, I take no lectures from the Scottish National party.

That answer was about as convincing as the Prime Minister’s apology. The Home Secretary has quite a nerve to talk about political gimmicks, given that she is the first person to be sent out to the Dispatch Box to further Operation Red Meat; the proposals leaked out over the weekend have absolutely nothing to do with saving lives and everything to do with saving the Prime Minister’s career and her political career. The Home Secretary sending in the Royal Navy against small boats full of refugees and asylum seekers is pathetic, inhumane and an abuse of the Royal Navy, and her grubby shopping around for places to offshore asylum seekers to is an outrageous and dangerous big white elephant. Instead of ripping up the refugee convention and locking up refugees, why does the Home Office not start working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others to live up to our humanitarian obligations?

The hon. Gentleman needs to understand global migration challenges and the international exploitation of human lives and human beings that takes place, because clearly he has no recommendations or answers. His local authorities across Scotland refuse to house people who have come to our country. Frankly, I will take no lectures from him. He can carry on with his political gimmicks, but the Scottish National party’s lack of policy says a great deal.

Rape Prosecution Rate

2. What discussions she has had with the Attorney General on taking steps to increase the prosecution rate for rape. [R] (905031)

We are determined to increase the number of rape cases reaching court, which is why we are working closely with the Attorney General and the Deputy Prime Minister to implement the rape review action plan, published in June. Progress includes publishing the first scorecard on cases, in order to understand where the system is failing to deliver; piloting a new approach to investigations through Operation Soteria; and launching a victims’ Bill consultation.

Two fifths of police forces actually lack specialist rape units, despite clear evidence showing that they are important to achieving successful case outcomes. Warwickshire shut its RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—unit in 2014 and its domestic abuse unit last year, yet it has the worst conviction rate. Next week, I am going to hold a summit on violence against women and girls. I want to know from the Minister: why do the Government oppose Labour’s calls for RASSO units to be restored to all police forces? Can she explain whether there is any correlation between the conviction rates achieved, with Warwickshire’s being the worst in the country, and the loss of such units?

It is obviously not the case that we are opposing measures to improve rape prosecutions. That is why we are funding five police forces to pilot this new approach to rape investigations, and we have committed to expand this through 14 police areas. Moreover, we are providing comprehensive funding to independent sexual and domestic abuse advisers to help bring these atrocious cases to court.

I spent Friday morning with a young 20-year-old rape victim who is now in her fifth year awaiting a trial. I then spent the afternoon with a young woman who has been groomed and sexually exploited for a decade. She told me that on occasion she has been forced to have sex with up to 50 men a day. The police cannot guarantee her safety, in her complex case of organised crime, so she has come forward and withdrawn numerous times. Both the accused rapist in the first case and the many, multiple gang members involved in the second are walking free, able to abuse, groom and rape as many women and children as they like.

These cases are not rare; they are not unusual. Operation Soteria has already made it very clear to Ministers that there is a real need for more specialism and priority within police forces, so the Minister saying that she is going to pilot it in 14 more areas and find out the exact same thing is not going to be enough. There is a need for specialism, and a need for it now, so why are the Government not backing Labour’s calls to ensure that every police force area has a RASSO unit? Will she answer that?

All of us speak to and work with victims of horrendous crimes. Ministers are constantly engaged in that kind of work. That is why we are putting more funding into the police to enable them to tackle these hideous crimes. The hon. Lady has referred to a number of specific cases. She has not been clear which police areas or local authorities are involved, but we are very happy to work with her on these specific cases. To be clear, let me say that funding for these important specialisms has been increased, and we are increasing funding to the police to the tune of £15.9 billion.

The two points made by Labour Members were very powerful and have had a huge impact on the House, and I thank them for making them.

I simply rise to say that there also needs to be a very careful balance, because, from time to time, people are accused of rape when they are innocent. I do not want to see the pendulum swing from one extreme to another and injustice being done in another way.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising such an important issue. These and many other issues are captured in the rape review. Every Member of this House will be concerned about the level of rape prosecutions, which is why the Government are working across Departments to improve the system overall, and it is absolutely right that we do so.

I call Dame Diana Johnson—I welcome the right hon. Lady to her first Question Time as Chair of the Home Affairs Committee.

The Minister will know that, in 2015, in her report on rape investigations and prosecutions in London, Dame Elish Angiolini recommended that the specialist RASSO police officers should investigate rape cases. We heard much evidence to back that up in the inquiry that the Home Affairs Committee has just concluded. I have a question for the Safeguarding Minister, who appeared before the Committee in December. At the time she could not tell us how many police officers were RASSO trained, or, indeed, how many of the new recruits to the police had been RASSO trained. Is she able to do so today?

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her election to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. I look forward to responding to her in due course. She raises an important issue. It is important to say that specialist training is taking place through Operation Soteria and a number of other avenues. I am very happy come back to her or to write to her with those figures.

Removal of Failed Asylum Seekers

3. What progress she is making on removing failed asylum seekers from the UK; and if she will make a statement. (905032)

Our new plan for immigration will overhaul our asylum system and speed up the removal of failed asylum seekers. The Bill will introduce new measures to prevent repeated last-minute, meritless claims that are designed to frustrate proper removal. We are determined to return people who have no right to be here and arrive in the UK illegally.

I thank the Minister for his response. This country has a proud record of accepting refugees and treating asylum seekers fairly, and long may that continue. Does he agree that, in order to retain confidence in our system and to avoid it being a draw to people taking very dangerous and unnecessary journeys, asylum seekers must have their cases considered very quickly, and, if they have not established a right or a need to be here, they should be removed quickly?

My hon. Friend gets to the nub of the issue by saying that we must have a fair but firm system. Returns have undoubtedly been hard hit as a result of the pandemic, and we want to see a quick recovery from that. The issue of attrition is also important. We are addressing that through the Nationality and Borders Bill, and I appreciate his support for that. On returns agreements, we need, of course, to secure more. Those with India and Albania prove exactly what can be done.

Hundreds of people in my constituency of Enfield North are residents in this country on the European Community Association agreement visa, also known as the Ankara agreement, which allows them to set up businesses in this country. When they try to extend their stay in this country, the majority of them are not able to renew their visas. There have been hundreds of emails in relation to this from across the country. The delays in some cases are 14 months, and they mean that those people are unable to renew business leases and housing and residential contracts. What assurances can the Minister give to my constituents whose lives are at a standstill that these timings will be reduced and that they will receive a timely response to their applications?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. She will know that Ministers in the Home Office are always keen to try to assist in these matters wherever possible. If she could provide me with the specifics, I would be very happy to take those cases away and have a look at them.

Does the Minister agree that one of the problems with genuine victims of human trafficking is that they are lumped together with asylum seekers? The quicker we can return bogus asylum seekers, the quicker we can get help to the genuine victims of human traffickers.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an important point. It is fair to say that the Nationality and Borders Bill and the new plan for immigration focus very much on returning those who have no right to be here, while ensuring that those who require our protection and are genuinely in need of support do get that support as quickly as possible.

Domestic Abuse: Support for Victims

Our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 will strengthen our protection of victims and ensure that perpetrators feel the full force of the law. Furthermore, we will be publishing the first ever domestic abuse strategy to transform the whole of society’s response to domestic abuse to prevent offending, support victims and pursue perpetrators as well as strengthening the whole system needed to deliver those goals.

A recent meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for ageing and older people reviewed the shocking figures for femicide and violence against older women. Women aged over 60 are one in five of femicide victims, representing 75% of the 280,000 older people between 60 and 74 who are victims of domestic abuse. Further, the crime survey for England and Wales has only just started collecting data on people over 74, and that data is beset by problems of under-reporting. Does the Minister recognise the need for both more effective data collection and support services that are designed around and suitable for older domestic abuse victims?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. She is right that more needs to be done. More is being done, and we will set out more ways that we will help older victims in our domestic abuse strategy, which we will publish shortly. It is vital that every victim of domestic abuse, no matter their age, can get the right help. That is why we have provided additional funding to support victims of rape and domestic abuse, and we are giving local authorities more money to enable them to play their part.

Windrush Compensation Scheme

We take our commitments to the victims of the Windrush scandal seriously, and our focus is on resolving claims as quickly as possible. To enable us to do that, we have recruited 40 new caseworkers, with 35 more in the pipeline for the coming months. We have also refreshed and streamlined internal processes to reduce processing times and improve user experience for those applying to the scheme.

A recent report criticised the Home Office, which was forced to apologise to charities and community groups that were meant to be supporting victims with their applications. The budget remains as full as ever and underspent. It took two years for one of my constituents to receive a reply, which is an absolute disgrace considering the age profile of Windrush victims. What will the Minister do to put that right? Will he outsource the process to a proper independent group that will get on with the job?

As we have said before, outsourcing would merely introduce further delays into the process when our focus should be on getting compensation out to the victims of the Windrush scandal. The hon. Member will be aware that the changes we made in December 2020 saw us pay considerably more compensation, offering an average of £3.1 million a month, with more than £38.7 million in compensation now offered. To be clear, there is no “budget” here; we will pay the compensation that is due to people, and there is no ceiling on what will be paid.

I remind the Home Secretary of the legal maxim, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” This Government promised to try to right some of the wrongs with the Windrush compensation scheme in a time-limited manner. In November, the Home Affairs Committee found that only 20% of claimants had applied, and that only 5% had received any compensation. Twenty-three people have died before receiving their compensation. Is it not high time that the responsibility to provide justice to the ageing Windrush generation was passed on to an independent body capable of delivering it?

Again, we would make the point that moving this operation out of the Home Office would merely further delay the provision of the compensation that we all want to see paid. As I have touched on, we are recruiting more caseworkers and speeding up the process. Given the age cohort we are talking about, we are aware that some people have sadly passed away. However, that is why we are more motivated to speed up the process and make a real difference. As I have said, we have more staff coming in, and we will streamline the process to make it not only quicker, but simpler for those claiming compensation to engage with the team.

Online Safety Tools

8. What discussions she has had with (a) the Equalities Office and (b) women’s rights campaigners on the effectiveness of (i) the Path Community app and (ii) other online safety tools. (905037)

I speak regularly with the Equalities Office and campaigners on ways to tackle violence against women and girls. We believe that women should not have to change their behaviour to stay safe, which is why our strategy sets out preventive measures to tackle violence against women and girls focusing on changing misogynistic attitudes; however some people might choose to use one of the many apps, including the Path Community app, that are available to them.

Many women’s rights campaigners, including Reclaim These Streets, have called apps such as the Path Community app insulting to women and girls. They claim it does nothing to tackle men’s violence against women, so why are the Government continuing to push the app and present it as some kind of solution?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to put on the record that we are not specifically pushing—I think that was the word she used—or promoting or backing that one app. As I said in my answer, there are many apps, and many women use those apps of their own choice. Of course we welcome that choice for individuals; on the other hand, it is vital that the Government play our part in tackling violence against women and girls through the multiple other measures set out in the “Tackling violence against women and girls strategy”, which I invite her to read.

Police Funding

9. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the police are adequately funded to enable them to reduce crime. (905038)

20. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the police are adequately funded to enable them to reduce crime. (905051)

23. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the police are adequately funded to enable them to reduce crime. (905054)

The Government are proposing a total police funding settlement approaching £17,000 million in 2022-23, an increase of up to £1,100 million compared with this year. Assuming full take-up of precept flexibility, overall police funding available to police and crime commissioners will increase by a whopping £796 million next year.

Although Darlington has received almost £1 million in safer streets funding, off-road biking continues to be an antisocial behaviour problem causing crime in my constituency. Will the Minister meet me to discuss what more can be done to tackle this?

I am pleased to hear that that substantial award from the safer streets fund is making a difference in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and of course I would be more than happy to meet him to talk about how we can better fight crime in his patch.

Vale of Glamorgan, like many rural areas, experiences horrendous animal welfare incidents, from illegal dog breeding and hare coursing to fly-grazing and horse neglect. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Chief Inspector Rees and her team of officers on how they have used the additional resources that have been made available to combat some of the worst crimes we could possibly imagine?

I am more than happy to join my right hon. Friend in congratulating his local police force on their work in this area, and I am pleased to hear that his non-human constituents are as important to him as the human ones. He will be aware that some of these truly appalling crimes need to be addressed much more assertively, and I hope he has noticed that, in the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, we are tabling amendments specifically on hare coursing, which will help to fight that awful crime.

Bearing in mind the security statement coming after this question session, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is working with both law enforcement and security services to understand what more can be done to increase capacity to counter hostile activity that has the potential to damage democracy but operates below the legal threshold?

I know this is a matter of concern to the whole House, which I know is to be addressed by the Home Secretary shortly. As I hope my hon. Friend knows, police capacity—that relates specifically to the question—has been increased not just in territorial policing but in other arms of policing, recognising as we do that, while it is important to fight crime on the ground in all our constituencies, it is also important to fight it there as well.

I am pleased that the Government are well on their way to delivering on their pledge to deliver 20,000 police officers, 867 of whom are in the west midlands, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the decision by the Labour police and crime commissioner to close Solihull police station goes a long way to undermining safety and security for my constituents in the north and the south of my constituency?

My hon. Friend will know that there was a passionate Adjournment debate just the other night to discuss issues in west midlands policing. As I said during that debate, it is strange that at a time of unprecedented expansion in UK policing, the impression is being given, in his constituency and elsewhere, of a retreat. I was in the west midlands on Thursday and I know that the chief constable and others are working hard to get on top, but I would hope that in the light of the expansion of policing in my hon. Friend’s part of the world, their property strategy would be reviewed again.

Workers in local food shops in Cambridge have had a tough time in recent years, facing organised shoplifting and threats of violence. It took the intervention of E. J. Matthews, a notable PC, to help to sort that out, but they are now facing organised ramraids. What resources can be made available to Cambridgeshire police to tackle this awful crime?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, Cambridgeshire police has expanded quite significantly, in terms of pure police numbers, over the past couple of years, but I hope he will also have noticed the work that is being done by the national retail crime steering group, which I chair, to look specifically at crime in this area. Given what he has mentioned about ramraiding in his constituency, I will go away and look at whether a pattern is emerging across the east of England and hope that I can encourage the police to address it.

The Minister has just said that there is an unprecedented expansion, but back in the real world, antisocial behaviour increased by 7% last year: it is a growing problem across so many communities in my constituency and around the country. Although the new officers are beginning to come on-stream, does he even begin to understand the damage that the cuts not only to police numbers but to services such as youth services have done to communities like the ones I represent?

Year on year, last year and the year before, we actually saw a fall in police-recorded incidents of antisocial behaviour, but we have seen fluctuations in that crime type over the past few months as the variations in covid lockdown regulations have changed. We are keeping a close eye on it. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that in our “Beating crime plan”, published in July last year, we encouraged police and crime commissioners—I hope he will encourage his to do this as well—to form their own antisocial behaviour taskforces so that they can really pinpoint and address this most local of crime problems very effectively.

The Minister will be aware that proper community policing is vital for preventing crime and saving lives, yet across London, since the Prime Minister was Mayor, we have seen community policing slashed, and in Richmond borough, in particular, we see our officers routinely extracted to other events. Yet in the same period knife crime has doubled. He will be aware that in September there was the fatal and brutal stabbing of an 18-year-old Afghan refugee and college student in Twickenham. So when will we see a boost to community policing in the Twickenham constituency and across Richmond borough, as this Government have promised us so many extra police officer numbers since 2019?

The hon. Lady is stretching it a bit to say that crime over the past three or four years was the fault of the previous Mayor, who has not been in office for some time; she may not have noticed. It is hard to notice who is in office in London at the moment. Nevertheless, I hope she will welcome the recent decision by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to reinstitute neighbourhood policing, and that she will see the extra numbers of police officers—many hundreds—that have now been recruited in London appearing in her constituency soon.

Current recruitment is welcome, of course, but will the Minister at least acknowledge and be honest with the House that there are 24,000 fewer police officers, police community support officers and staff in the police workforce since 2010 because of this Government’s cuts, and that has a real impact?

I will certainly acknowledge that police numbers fell post the 2010 election, but only as long as the hon. Lady acknowledges that her party crashed the economy, causing us to make much-needed and very vital economies in our national spending. If we had not undertaken those economies, God knows what financial state we would have been in now, following what we have had to do during the pandemic.

The great town of Tunstall sadly missed out on its recent safer streets fund bid. Analysis from Staffordshire police and Stoke-on-Trent City Council shows that we suffer disproportionately from more burglary, aggressive begging and feral youths committing antisocial behaviour, so we want to see improved lighting, CCTV extended and gates for alleyways. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me so that he can hear about this bid and why the great town of Tunstall deserves this investment?

I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend. We will see future rounds of the safer streets fund, and I hope his police and crime commissioner and his local authority will make a bid. I will be more than happy to meet him, not least because the commitment and conviction he shows should be at the forefront of their bid to convince us all to fund this.

Police Community Support Officers

The decisions on how to use funding and resources are operational matters for chief constables, working with their democratically elected police and crime commissioners. They are best placed to make these decisions within their communities, based on their knowledge and experience, including decisions about the right balance of their workforce.

Our Conservative police and crime commissioner was elected on a platform to fix the unfair funding formula for Bedfordshire police, but his solution to raise much-needed funding to put more police on our streets is to raise local council tax. With two large towns and an international airport, Bedfordshire police should not be funded as a rural force. Will the Minister give our force the resources it needs before expecting my constituents to pay more?

Obviously the Bedfordshire police and crime commissioner is doing a fantastic job. He won a resounding victory in the recent election, and I know he continues to enjoy significant support in that county. As I hope the hon. Gentleman has heard me say in the past, we are committed to coming up with a new funding formula for policing. The formula we use at the moment is a little bit elderly and creaky. He will be pleased to hear that I had a meeting just this morning with the chair of the new technical body that is putting that work together. We hope to be able to run the formula before the next election.

The Minister has brushed off criticisms from the Labour Benches, but is he aware of the disquiet on his own Benches? Only last week, Conservative MPs lined up in Westminster Hall to describe a broken system that is

“stacked in favour of the perpetrators rather than the victims.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 258WH.]

One said:

“Across the UK there are people afraid to leave their homes after dark, scared to go to the shops…That cannot go on…The police quite simply do not have the powers or resources.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 257-8WH.]

We agree. That is why neighbourhood policing is at the heart of our new proposals. We will put a police hub in every new community, create neighbourhood prevention teams and fund a next generation of neighbourhood watch. I wonder whether the Minister has anything new to say to his own disaffected Back Benchers, or is crime simply not “red meat” enough for the “big dog”?

Hilarious. I understand the hon. Lady is playing catch-up on policing, and she may have missed the 11,000 police officers we have recruited so far. She may have missed the significant falls in knife crime, acquisitive crime and all neighbourhood-type crimes, as we have seen recently. Policing and fighting crime are a challenge, as I know more than most. It is always two steps forward, one step back. It is right that hon. Members on all sides should be anxious and concerned about crime in their constituencies, but that is why we are recruiting 20,000 police officers, why the Prime Minister has made crime a priority and why he wants to roll up county lines and deal with youth violence. This is a fight that we can win, but over time. While we are having some success as it stands, there is always much more to do.

Knife Crime

My hon. Friend will know that all efforts are being made on reducing knife crime. As the Policing Minister has just said, the latest police-recorded crime figures have shown a fall in offences involving knife crime, but at the same time, a great deal of investment is taking place when it comes to violence reduction units, alongside the investments in the police force.

I welcome the work from the Home Secretary on reducing those numbers, but sadly last year saw the highest number of teenage murders in London since records began. Can I therefore commend the “No More Red” campaign set up by Arsenal football club, supported by Ian Wright and Idris Elba? As Ian Wright points out, and as I found out myself as a volunteer in a youth centre, they offer the chance to give people a better route in life, away from gangs and crime. Too many have closed in recent years. May I ask the Home Secretary what we can do to get charities to set more up?

It is not every day I can come to the Dispatch Box to celebrate and praise the Gooners, but in this case I take great pride in joining my hon. Friend. The “No More Red” campaign, which I have been following, is fantastic. My hon. Friend’s point speaks to the power of charities alongside the Government’s work, because they are the ones at the grassroots that can reach out to young people in constituencies and engage them so they do not get into the cycle of a life of crime.

Pending Asylum Applications

We accept that the asylum system is broken, often taking too long to reach decisions. We are working to fix it via the Nationality and Borders Bill. Alongside that, we have plans to speed up the decision-making process and reduce unnecessary delays. I hope the hon. Gentleman will reconsider his opposition to the Bill and play his part in helping to fix our broken system.

The Conservatives say that the asylum system is broken, but having been in power for more than a decade, the truth is that they are the ones who broke it. Asylums seekers are some of the most vulnerable individuals. The Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit revealed the emotional and physical trauma they experience—the anxiety, insomnia, self-harm, depression, deterioration of relationships with friends and support staff and reduced engagement with vital services. How has the Home Office’s ability to make initial decisions been allowed to collapse so completely under this Government? What steps will the Minister take to intervene to ensure the situation is addressed with urgency?

I am sorry to hear that it sounds like the hon. Gentleman will not be reconsidering his opposition to our reform plans, most notably in the Nationality and Borders Bill, while his party offers no meaningful alternative. The Home Secretary, the whole team in Government and I will continue to focus on our work to reform and update the system, to ensure it offers resettlement based on need, not the ability to pay a people trafficker. That is what our focus will continue to be and we are working towards that.

Topical Questions

The Nationality and Borders Bill was overwhelmingly backed by elected MPs and is now being debated in the other place. Ahead of its Royal Assent, I am operationalising new changes on disrupting and deterring illegal migration, in line with the new plan for immigration which, as the House knows, was announced and published last week. We continue to work with our French counterparts. Law enforcement has achieved 67 small boats-related prosecutions since the start of 2020; we have dismantled 17 small boat organised criminal groups and secured more than 400 arrests.

I am reforming the entire asylum system to bring effective casework into decision making, speeding up processing and introducing fast-track appeals to remove those with no right to be in the UK. I have developed new operational solutions to deter illegal boat arrivals. That is a whole Government effort. As a result, I confirm that we have commissioned the MOD as a crucial operational partner, to protect our channel against illegal migration.

In the light of the news late last week about MP security, will the Home Secretary assure me that the Home Office is working with other Government Departments and devolved Administrations to protect our democracy from those who want to do it, and our country, harm?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come to my statement shortly, when I will talk about that issue in much more detail. There are important issues about protecting our democracy from our adversaries, individuals and countries that want to do us harm. That is a whole of Government effort.

I join the tributes to Jack Dromey, who was in our team and should have been with us today. His kindness, principles and determination mean we badly miss him.

On 25 January 2021, the Home Secretary commented on a Met police video of officers breaking up an illegal party in London. She said,

“This illegal gathering was an insult to those hospitalised with COVID, our NHS staff and everyone staying at home to protect them…Police are enforcing the rules to save lives.”

Why has she now changed her mind?

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her role; I did not get the chance to do that when we last met to debate the Nationality and Borders Bill. With regards to the coronavirus regulations, I stand by my comments, primarily because during the time of the virus and the pandemic, the entire country was doing incredible work to ensure that the virus was not being spread. My views have not changed on that; they are absolutely consistent. On policing throughout the pandemic, we asked the police to do extraordinary things. As she knows, however, the police are operationally independent of me. They were following the guidance issued by the Government at the time and did very good work to protect the public.

I am glad that the Home Secretary stands by her words and her defence of the police, but how on earth can she then defend the Prime Minister, who has publicly admitted breaking the rules? She is not even waiting for the Sue Gray report. Beth Rigby asked her:

“Are you reserving judgment until the Sue Gray report comes out?”

And she said:

“No. On the contrary, I have publicly supported the Prime Minister”.

Tens of thousands of fines were given out in the months when Downing Street was holding parties. She told the police to enforce those rules but she is now defending someone who has admitted breaking them. The Home Secretary’s job is to uphold the rule of law. Does she realise how damaging it is to public trust and to trust in the police to undermine the rule of law now?

Perhaps the right hon. Lady has forgotten that, in this country, the police and courts are independent of the Government, and I will always respect that principle. Rather than seeking to prejudge, pressure, smear or slander—as it is fair to say that she and perhaps the entire shadow Front Bench and her party clearly are—it is important to let everyone get on and do the required work. We should continue to support the police in the right way and let them do their job in an objective way. I find it pretty rich that she talks about upholding the rule of law on the day that in the other place her party is doing everything possible to undermine support for the police through its opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

T4. In the run-up to Christmas, hare coursing caused a huge problem across Leicestershire, no more so than in Bosworth. Hare coursing brings with it damage to property and crops, and the intimidation of farmers and residents, so it must stop. The National Farmers Union and local farmers came together with our new rural crime unit in Leicestershire to try to deal with it, but what more can the Government do to ensure that we clamp down on hare coursing in Leicestershire? (905058)

Like my hon. Friend, I have seen a rise in that kind of offence in my constituency. As the crops are cut and those animals become more apparent, it obviously becomes more of a problem. As I said earlier, I hope that he will see that in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which I hope the whole House will support, we are introducing a range of offences to deal with that crime which, for the first time, will attract a prison sentence of up to six months.

T2. To return to the Home Secretary’s answers to my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, in September 2020, she said that she would “call the police” if she saw her neighbours having a party in their garden. Is she confident that the Chancellor was aware of that advice? (905056)

If I may say so to the hon. Lady, I repeat the comments that I made earlier. I appreciate that she may be trying to demonstrate some humour, but the Prime Minister has apologised. At the same time, it is right that the police, who are operationally independent, get on and do their job in the right and proper way, as they have been doing.

T5. Historically, security-sensitive information has been shared with the Opposition Front Bench, but given last week’s revelations that a former Labour Front-Bench spokesman was in receipt of significant funding from a member of the Chinese Communist party, will there be a review of that arrangement? (905059)

I am conscious of the statement to follow, but my hon. Friend is right that those are concerning matters. In truth, they are not restricted to a single British politician or a single party. The security briefings that he mentioned continue to play an important role.

T3. Last week, at a briefing for Members with the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, Home Office officials indicated that while the Department is not introducing a specific family reunion route, there is some flexibility on visa requirements for Afghan family members of British citizens. Will the Minister confirm, as we were told, that there could be flexibility on visa fees, income requirements and demands for lost or destroyed documents, because that would offer real assistance to constituents who took Ministers’ advice to flee to third countries and are now trapped there? (905057)

To be clear, the wider immigration system obviously operates separately from the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, but we are carefully considering what the requirements are, and not least how we can ensure people can actually access the system to make applications because, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, for obvious reasons we cannot run our usual application centre that we would have in Kabul given the Taliban’s control of the territory.

T6. The Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust has identified a growing trend of theft or vandalism of defibrillators in Wales. I cannot imagine the despair somebody would feel on witnessing a cardiac event and rushing to get a defibrillator, only to find that it has been broken or stolen. Does the Minister agree that that is a deplorable crime, and will he meet me to discuss what steps the police can take to stop antisocial behaviour generally and this terrible crime in particular? (905060)

It must be hard for everybody to imagine what kind of twisted mind would think it was a good thing to do to break or steal a defibrillator, and I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to examine the problem in his constituency and, indeed, to see if it is a problem elsewhere.

T7. Between 2018 and 2021, there were 3,625 spiking reports across 15 police forces in the UK, but just 44 people were charged. Perpetrators are being let off, while victims are being let down. Will the Home Secretary give her backing to Labour’s amendment being voted on this evening in the other place for an urgent review into the incidence and reporting of this crime, as well as of the adequacy of police investigations and the impact on victims? (905061)

The hon. Lady raises the very important and, frankly, quite pressing issue of spiking and its impact across the night-time economy and, much more widely, across society. We are looking in much of the work we are doing in policing at how we can review the matter and how we can actually give the support required.

T8. The confirmation of the extension of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme is of course welcome. However, as things stand, those visas will be valid for only six months. Given the developments in technology and science in the horticultural sector, the seasons are much longer, so will my hon. Friend give consideration to extending the visas to nine months, helping alleviate the pressures farms face? (905062)

I have to point out to my hon. Friend that extending visas beyond six months comes with issues such as payment of the immigration health surcharge and the requirement to issue a biometric residence permit, where appropriate. There are some quite considerable issues with the request, but I am always happy to talk to him about how we can support the businesses in his constituency, and I would point out that visas are already not restricted to working at one farm.

The reality is that the seasonal agricultural workers scheme has been woefully inadequate. In the last few years, we have seen fruit and veg being left to rot in the fields. Why then do this Government think it is clever to introduce a further taper, making it worse, and does the Minister understand the damage he is doing to agriculture?

It is safe to say that we have not seen the maximum number of visas taken up. The hon. Member may want to have a think about some of the issues that might have affected international travel for seasonal work over the past two years—particularly relating to a global pandemic. Ultimately, our goal is the right goal, and I think it is fair. I think what the vast majority of people across the UK believe is that in the first instance we should actually focus on making sure that job offers go to our domestic workforce and that key workers are appropriately rewarded.

T9. Following the events that took place in Texas this weekend, will the Home Secretary provide an update on the UK investigation into the British perpetrator of the attack on the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, and on the measures taken to ensure the security of the UK Jewish community, and can I further ask whether the perpetrator was known to the security services? (905063)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; this is a very important matter. Just prior to questions this afternoon, I had a bilateral call with my homeland security counterpart in the US. Let me say a few things. First, we are working with the FBI—in fact, we have been since the incident took place—and there is a great deal of intelligence sharing and work taking place. Of course, when it comes to our domestic homeland, a range of measures are being undertaken right now, including protective security for the Jewish community. The investigation is obviously live, so I am unable to talk about the specifics.

Child sexual, criminal and online exploitation are all increasing in this country; they can all be addressed by joined-up working by Government Departments, robust data collection on perpetrators and a police IT system that is fit for the 21st century. That all takes money, vision and leadership. Can the Home Secretary provide that?

Let me start by thanking the hon. Lady for her question and for her work in this area. In particular, she has worked a lot with me and my Department on the issue of grooming gangs and child sexual exploitation. A wide range of work across the whole of Government is taking place on this, including local authorities, social services and public health. That work is crucial, as is—I know she knows this and has seen it—the incredible investigatory capability of our National Crime Agency, as well as policing, to go after the perpetrators. That work is getting stronger and stronger.

Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), a month ago, Feras Al Jayoosi was convicted on four counts under the Terrorism Act 2000, including twice walking around Golders Green with a large rucksack on his back and a Palestinian Islamic Jihad t-shirt on. Three days ago, Tahra Ahmed was convicted of two charges of stirring up racial hatred, after a complaint about a Facebook post that claimed the Grenfell Tower fire was a “Jewish sacrifice”. My constituents face this daily, often by people from outside the area who are coming in to incite violence and outrage against them. Can the Home Secretary please advise, in addition to the measures she has mentioned about the disgraceful behaviour in Dallas, what my constituents can expect to receive from the police and security services?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this. Let me be very clear: in no way and under no circumstances are any of the acts that he has spoken about acceptable. They are thoroughly unacceptable and that is why the police in particular are doing everything possible to go after the individuals. As he will know, certain individuals have been on various watchlists, radars and so on, where we come together to ensure that the Jewish community, and his constituents in particular, are fully supported and fully protected.

The community in Keyham has serious concerns about the amount of pump action weapons being held in residential areas. Will the Home Secretary agree to meet a delegation from Keyham to discuss the concerns about how rules on holding pump action weapons in residential areas can be tightened?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a vital issue and I thank him for his work locally, and the work of his local authority and policing. I know he has been in contact with the Policing Minister on this issue. We will happily meet him and others from his community. I know this is a particular issue and it is something that we need absolutely to come together on and to work together to resolve.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, last year, the British public had £78 million stolen from them by clone scammers and people posing as legitimate companies online? Will she work with colleagues from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to set out in law robust identity checks that all online platforms should have to make, before letting people take out advertising on their site?

My hon. Friend is right about the scourge of fraud and its prevalence online. We brought fraud into scope for the draft Online Safety Bill. I am conscious of the issues that she mentions about advertising and we continue to work with colleagues from DCMS on that.

In our communities, we have asylum seekers who are ready and willing to work in sectors that are experiencing acute shortages, such as fruit and veg picking and HGV driving, but those occupations still do not appear on the shortage occupation list. When will the Government widen that list, or will they simply sacrifice the economy for their hostile immigration environment?

It is worth noting that those whose applications have been outstanding for over a year through no fault of their own can access jobs on the shortage occupation list, and we are expanding that to include care workers next month. This highlights an opportunity for 31 out of 32 local authority areas in Scotland to become part of the dispersal accommodation scheme, so that some of these people will be living in their communities.